I'm Visually Impaired & I Can't Make Beauty My Own

by Kerry Kijewski

I was born with a genetic visual impairment, and what little visual ability I started off with in the world has decreased slowly over time. I used to be able to see my face when I looked in the mirror. I used to be able to see colors and shapes (including whether my hair was dark or light). Now, I can’t and I feel like I am lost to myself and reliant on others, leaving me wondering all the more what the rest of the world might be seeing that I am not, and how I can relate to the beauty world without my sight. Simply put, sometimes I feel like I look into the mirror and see someone who isn't totally me staring back.

It started in my teenage years, when I started asking my sister to help choose a few lipstick and eyeshadow shades — I could see some things, but not others. I put some basic makeup on whenever I’d go out somewhere, but always had to check with someone first, fearing it hadn’t been applied properly. I was constantly afraid that my need to fit in by wearing makeup would backfire, and I'd end up standing out.

Nail polish was something I loved even more. Even after I could no longer see the colors myself, I couldn't bear to not have my sister or a professional paint my nails. I reveled in the smooth, glossy finish, visible to me only through my remaining sense of touch. The sensation of touching the nail polish was one of the few things that made me feel feminine — unlike foundation, eye shadow or blush, I could feel that it was there, even though I couldn't choose my color or see the results.

Not long after high school, I started to realize there was something bigger about the way that my visual impairment has changed my relationship with beauty and style, something far more difficult to conquer than finding satisfaction by feeling my nails for polish. Often, it felt more like I was surrendering my own personal preference to anyone with working eyesight, instead of trusting my own instincts — when it comes to beauty and fashion, the inability to see things leaves me with little to go by.

I wish I did not need to rely on other people’s opinions half as much when deciding what to wear on my own body. It requires a certain amount of trust in the person I’m shopping with, like my big sister, as my own feelings only get me so far. I suppose no longer seeing myself helps build a certain level of strength of character, but it’s not a trade I’d choose to make just for a bit of extra perspective. I’d much rather be able to go to a spa or to get my hair done at the salon, without having to almost completely rely on other women for validation and confirmation.

Then again, perhaps my predicament isn't so unique. Sighted women often rely on family and friends for feedback about their makeup, hair, or clothing, and what people don't get from friends, they get from advertisements, celebrities, and blogs. However, there is something to be said about being able to be the one making the choices based on what you see, not what other people are telling you they do.

Of course, I do not speak for all blind and visually impaired women. Far from it. Many love to wear makeup and learn all sorts of little tricks to help simplify and clarify the process. I could say the fact that I don't do those things doesn't matter to me, but I would be lying to myself. Like any woman, I want to look pretty on a date or for any other social event or night out — and ideally, my look would be a product of my own choices, without so much input from others.

And there are some things I can do. I can feel when my hair has been blown around by the wind, pieces of it flicking my face and reminding me that even though I can't see it, my hair is there. I can tell when my shirt is inside out by the seams on the outside, or when my shoes are going on the wrong feet. Those are a few of the things I do not need to rely on anyone else for. And of course, there’s the nail polish. These things are all precious when I add them up in my head.

For anyone, it's hard to walk out into a world where so much is judged at a cursory glance. I feel vulnerable every time I do it — and yet, this world will always be mostly a visual one. I can’t escape that. My relationship to beauty and style might never be independent from the thoughts and opinions of others entirely — but who can really say that completely?

I'm finding my own way toward what beauty and style means when you don't have the sight to enjoy it. Like everyone, I hope that when I get there, what results is totally, 100 percent me — whatever that might look like.