Future Reflections January- February 1984, Vol. 3 No. 1

(back) (contents) (next)


by Mary Ellen Reihing

I was the first girl born in our family, and by the time I was five I had naturally curly, blonde hair. My two older brothers played with trucks, climbed trees, threw footballs, and did all the other things boys at that age were expected to do. My entire family thought that a dainty girl would be a nice change of pace.

On that score I was a frustration from day one. I refused to sit still while my mother laboriously pinned up my hair. I rebelled at ruffles and objected to skirts. I preferred the baseball diamond to play-diamond rings, and building blocks were far more appealing than tea sets.

Grown-ups used to talk about me. "Oh, isn't she sweet. It's such a shame she can't see." I wanted to be invisible. If looking nice meant people notice me, I decided not to bother since I wanted to go unnoticed.

My reluctance to worry about my appearance also had a lot to do with my attitudes about blindness. People often told me I was wonderful because I could walk across a room unassisted. I remember doing a personal experiment. I deliberately wore something that I knew was unbecoming and asked an adult how I looked. "You look just lovely dear," the person said. I knew better. When I asked the same person how I looked on a day when I knew I had gone to extra trouble to be presentable, the answer was the same. I decided that it really didn't matter what I did because I would get compliments that I didn't trust anyway.

My parents were always careful to tell me precisely how I looked and what I could do to improve my appearance. When my mother said I looked nice, I knew I did, or at least I knew she thought I did. The closer I got to age thirteen, the less I valued her judgment about anything. So I rejected my most trustworthy fashion critic just because she was my mom. (At the time I hated being called a typical teenager, but I guess I was.)

My brothers also felt no qualms about giving me their opinions, and they didn't even wait to be asked. "Sis, are you going to a dance, or are you on your way to milk a cow?"

I really didn't understand what I had to gain from trying to look my best I have always tried to get the most results from the least possible effort, and fiddling with jewelry and makeup seemed to me to be a frivolous waste of energy. I was easy to point to the results of an evening spent studying. My grades were better if I worked at it, but what grades would I get that outweighed the pain of sleeping on rollers?

I entered high school during the late sixties and was caught up in the "hippie generation." I never adopted some of the extremes of dress of that era, but I cheerfully informed anyone in authority that it was fashionable to look like a scrounge. I wore my hair long and straight or pulled back into a severe ponytail. I donned loose turtleneck sweaters and banished skirts to the furthest recesses of my closet. I was convinced that my case of acne was the worst ever to have appeared on the face of the earth and gave up trying to prevent growth of the pimple population.

Still, there were time when I longed to be pretty. I would wipe the cobwebs off the curlers and pile my hair up on top of my head in ringlets. I learned to apply make-up and took pride in being able to "put on my face."

I was in college before I really began to understand how much my appearance affected the way I was treated. Understanding began to dawn as I became increasingly active in the work of the National Federation of the Blind.

At first I tried to look nice on special occasions -- meetings with Congressmen and speeches before organizations, conventions, and seminars. The I began to realize that everyday was a potential special occasion. I also began meeting people who could give me clear feedback about the effectiveness of my efforts, and information about what was really fashionable.

It is painful to hear that my favorite white blouse has become dingy grey and they my new skirt makes me look twenty pounds heavier. I don't like being told that there is a run in my hose, especially when I already know it and am hoping no one else will notice. But it is even more painful not knowing these things.

Once, in my grubby college days, all my favorite clothes combinations were in the laundry. I dug to the bottom of the drawer and came up with slacks and a shirt which I had never combined before. I turned to my sleepy roommate and asked if the colors matched. She said they did, and I dressed and went happily on my way. The combination was comfortable and I liked it. It was not until the third time I wore it, several weeks later, that someone told me the truth. The colors combined nicely, but the pants had a vertical strips while the shirt was striped horizontally. On three occasions I had gone around campus looking peculiar and no one had the courtesy to tell me. After I confronted my roommate, she said, "Well, the colors did match." I learned not to ask her opinion again.

From close observations of the people I trust, I have learned something about the styles and colors that look best on me. I also know what feels comfortable, and I try to buy clothes that balance my comfort against the dictates of others' opinions. A few simple tips help me avoid embarrassment and save time and trouble.

If I am going shopping alone, I try to set the tone by dressing appropriately. If I want to buy a suit, I wear another suit. If I want to buy casual clothes, I go shopping in jeans. It is surprising what a difference my apparel makes in the selection the salespeople present to me.

I try to buy things which can be color coordinated so that a small number of items can be arranged to make my wardrobe seem larger. It is positively dangerous to say to a clerk, "I want something to go with my red skirt." Instead, I wear the red skirt and say, "I want something that will match this."

I like shopping with a friend I trust, but I have developed enough self-confidence to go into a department store alone. The first time, I tried it because I had to have something in a hurry, and there was no one available to go with me. When I received compliments on my purchase, I became a little bolder. I have been happier with some purchases than others, but the same is true of clothes I bought while shopping with a friend.

I can tell what I think of the judgment of a salesclerk by asking her opinion about something I see which I dislike. If she is willing to say, "That doesn't make you look very good," I know that she is interested in more than a quick sale.

I try to ask someone I trust to look over my wardrobe at the beginning of each season. We go over the color combinations, and I find out about items which no longer look presentable.

I try to keep an extra white blouse on hand for emergencies. You never know when a few drops of coffee or a little bit of ketchup will ruin the effect of an outfit. I try to have a navy skirt available for the same reason.

It is almost impossible for me to keep from looking disgusted when I learn that a spot didn't come out in the wash. If I am too vocal about my unhappiness, I will discourage my friends from being honest with me. So I try to say things like, "That's not something I enjoy hearing, but I'm awfully glad to know it. Thank you for telling me."

I still like to spend as little time as possible dealing with my appearance. I avoid anything that needs ironing. I wear my hair in a short, "blow and go" style. I wear little or no makeup.

Much of what I have said has to do with my personal approach and is not true of every blind person. Some of the blind girls I knew in elementary school seemed to have been born with a tube of lipstick in one hand and a curling iron in the other.

Parents should remember a few simple rules when teching their blind children about their appearance:

1. Let your child know that she will be noticed whether she likes it or not. She might as well give the public something worth looking looking at.

2. Be honest. You will cause more pain in the long run by withholding vital information or telling little white lies.

3. Explain as much as you can about colors, patterns, and styles. Let your child look at clothing in the store. Explain which styles look best on her and why.

4. Be as generous with your compliments as you are with your criticisms. Your child needs to know what she's doing right.

5. Don't fall into the trap of assuming that a blind child must have only white blouses to avoid the possibility of clashing colors.

6. Don't worry as your child rejects all of your notions about styles when she reaches age thirteen. In fact, though it may drive you crazy, this is a sure indicator that your child is typical.

Mary Ellen Reihing is an attractive, competent young woman who is currently employed as Assistant Director of the JOB (Job Opportunities for the Blind) project operated out of the NFB national office in Baltimore, Maryland. Before becoming employed with the JOB project, she was a Legislative Aid to the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives (now, Lieutenant Governor of Illinois); and before that, a counselor working with blind elderly, and blind multiple-handicapped persons. Mary Ellen is one of the "RLF" babies of the fifties. (RLF stands for retrolental fibroplasia. It is caused by exposing a newborn -- often premature -- to a high concentration of oxygen in an incubator. There were a large number of children blinded by this until the cause was definitely determined in 1954 and medical practices were changed to give an infant only the amount of oxygen needed for survival. RLF is not so common now, but still occurs, particularly with extremely premature infants.) Mary Ellen's parents joined with other parents, when she was a young child, to help bring about the first "mainstreaming" for blind children in their Ohio community.

(back) (contents) (next)