With its emphasis on physical form, the diffusion of the feminine ideal relies heavily on the use of visual imagery but there is a common knowledge about the feminine ideal that penetrates language and discourse. The relationship between mainstream representations of the feminine ideal and non-disabled female body/self dissatisfaction has been well-documented over the years but less attention has been given to understanding how such visual representations affect women with disabilities, specifically women with visual disabilities. Drawing on qualitative data taken from the personal diaries and in-depth interviews with seven blind and visually impaired Irish women, and using a feminist disability model reinforced by sociology of the body, gender theory and visual studies, I examine what it means to be a young woman with a visual disability living in a visually-reliant, appearance-oriented culture. I explore interpretations and expressions of femininity and beauty, the complicated, often fraught, relationship with female body and self and the rituals and practices used to manage appearance while having a disability.


Various scholars have written about the media, beauty industry representations of femininity, appearance norms and women's body- and self-image. Some of these scholars argue that the modern Western notion of ideal femininity, a dual-project of patriarchy and capitalism, is a powerful gender-normalizing mechanism that oppresses women's power by reducing them to their physical appearance (Bordo, 2004; Chernin, 1983; Frost, 2003; Orbach, 2010; Wolf, 2008) while other scholars say it is a by-product of postmodernity; a manifestation of individuality and status achieved by women through agentive bodily rituals of self-improvement and control (Dion et al., 1972; Featherstone, 2010; Glassner, 1989; Hamermesh, 2011; Webster and Driskell, 1983). 1

These competing discourses led me to wonder about the experiences of women with visual disabilities. How do they interpret feminine beauty norms and ideals when they are primarily mediated visually? How do they practice beauty in their own lives, if even this was important to them, when beautification relies heavily on being able to visually assess oneself? How do their interpretations and expressions of beauty cross-cut their experiences of disability and visual impairment to shape a sense of body and self? Upon mapping the field of literature I was surprised to find very little that addressed these questions theoretically or empirically. The vast majority of material available addresses the non-disabled women's experience and, to reference Gili Hammer (2013: 407), concentrates on how women see and are seen.

In this article I aim to both expand and diversify existing literature on similar topics with the unique but related interpretations and experiences of women who exist outside the purview of mainstream beauty (Garland-Thomson, 2002; Wendell, 1996) and who similarly exist "…outside our ocularcentric culture" (Hammer, 2012, p. 409). I begin by providing some theoretical and empirical background, drawing mainly on feminist disability theory reinforced by gender theory, sociology of the body and visual studies to illustrate what it known and what is not known about the intersection of these topics. I then move on to discuss my methodology, discussing the value of qualitative research and its challenges with regard to reflexivity, sample and recruitment procedures, and finally, methods and coding. Following this I offer an analysis of some of my key findings, breaking up my analysis thematically to follow the guiding questions presented above. In the first section, I present the women's descriptions of the feminine ideal, their ideas about the social and cultural factors driving it and reasons why they think women, in general, disproportionately invest in body and appearance. Following this I address the personal significance of beauty and appearance for the women, reflecting on the tensions between femininity and disability, and unpack the different practices they use in their own lives to manage a positive body-self relationship. The final data section, before concluding the article, addresses sensory-relational power imbalances, exploring some of the struggles experienced and strategies used by the women to manage knowing the social importance of appearance and not always knowing their own appearance and being seen by others and not being able to visually reciprocate. Ultimately I argue that the feminine beauty interpretations, rituals and practices of blind and visually impaired women are not unlike those of sighted/non-disabled women. Managing a positive body-self relationship relied on their ability to look and feel attractive and put-together, which they accomplished through adapted methods. Yet, their social experiences were mediated by having a disability that was acutely perceptible to them because of the visual-discursive emphasis on female appearance and the social value ascribed to seeing and being seen.

Theoretical Background

The body holds a powerful and primary position in Western culture as an expression of individuality (Gill et al., 2005; Varga, 2005), a purpose to fulfill (Shilling, 1993), a project (Featherstone, 2010, 2001; Monaghan, 1999), an enterprise for success (Turner, 2008) and, above all, a source of selfhood (Synnott, 2002). Bodies are modern measures of tangible progress, constructed as "compliant, neutral instruments of personal will" (Garland-Thomson, 2001), enabling and constraining desire (Shilling, 2005), projecting and anchoring identity and signifying and delegating status. They are something we have and something we do to manage a successful self to the extent that body practices like diet, fitness, dress and grooming tend to occur in-tandem with the goal to improve self-awareness. At the same time, a well-maintained body and appearance has become a symbol of virtue in its own right, tantamount to capability, determination and self-sufficiency, and desired in the same ways that other accoutrements of status are desired (Etcoff, 2000; Thesander, 1997).

The cultural representation of bodies as selves, placing high value on physical appearance as a channel for success naturally supports the visual process and invites looking and assessing. Indeed, vision is the predominant sense in most people and, as a result, the primary way many of us apprehend and traverse the spectacle of modern life (Duncum, 2001; Finkelstein, 2007; Friedman, 2013; Garland-Thomson, 2009; Kleege, 2008; Michalko, 1999; Mirzoeff, 2006; Rodas, 2009; Schillmeier, 2006). This fact challenges but more often supports the tendency to believe what we see produced in visual culture of which women, by-and-large, are the primary objects. Media producers and beauty and diet industry leaders, who Featherstone calls 'cultural intermediaries', use visual culture to summon up and crystalize images of utopian lives and exotic desires that persuade a preoccupation with appearances (Featherstone, 2010, pp. 197-198), changing how everyone, but especially women, have come to relate to their bodies. Images replete with attractive, youthful women almost always non-disabled, embedded with a discourse of choice that promises greater social status and acceptance, dominate the visual landscape (Featherstone, 2010; Hutson, 2013; Glassner; Dion et al; Hamermesh; Webster and Driskell, 1983). They are intended to show women who they can be and what they can have if they choose it, rewriting the female form as the subject of higher purpose rather than the object of superficial focus, and casting those who fail to meet, or indeed seek, these standards as unmotivated, abnormal and even immoral.

Images depicting female beauty, arguably, have very little to do with choice and agency. They are, after all, based on a certain interpretation of femininity requiring women to display themselves consistent with it, thus constructing the female body as an object of consumption rather than the subject of women's unique representation, ultimately, subverting choice. In what can only be described as a 'contradictory-complementary' construction, the feminine ideal places undue pressure on women to conform to beauty norms: chase a certain body type, feel and appear attractive, be stylish and defy age all while asserting their individuality in their personal and professional lives (Bordo, 2004; Chernin, 1983; Frost, 2003; Orbach, 2010; Wolf, 2008).

The feminine ideal, being constructed as a bodily characteristic (Gill, 2007), identifies femininity as a way of being seen (Berger, 1972) and female self-identity as something to be seen, making it a matter that concerns disability and visual status as well as gender. Beauty is used as a visual form of female oppression that inclines women, collectively, toward an aesthetic ideal, a culturally fabricated myth of the body, based on unrealistic, finite criteria that ultimately, in its pursuit, upholds more broadly a disability/ability system that visibly demarcates and marks bodies accordingly (Garland-Thomson, 2005). This is not to say, however, that women with and without disabilities experience bodily oppression in entirely equal ways. According to Susannah Mintz (2002, p. 156), women with disabilities, in Western culture, straddle a divide between mind and body; capability and ability, and experience the body-self relationship within a field of resistance toward corporeal difference. She (2002, p. 157) continues by saying, the voices of women with disabilities, whose bodies are marginalized by gender and physicality, equally challenge the patriarchal and post-modernist status-quo by powerfully reminding us that personal experiences of disability are inherently connected to cultural myths about gender and normality.

Feminist, gender and cultural scholars have interrogated the relationship between feminine discourse and visual beauty ideals in particular how they take hold and gain momentum on the ground in the lives of women through the powerful collapse of image and text. These analyses, while well-researched for what they are, focus disproportionately on non-disabled women's interpretations and practices of beauty and their related experiences of seeing and being seen. A feminist disability model builds on the strengths of gender and feminist scholarship by incorporating disability into analyses of gendered beauty norms and practices but then cross-examines this within the context of broader systems of representation and the manner in which they construct everyday politics of recognition and inclusion. At the heart of all feminist disability critique is the belief that everyone benefits from individually and collectively recognizing, accepting and accommodating bodily diversity, rather than trying to eliminate, change or deny it (Crow, 1996; French, 1993; Garland-Thomson, 2002; Hillyer, 1997; Lloyd, 1992; Morris, 1993; Silvers, 2002; Wendell, 1989). Feminist disability studies provides a theoretical framework for expanding and advancing knowledge of the historical, discursive and visual content that mutually constructs, labels and marginalizes the bodies of women and people with disabilities, both groups being seen as deviations from normal human embodiment that must be contained or hidden to uphold the perception that existing social hierarchies are natural and necessary (Hall, 2002, p. vii).

Empirical Background

How feminine ideal imagery shapes non-disabled women's body and self image has been examined, discussed and well-documented over the years (Chernin, 1983; Frost, 2003; Gill, 2007; Nettleton and Watson, 1998; Orbach, 2010; Wykes and Gunter, 2005) but less attention has been given to understanding the experiences of women with disabilities (Fine and Asch, 2009; Garland-Thomson, 2002, 2001; Hall, 2002; Heiss, 2011; Sandahl and Auslander, 2009; Smith, 2010; Wendell, 1989; Zitzelsberger, 2005) more specifically women with visual disabilities (Ashikali and Dittmar, 2010; Bullington and Karlsson, 1997; Elder, 1983; Hammer, 2013, 2012; Kaplan-Myrth, 2000).

Notwithstanding the gaps in scholarship there are a handful of studies that document the perspectives of women with visual disabilities on matters of beauty, femininity and rituals of appearance. Not unlike sighted women they too are acutely aware of the significance placed on female appearance; they feel pressure to meet feminine beauty norms; they work hard on their own appearance, using diet, fitness, fashion and grooming, to look and feel attractive; and they too wish to change their appearance in response to personal dissatisfaction about the shape and look of their bodies (Ashikali and Dittmar, 2010; Hammer, 2012; Kaplan-Myrth, 2000; McIntyre, 2011).

At the same time, having a 'unique awareness of visual culture' (Hammer, 2012: 427), women with visual disabilities absorb visual beauty norms through other sensory means (Kaplan-Myrth, 2000), using a combination of touch, hearing, verbal cues, mental recall and assisted technologies to discern, interpret and express their femininity (McIntyre, 2011). In some cases, managing a presentable, attractive appearance is a way to conceal physical impairment and downplay disability, allowing the women to assert authority over the terms of their identity. In other cases, beauty rituals and appearance management practices are a "gateway to inclusion" (Hammer, 2012: 408) that make it possible for the women to feel like women and in-turn equal among their peers. However, the inability to visually reciprocate the looks of others, assess the quality of their appearance with ease and immediacy or gauge other people's reactions to their style choices are matters of constant negotiation often resulting in heightened feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty (Ashikali and Dittmar, 2010; Bullington and Karlsson, 1997; Kaplan-Myrth, 2000; McIntyre, 2011).

In the following sections I address the above mentioned themes and unearth new ones through exploring, for instance, the complementary and contradictory ways of constructing and enacting the gendered and disabled body; the paradox of disabled femininity: what it means to be positioned outside the purview of mainstream beauty and subjected to its expectations all the same; and the different sensory means through which women with visual disabilities perceive and experience their bodies within a cultural milieu that validates the self in and through visual representation and recognition.


The Value of Qualitative Research

The value of qualitative research is broad. It is especially useful in capturing and representing individual and social perspectives that may have been missed, ignored or underrepresented (Byrne, 2004), providing many opportunities to build on or advance knowledge about complex, often misunderstood, phenomena. There are a number of methods in which to choose when undertaking qualitative research, most of which are oriented toward analyzing the idiosyncrasies of concrete cases in their local particularity, that accommodate a research context that most closely relates to the one in which people naturally live and act (Blumer, 1986; Flick, 2009). The two methods used in this research were diaries and semi-structured in-depth interviews. Diaries allow the investigation of a wide range of subjective phenomena in a relatively unobtrusive way (Cassell and Symon, 2004; Jacelon and Imperio, 2005). They also have the ability to capture otherwise undisclosed thoughts and feelings closer to when they actually occur, increasing the accuracy of the information recorded (Bryman, 2008). Interviews can help expand on and clarify diary data (Bloor and Wood, 2006, pp. 50-52), making them a suitable pairing with diaries. As a research tool, on their own, they can be a good way to represent perspectives that have been missed, ignored or underrepresented (Byrne, 2004, p. 182).

One of the main criticisms levelled at qualitative methodology is that it lacks the objectivity required to substantiate valid scientific inquiry. As Mauthner and Doucet (2003) point out, the ways in which our subjectivity becomes entangled in the lives of those we research, and the problem this presents to our ability to practice reflexivity, has been a concern of social researchers for some time. One the one hand, in order to gain access to, and an understanding of, the perspectives of our participants (Conlon et al., 2013; Hesse-Biber and Piatelli, 2007; Rubin and Rubin, 2011); to get inside their worlds we must, to a certain extent, position ourselves within them. On the other hand, we are no different to those we study in that we have our own ways of seeing the world that we bring to our work; this, if not careful, may bias the results of our work. As qualitative researchers, we can guard against the inclination to assume that the people we study share our same world-views by implementing a critical practice of reflexive examination (Blumer, 1986, p. 52). Furthermore, our active presence in the field collecting and interpreting rich, in-depth data requires that we also rigorously use reflexivity to practically manage our presence in and authority over the research process. Applying reflexivity was a high priority in this research, and not one taken lightly. It meant implementing a practice of personal reflection throughout the process from start to finish. It meant critically assessing diary entries to determine what was of real concern and interest to the participants prior to constructing my interview guide. It then meant allowing them to do most of the talking during interviews to ensure they had every opportunity to tell their stories without being persuaded by mine. It meant also being open to dialogue with them and, finally, consulting them about their interviews once the data was transcribed, giving them the opportunity to retract material from the finished product.

Participant Profiles and Recruitment

This research was conducted in Dublin, Ireland in 2010 between late May and August. Participants were recruited using a snowball technique following ethical clearance. 2 Fourteen women responded with interest to my email call for participants and in the end seven women were able to volunteer their time. The seven participants 3 are white, middle-income Irish-born professionals working in both public and private office jobs. At the time of the research they were between the ages of 20 and 45 (note: the women's sexual orientation was not known). Two of the participants (Erin and Ailish both in their thirties) are totally blind from birth. Two of the participants, both in their twenties, have low visual acuity from birth: Susan is able to perceive silhouettes and some color and Michaela is able to see up close to read with the use of magnifiers but cannot see visual details at a distance. The three remaining participants began losing their sight after birth. Melissa, who is in her forties, lost all sight in her twenties. Pam, who is also in her forties, began losing her sight at age of five and Terry Lynn, who is in her thirties, lost her sight at eighteen. They are both totally blind in one eye and have fractional visual acuity in the other.

Methods and Coding

Diaries used in this research were designed and kept electronically as word documents in order to enable participants' use of voice-activated software. They were set-up for seven days, each of the 7 days comprising 2-3 short open- and closed-ended questions that related to the research topic. Participants were asked to complete the questions for each day in as much or as little depth as they wished. Diaries were completed and coded prior to interviews to both familiarize participants with the subject matter and inform the design of more precise interview questions that probed interesting or frequent data themes. An open-coding system was used to accommodate the organization of emerging themes. Each of the participants' seven days of entries were compiled into separate word documents. Following Corbin and Strauss's (2007) approach, the diary entries were initially organized numerically (1-3) based on three guiding questions (how do women with visual disabilities understand the feminine ideal?; how do they embody and enact the feminine ideal?; and how does this information affect their body and self image?). Next, responses or parts of responses, within each numeric category, that appeared significant to a participant or relevant to the research problem was manually tagged and grouped (coded) under one of three categories: discursive understandings of the feminine ideal; actions associated with it; and personal body/self affects. Data that stood out as different, required clarification or appeared particularly important was used in the design of the interview questions. This required that I "study my data as it emerged" (Charmaz, 2014; Glaser, 1978), paying careful attention to data phrasing, contradictions, length and frequency of responses and taking into account unanswered questions.

The Interviews ran between 1 ½ hours- 2 hours and were audio taped with consent. Some manual note-taking was done to highlight certain points that stood out. A question guide was used, but flexibility was given to following narratives of personal importance. This turned out to be valuable approach because it gave the women opportunities to recall and ruminate over thoughts and feelings and, at times, talk through complex and sensitive topics. Once the interviews were transcribed the data was organized and coded using a multi-stage methodological procedure for summarizing qualitative content first developed by Mayring (2004, see also 1983) and adapted by Flick (2009, pp. 324-326). The first stage 'paraphrased' data by deleting passages that delivered little or no analytical content e.g. incomplete sentences, repeated statements and non-verbal cues and translating usable content into coherent passages (Flick, 2009, p. 325). Following this, passages that were not relevant to the three guiding questions were deleted. The remaining material was bundled accordingly; passages with identical or similar statements were grouped as were passages with several statements relating to a specific issue and formally coded under the three broad categories used for diaries (as stated above). Finally, data categories were re-assessed for applicability (deleting material missed in initial stages), summarized and analyzed.


Interpreting The Feminine Ideal: Between Seeing and Knowing

While human beings are primarily visual they are also intensely verbal (Kleege, 2008). To get a feel for how the women defined the feminine ideal, as it is represented in images, they were asked to describe what they thought ideal femininity looked like., what types of practices were involved in achieving it, what were the reasons and goals for engaging these practices and what was attractive to them and why. All of the women had a clear picture in mind similarly using words, not uncommon to most, like thin, toned, pretty, blond, young, youthful, tan and fashionable. Likewise, grooming rituals like manicures, facials and waxing and trends in diet and fitness practice frequently featured in their descriptions of what it took to achieve the feminine ideal. The women were unanimous in thinking that media and consumer culture profit from setting unrealistic, unattainable beauty standards that exploit women's insecurities but being aware of the latest beauty trends was still important to all of the women, whose knowledge was mostly acquired by asking family and friends to explain it.

Terry-Lynn and Melissa, who lost their sight as young adults, used their recall of sighted memories to explain how they thought women should and should not appear. Terry-Lynn, for whom being fashionable was less important to being professional and who on the day we met was dressed in business attire, believed that women should dress neatly and modestly in most situations in order to maintain an assertive, capable image among male and female work colleagues. Melissa, on the other hand, preferred to follow the latest fashion trends; she preferred the more feminine the trends. We met a few times over the course of the research; each time she was impeccably dressed, her hair done with great care and make-up applied elegantly. When I mentioned how nice she looked on one of the days she disclosed that looking 'her best' was always very important to her, even before she lost her eyesight. There was a distinct correlation made by all of the women between the feminine ideal, self-worth and social acceptance despite having their own personal interpretations and iterations of beauty. As such they believed that conforming to or deviating from mainstream beauty norms can have personal and social consequences that mean the difference between getting a job, being promoted, making female friends and finding a romantic partner. Susan who admitted to seeing the benefits of actively maintaining an attractive, feminine appearance and who, at the time of the research, was in her twenty's working in a high-powered corporate environment says of the experience:

''I've noticed from past experience that I got to talk to certain high profile business people solely on the basis of my looks because I look pretty…at work functions I've used my looks to network with people that I want to talk to…I do think it gets you places…[and]I think it's a choice of the woman…I'll admit that because I know that people have commented on my looks then obviously I'm going to use them as a strategy because I'm kind of stupid then if I don't…I feel I'm a reasonable person though and if it was against my morals to use my looks to kind of get something I wouldn't."

Being fashionable, having hair coiffed, legs waxed and skin tanned are all signifiers of ideal femininity but women, above all else, are heavily scrutinized for the size and shape of their bodies and conditioned through image, text, talk and practice to desire and aspire to a normative physique. Indeed, idealizing the body and wanting to control it go hand-in-hand when female appearance is discursively correlated with worth and interpreted as a measure of achievement and success (Wendell, 1989). Still, the practices associated with 'achieving' feminine beauty ideals can only ever really be solutions to "slight deviations" (Garland-Thomson, 1997) to a normative appearance, or what Erin called "the area of acceptability," but women are led by a discourse of choice and agency to believe otherwise. Feminine ideal imagery invites, even demands, individuality and normativity, teaching young girls and women that appearance garners individual status and social acceptance, in contradictory fashion inclining them to aim for what Charles Taylor calls, "a qualitative measure of the incomparably higher" (Taylor, 1989, p. 22) and, according to Goffman (1959: 45), a place close to the sacred centre of shared social values.

Practicing the Feminine Ideal: Between Gender and Disability

The significance of personal appearance in modern society extends beyond, as Susan Wendell (1989) puts it, simply being in a different looking body. Individualism espouses a discourse of enlightenment grounded in the notion of discovery and purpose fulfilled by productivity, performance and determination, all words that imply an unencumbered movement. As Mintz (2002) points out, a body that "suffers" (or, perhaps more accurately, is perceived to suffer) may not inspire the kind of celebratory rhetoric bound up with the average Westerner's commitment to instrumental self-discovery and feeling fulfilled. Consider mainstream media; rarely if ever are people with disabilities depicted as attractive, empowered or leading independent fulfilling lives (Barnes, 1992; Garland-Thomson, 1997; Heiss, 2011; Millett, 2004; Shakespeare, 1994). Likewise, beauty, fashion and fitness industries tend not to use disabled bodies to represent the products or services promising to transform the body into a productive instrument of self-improvement. Still, while some women, such as those whose bodies are older, ill or impaired, are not the object of mainstream beauty they are subject to its prevailing expectations all the same (Zitzelsberger, 2005). Pam picks up on this tension:

"The image of perfection we see in the media excludes women with disabilities because women with bodies that are disabled are seen as deviating from what is normal and desirable. Rarely is our beauty recognized and we are almost never portrayed as sexual…Making people look perfect makes the gap even wider between normal woman and disabled woman because it really highlights the weakness and imperfections of a disabled woman…I want to present myself well because I'm taught by the media and by society that you have to look well, you have to look healthy, you have to look this, you have to look that…"

Even in cases when the media make attempts to be more inclusive of bodily diversity, e.g. the Dove campaign for 'Real Beauty' and more recently the Lane Bryant '#ImNoAngel' campaign and Target swimwear line featuring 'real women', they often miss the mark. These beauty campaigns, and yes that is what they are, still manage to reduce women to appearance, achieved differently by couching images of barely dressed 'real or average' sized women in the language of gender empowerment and body-acceptance (much has been written about this in relation to the Dove campaign especially; see for example: Johnston and Taylor, 2014; Lachove and Brandes 2009; Murray 2013; Powell 2015; Taylor et al 2014). Indeed, a slightly wider selection of women are seeing themselves represented in beauty images but these images, arguably, still objectify and commodify the female body. Diversity is a rallying point around which many 'real' beauty campaigns tend to organize but its actual representation in the flesh is dubious at best. For example, the Target campaign stylist, reportedly wanted there to be a suit for 'everybody' because everyone gets to have fun and feel confident (Whelan, 2015). As is often the case, social practice has not caught up to the language often used. The selection of models used in the Target campaign hardly represented 'everybody', with two slim white women, one athletic darker skinned woman and one plus-sized black woman all visibly able-bodied. For sure these campaigns, perhaps more well-intentioned than I give credit, do make attempts to show us what diversity really looks like even though a more robust representation of gender, race and ethnicity is needed, but what about disability?

One explanation for disability's relative absence in mainstream media is that it serves as an uncomfortable reminder that the body is impermanent, imperfect and subject to the randomness of fate, or what Bryan Turner (2001) calls ontological contingency. Failure to include women with disabilities, specifically visible disabilities, in beauty campaigns for which diversity is purportedly a core objective gives the impression that female beauty can look like just about anything nowadays except 'disabled'. The social consequences of this, however, run much deeper for all people with visible disabilities whose bodily diversity, for lack of mainstream representation, according to Garland-Thomson, becomes a source of exclusion that stigmatizes human difference and disability identity, more broadly (Garland-Thomson, 2002).

That being said, while the women I interviewed did take pleasure in participating in various beauty rituals for beauty's sake, their actions doubled as a way to enhance their gender and downplay their disability, or as Kleege says 'look less blind' (2001: 48), as a gateway to inclusion (Hammer, 2012). Their concerns about people 'seeing visual impairment before the person' led them to feel like they had to work that bit harder on their appearance than sighted or non-disabled women in order to pass as capable, independent women. Planning ahead for social events and engagements provided the women with a sense of security that readied them for any unforeseen occurrences. Thinking ahead about what to do as well as what not to do, like wearing white to dinner parties, minimized the potential for appearance-related mishaps like clothing stains. Erin, a young professional living on her own in a big city explains the thought process that goes into preparing for a night out with friends, illustrating the multiple factors commonly taken into consideration:

"If my legs are out, do I need to tan them? Am I getting a taxi to and from? If so I can wear not very sensible shoes. Is the dog coming? This will dictate what tights I wear as her handle ladders thin ones, and also what size bag I take, I'll need a bigger one if I need to feed her while away. I tend to wear makeup when going out with my friends so spend some extra time on that and…ask someone whether everything is blended or too much…but there are things that I don't do because if I did I would feel out of control…I wouldn't put on different sorts of eye make-up If I didn't have someone around to check me. If I was slightly uncomfortable with a dress or a top I wouldn't wear it. I'd change into something that I was more familiar with but I think that everyone does that though…you just learn over the years…which top the button opens on with a handbag and stuff like that and you just don't do it…I just wouldn't let a whole lot of things happen."

The women's beauty rituals and appearance management strategies, not unlike many women's—dieting exercising, making up the face, grooming and styling the body—were structured around planning and relied on a combination of sensory techniques. Interestingly, all of the women used voice-software of some sort on their home computers to organize their closets according to color and clothing type and to make combining outfits easier. They used touch to evaluate how they looked to themselves, ensuring that cosmetics were applied correctly and neatly, hair smoothed, clothing clean and wrinkle-free, and the presence or absence of verbal cues to get a sense of how they looked to others. All of the women relied on their memory of what colors suited them and what went well together, recalling their own sighted knowledge or relying on the advice of sighted individuals. In most cases, each of the women consulted a single trusted individual (usually a close female friend or immediate family member) for advice on matters of appearance; they also relied on this individual to be their mirror on shopping trips, trips to the salon and in preparing for important work or social functions.

Though all of the women expressed gratitude for having such a resource, the cost of 'having' to consult another person at times outweighed the benefits despite them having final say over their own appearance. At times the women felt like they were missing out on the enjoyment that comes with making style choices while other times they felt like their personal style was not their own, or as Ailish, who is congenitally blind puts it, was created in a 'second-hand' manner. The relationship between each of the women and their sighted advisor was deeply intimate but they knew that the choices their sighted advisor made for them may not always be the choices they would make if they could see. In simple terms fashion trends change as do personal styles and preferences; sometimes these two things align and other times they do not. This, however, really only scratches the surface of the complex relationship women have with their appearance. The social expectations placed on women to be more like men but feminine all the same, to set themselves apart from the crowd and negotiate the bounds of gender normality, assumes their motivation to use appearance as a way to strike a balance between the two in order to get ahead. The women in this research, aware of and subjected to this gendered tension, invested in their appearance using a combination of the techniques mentioned to assert agency and control over their sense of self, while also using it to manage the added tension of disability.

Negotiating Visuality: Between Visual Status and Visual Culture

I learned from the participants that having a visual disability enhanced the reality of living in a time that not only rewards visual appearance but celebrates visual agency producing an added dimension of privilege that excludes those who cannot see but still know and feel through other means. Visual disability collided with gender in moments when appearance really mattered and the women were unable to readily know their own appearance. Avoiding unwanted attention, like stares and questions, that can come with having a disability and being positively acknowledged in settings where looking attractive was desired (like on dates or nights out with friends) or expected (like at professional/work engagements) was challenged by the women's inability to gauge other people's reactions to their appearance; women with visual impairments cannot readily check their own appearance (for things like clothing stains and wind-blown hair), and assess it relative to other women around them (e.g. discerning if they were over-dressed, under-dressed, stylish enough). Managing these moments required reassurance strategies like asking a sighted person, preferably someone they knew well, how they looked, finding a restroom to conduct a quick tactile appearance and positive self-talk.

The ability to know and manage appearance was a real source of struggle for the women, not easily alleviated with self-talk, when expected to perform at work. Susan, for example, expressed that getting to where she was in her profession and continuing to advance through the ranks, in her interpretation, demonstrated a commitment to citizenry that subverted disability and gender stereotypes alike. However, when reflecting on what it was like, during important work engagements, to know the importance placed on female appearance and not always know her own appearance she said:

"It's frightening and frustrating and annoying…Then you just have to say, lets forget about how I look…Sometimes I feel stressed, sometimes I feel disappointed in myself…why can't I do this? Why can't I know? I feel like I'm kind of like the problem..there are loads of emotions that go through your body…you have to just let them come into your brain and out as quickly as possible because then you can't focus; especially when you're in a pressured environment…sitting there at a board room table, they're going to be coming to you at some stage but you're sitting there saying to yourself, do I look ok or have I done eyeliner right on one eye compared to the other eye. If you're thinking about all that…you're not going be focused and then it kind of makes you look stupid."

In most professional work environments, physical appearance correlates to a whole host of assumptions about personal capability of which women disproportionately bear the brunt. Cultural depictions of professional women who are powerful, autonomous and successful are usually also well-groomed, polished and sharply dressed (think the female power-suit). The overarching proscriptions embedded in such depictions, to reference Titchkosky (2005), are both reflective and constitutive of the spoken logics surrounding bodies. Women pick up on this whether or not they have access to an image to show them, resulting in a push and pull emphasis between appearance and achievement. The women in this study were no exception. When asked if they thought physical appearance was valued more than education or skill, Michaela, at the time in her final year as an undergraduate student replied, "I think so, because people just won't take you seriously a lot of the time if you don't look appropriate…looks don't get you everywhere. They get ya in the door if you're lucky" The women, Michaela included, were proud of their educational and professional accomplishments, believing they were the result of good old fashioned hard work, the inclination to physically present themselves in ways that might help them along as women and detract from their disability remained in-tact.

So thoroughly is vision tied up with subjectivity that having the ability to return a gaze can be a measure of self-protection against overexposure, objectification and scrutiny that in-turn bestows a sense of power to reclaim agency over oneself. Not being able to return the gaze or stare of another, according to Georgina Kleege (2015), can in certain contexts produce the feeling that one is pure spectacle. Being seen by others and not being able to visually reciprocate in mixed or unfamiliar social situations churned up feelings of powerlessness for the women I interviewed, whose awareness of their appearance being the object of another's eyes manifested as a disembodied self-consciousness. According to Ailish, "When one is blind there is an imbalance in the setting." This imbalance, between sighted and blind persons', has something to do with just knowing that 'looking' is a primary way that we take in and exchange information but more to do with the emotionally charged feeling that comes with being gazed or stared at. 'Seeing', visually noticing that we are being looked at, however, is secondary to the feeling that it is happening. The experience is visceral, carrying with it a weighted energy that can be unsettling, embarrassing, thrilling even. People with visual disabilities are not exempt from this. Georgina Kleege sums it up well in saying, "We can hear the hush that comes over a room when we enter. We can feel heads turn, then turn away, then turn back to stare. People believe they can stare at us with impunity because we cannot see their fixed gaze and thus will not be offended by their scrutiny" (Kleege, 2001: 48). My research participant,Terry Lynn, echoes this sentiment, saying ''Your eyes are your weapon in some ways."

Seeing is not necessary to know ourselves, others or our environment but it is a reciprocal act (Hull, 1992), a project accomplished in relation to others (Michalko, 1998), that allows many of us to orient ourselves in space and visually evaluate and regulate who and what (including ourselves) is in that space. While power does not reside in one's ability to see (Kleege, 1999; Mintz, 2002), rather the ability to know through experience, visual exchange does expose a certain amount of contextual data that contributes to our evaluation of emotion, allegedly communicated by the eyes, revealing another person's subjective or somatic state (Mintz, 2002). Be it as a tool or a weapon, the eyes have the power to validate and invalidate others as well as accept or resist other's evaluative projections of us.

Conclusion: Looking On and Looking Forward

The image of ideal femininity saturates the language and practice of everyday life imbuing the essence of materiality with a kind of hegemony that relies heavily on seeing it to know it. However, what I have shown in this article is that the lack of exposure to visual culture through the modality of vision does not preclude its impact on white gender normative women. In so doing, this study adds to the small number of similar studies that refutes, what Kleege (2005) calls, the commonly held assumption that blind and visually impaired people are immune to visual images and detached from the social importance placed on them. The three key themes discussed address the women's interpretations of the feminine ideal, their beauty rituals and appearance management strategies, and the challenges and freedoms associated with negotiating the parallel and contradictory constructions of femininity and disability. Their rich accounts of personal and professional life, some of which would be familiar to a lot of women and others unique to their visual status, illustrate the contradictions between gendered body-self representation and reality while bracketing what it means to have a visual disability within a sighted context that celebrates the aesthetic of gender itself.

Working with a small sample of women made it possible to employ multiple research methods and spend more time with participants to procure richer more in-depth data. The women's similar personal and professional lives made it easier to identify similarities and differences between them and situate these findings within existing feminist and gender literature. This then gave me a good-starting-point for the different research directions that can be taken to develop some of the lines of thinking presented here. For example, a study of this nature with a larger, demographically diverse sample would provide a rich counter-point to Western femininity, not only circumscribed by ableist notions of beauty but White, economically privileged gender normative notions of beauty. 4 One might also consider conducting a comparative study of congenitally and adventitiously blind women that isolates their experiences of the gaze (both male and female) and cross-analyzes them with sighted women's experiences or a study that specifically focuses on the sensory power differentials between sighted and blind women, emphasizing the dynamics of the female gaze. Both pieces of research would make valuable contributions to the field of feminist disability studies and gender studies alike. Also, like women with visual disabilities, blind and visually impaired men can shed new light on what it means to construct, embody and perform identity with the knowledge that, as a status, disability is socially constructed and culturally represented, both visually and discursively, in opposition to masculinity. This research, if anything, is a reminder of modern society's reliance on and preoccupation with visual and aesthetic culture, calling for more interdisciplinary, multi-sensory research that interrogates taken-for-granted forms of knowledge production and acquisition (Hammer, 2013) and the social practices that produce sensory hierarchies to get us thinking more deeply and broadly about the terms of social access and accessibility (Cachia, 2013).


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  1. This article does not address the ways beauty norms are determined through race, class, sexuality or religion.
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  2. This research was conducted in Ireland in connection with an Irish university. Standard procedures, similar to the IRB process, were followed in whereby individual and/or teams of researchers are required to obtain full ethical clearance via the Irish 'Ethics Approvals System' through the appropriate Office of Research Ethics. This study was given full ethical clearance by the Humanities, Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). The Irish ethics standards are based on an EU recognized ethics 'code of good practice'.
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  3. . The participant names provided in this article are pseudonyms.
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  4. Black feminist and Queer scholars, who have contributed rich, critical insights about the social constructions of beauty and femininity and their intersections with sexualities, power and social oppressions, would only enhance and advance studies of this nature.
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