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With Eyes Closed

Alice's picture
 (I'm going to use skindeep's idea and recommend that you listen to this while you read my paper) 
Open your eyes. Really, open them. I’m not just talking about eyelids parted and eyelashes blinking, but about examining the world around you. What do you see? Probably people of different color, gender, age wearing a wide range of clothing styles- jeans, t-shirts, dresses, scarves…I’m sure you see it all. But, what you do see is not the issue I’m most concerned with. It’s what you don’t see which needs discussing.
We come from a culture dominated by the visual. Magazines, news reports, photographs. We examine every aspect of what we see. And we compare. Her eyes are bluer than mine. Am I skinnier than her? Wow, I like her scarf. Would I look good in that? We depend so much on assessing someone or something on its physical appearance that often we loose our ability to really see.  We all become disabled by our emphasis, or obsession, with sight.
Let me explain.
Each day we are inundated by visual stimuli. The bright oranges and yellows of the fall trees, the deep mahogany of your friend’s hair, the stripes, polk-a-dots,  and stars on clothing, or even the rich darkness of the night. We pay attention to these little, often insignificant details, because somehow they provide a sense of comfort. We compare ourselves in an attempt to solidify what we know.  We are told from a young age what is accepted and what isn’t. Alice, don’t stare! Alice, stand up straight! Alice, don’t wear that. But instead of questioning these odd demands, we accept them because for some strange reason we think that what our parents or anyone, really, says is some mandate from God that must always be obeyed and never questioned. We are taught what is normal, but more important, what isn’t soley based on visual cues. We were not allowed to stare at people because it was rude and the subject of examination would likely think we were strange or that we were rude. We were told to stand-up straight not only for the health of our backs, but because slouching meant that we were lazy or insecure. We were told to wear normal clothing so that we could fit in.
But, let’s be real, what is normal anyways?? Lennard Davis in his article, “Conforming Normalcy,” claims that “We live in a world of norms. Each of us endeavors to be normal or else deliberately tries to avoid that state. WE consider what the average person does, thinks, earns, or consumes. We rank our intelligence, our cholesterol level, our weight, height, sex drive, bodily dimensions along some conceptual line from subnormal or above-average…there is probably no area of contemporary life in which some idea of a norm, mean, or average has not been calculated,” (23). I think it would be hard to refute this claim and I would like to extend it to the matter of visible normalcy. As I mentioned earlier, our culture emphasizes the importance of the visual. Our initial impressions are based on what we see. As much as we hate to admit it, we make judgements about everyone and everything- the way someone walks, how they wear their hair, their tattoos, the amount of make-up they wear…I’m sure I could go on forever. But what is difficult to comprehend is why seeing has such importance when it is all relative. Not only do we see each color and shade differently, but our cultures also shape what we perceive as normal.
Just look at the picture above. While some see perfection in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, others see it in traditional Greek statues and vise versa. While in some cultures, tattoos are traditional, in others they represent the latest trend. If there is so much variance within this spectrum of normalcy—why do we depend on it as a legitimizing source? Would it not be better to close our eyes entirely?
With this in mind, I present two situations:
Situation #1: A figure begins walking towards you. Wearing a tight mini-dress, with long, wavy brown hair, and a small, petite figure, you don’t think twice about the figure. Automatically you assume: pretty, normal woman. Through some sort of circumstance (perhaps you share an elevator), you begin talking to this pretty, normal woman. She mentions that she is disabled. Disabled? But, how? You see no sign of a wheelchair or walking stick. All appendages are in their proper places. How can this woman be disabled when she looks so, well, normal? You decide it must be some sort of “disability”. You know, some insignificant learning disability which really doesn’t affect her. She’s just identifying herself as disabled to gain some sort of pity or extra attention.
Situation #2: You hear the sound of wheels crushing the crisp leaves on the pavement. You turn around and see a woman in a wheelchair pushing herself forward. Her arms are strong and sturdy in contrast to her muscle-less, fragile legs. She must have been in that chair for a while. Of course, you make these assumptions in under two seconds because you know it’s rude to stare (especially at a visibly disabled person). You don’t notice the color of her hair, or her clothes, only the wheelchair and therefore her immobile legs. She is disabled. Not normal.
Although these are merely situations and in no way representative of all attitudes toward encounters with a disabled body, my purpose in describing these occurances is to show how sight can be both a legitimizing and delegitimizing force. Because the woman in a wheelchair has a visible disability, it is therefore legitimate. Because we can see that she is “not normal,” we are able to place her into a category without much difficulty. However, in situation #1, in which the disability is invisible, we have trouble accepting it. Because we are not provided with a visual cue of the extent of her disability, we automatically assume that it can’t be that bad. But what about all the forms of invisible disability such as mental disease or learning disabilities. Are these disabilities of less importance or less serious because they are able to walk, breathe, and talk normally?
 normal?  disabled?

These same issues can be applied to topics of gender and sexuality. Is a butch lesbian more gay than a femme lesbian because she is more easily identifiable by stereotypical standards? Is there such a thing as a “real” boy and a “real” girl? Can a girl not be identified as a girl if she has masculine features and boy-ish clothes? Is a boy who likes playing dress-up not a real boy? The real question is: Why should anyone have to prove themselves to another? When this emphasis on sight causes identities to be delegitimized simply because they don’t look the part, it becomes a disability. Our ability to make judgements is jeopardized because we are too obsessed with what is visably normal whether it be the generalized sense of normalcy or within specific groups such as gender or sexuality.

So what now? Do we choose to wear our identities on our sleeves so we become easily identifiable and labeled the way we want to be? So that we can prove our identities to the world? No, I don’t think so. Kate Bornstein in her novel Gender Outlaw talks about the refusal of all binaries. She tells us to suck it up and get comfortable with the idea of fluidity and a world without labels. I do think that such a world is possible. It is hard to imagine a world without gender-specific clothing aisles or bathrooms, without communities of minorities bound together for support. But with small steps, such a world can be obtained. So in the spirit of hopeful first steps, I wonder if we could, just for a second, close our eyes. Stop comparing eachother. Stop legitimizing and delegitimizing identities based on what we see. Imagine the darkness. The clarity. The simplicity. Perhaps if we close our eyes we will start to truly see the world around us.  



Image Sources:

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Stella Tornton's picture

"Probably people of different

"Probably people of different color, gender, age wearing a wide range of clothing styles- jeans, t-shirts, dresses, scarves…I’m sure you see it all. But, what you do see is not the issue I’m most concerned with. It’s what you don’t see which needs discussing."

But the range of clothing style means something.. Jeans can be blue and not, customized and not, embroidered and printed. Dresses too. And people. And world.