A while ago the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) published some research about attitudes to obesity which led to headlines claiming that ‘One in Six Women Would Rather Be Blind than Fat’. The AJPH research asked its subjects to rate obesity alongside 12 other 'social stigmas' including depression, herpes, alcoholism and blindness(!) in order to find out their 'anti-obesity preference'. While many of the responses to this survey have come from 'health at any size' blogs such as Dances With Fat one finding in particular peaked my interest: 14.5% of the subjects involved chose blindness over obesity. The more I thought about this the more I wonder what it's actually saying.
At first I was outraged by the superficiality of these women: how dared they compare the massive hassle of blindness with the trivial issue of body shape? But of course it's much more complicated than that: obesity can have health and well-being implications that blindness does not; but, on the other hand, most people assume that obesity can often be ‘cured’ where blindness usually can't. Because people think that obesity can be self-imposed, the obese are often labelled as greedy, compulsive, lacking in self-control, lazy. In contrast, because society sees blindness as a tragedy which happens to someone through no fault of her own, blind people are seen as victims and are pitied rather than criticized. None of these labels are accurate or helpful, but this is the way these conditions are usually seen.
As I thought more about this tricky statistic I found myself agreeing with the f word blog post that argues very convincingly that the assumption behind this response is that the women questioned in the research see blindness as a condition which although tragic, would have a less negative impact on their body-image than obesity. Presumably they're imagining themselves as one of those stunningly beautiful blind women you find in films; or maybe they were (wrongly) thinking that blind people don't care about their body-image because they can't see themselves, and are thus immune to low self-esteem issues. Instead, they probably don't know any actual blind people. If they did they would know that blindness doesn't necessarily lead to beauty: indeed, being blind can cause feelings of self-hate very similar to those provoked by obesity.
Of course there is a different way of reading these statistics. What if these women are right? What if being blind is preferable to being fat? Not because of something as superficial as appearance, but because blindness is an exciting and interesting way of being in the world. Without my blindness I would not have discovered erotic braille, experienced the kindness of strangers or embarked on my current research project. Sure, blindness has its inconveniences, but it is certainly not a tragedy.
After much thought I have decided that the biggest problem with this survey is that it happened in the first place. The very fact of asking such idiotic questions posits both blindness and obesity as negatives. This survey perpetuates the assumption that a woman's value comes from the way she is seen, and consequently the way she sees herself. What about paying a little less attention to appearance and a lot more to what is going on in the inside?
Dr. Hannah Thompson is a reader in French at Royal Holloway, University of London. She's interested in representations of the body and disability, specifically blindness. This blog post was originally published on her own blog: Blind Spot where Dr. Thompson maps her own experiences as a partially-blind academic in a sighted world.
I found your article extremely interesting and it made me think a lot about all the cultural influences, particularly the media’s role in promoting thinness norms. and how these have been implicated in the development of disturbed body image and eating problems.
Recently I have developed my interest in the topic of Mass Media publicity related to VI, searching how having some kind of exposure or access to these, could impact blind people when looking at Body Image and Eating dynsfucnctions.
At the beginning I stupidly assumed that developing an ED or having a distorted Body Image was directly linked to the constant exposure to unrealistic and “desirable” ideals of beauty by one of the most persuasive communicators of sociocultural standards.
Therefore I thought that this being VI could potentially act as a barrier and protection to this, preventing the development of anorexia in the same way it would develop in a sighted person. I thought, how can a person who does not know what being thin looks like, want to look thin?
However I searched this topic and found that Individuals who are blind can also present with significant body image disturbance and develop eating disorders. There have been so many cognitive behavioral manifestations of body image disturbance in Blind individuals, so ED is not due to an overemphasis on physical attractiveness, but to a personal difficulty to cope with stress?
I came to realise that maybe Body Image Disturbance is disconnected from any aesthetic ideal, otherwise how could all these poor girls have developed Anorexia or Bulimia nervosa?
Unfortunately there are not many studies looking at the difference of how Mass Media influences Blind people compared to Sighted people, therefore I thought it would be a good idea to do this. This concept is often underestimated and taken for granted.
Our access to the Media has been designed in a way which makes it extremely simple for any sighted person at any stage of age to access to it in any way. However how would a Blind person react to this bombarding of the persuasive and dangerous communicators of sociocultural standards? At the end of the day does the lack of visual input provide a kind of protection against those cognitive distortions? (seen that there are less cases of anorexia in blind people than sighted) Or are Blind people affected on their Body Image and Eating habits as much as sighted people?
It would be amazing to know what you think in regards to this!
Thank you and Best wishes.