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Monday, 14 May 2012

Would you rather be blind or fat?

A recent US survey revealed that 1 in 6 women would rather be blind than fat. The more I think about this statistic, the more I wonder what it is 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 is much more complicated than that: obesity has health and well-being implications that blindness does not; but, on the other hand, obesity can often be treated 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, the blind are seen as victims and are pitied rather than criticised. 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 this blog which argues very convincingly that the assumption behind this response is that the women questioned see blindness as a condition which although tragic, would have a less negative impact on their body-image than obesity. Presumably these women are imagining themselves as one of those stunningly beautiful blind women you find in films. 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. (Or maybe they were wrongly thinking that blind people doesn't care about their body-image because they can't see themselves, and are thus immune to low self-esteem issues...)

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 (and discussion with my statistic-cynic husband) 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?


  1. Oh, my. What a strange and disturbing question. It seems to me that society has regressed since the 1970s when it comes to women and body image. I keep hearing that voluntary surgical interventions (from liposuction to breast enhancement) are all part of woman's right to control her own body. This logic is so twisted, I don't know where to begin. Sigh.

  2. I agree that the asking of the question in the first place is what is so aberrant. As though life dishes up neat alternatives. Whoever has that 'choice' between blindness and obesity? It makes it sound like some bizarre TV game, as if the question is asked for and by people who are neither blind nor obese but who are speculating on different 'misfortunes'. It's about as daft as asking whether you'd save your pet dog or your pet cat first in an emergency.

    1. I did a bit of research and found that the original question was asked as part of some research (published in the American Journal of Public Health) about whether obesity (and attitudes to it) was determined by people's social ties - ie were people who had fat friends more likely to be fat themselves, or did they choose to hang out with fat friends because they were also fat. The subjects were asked to rate obesity alongside 12 other 'social stigmas' including depression, herpes, aleoholism and blindness(!). The researchers asked them to do this in order to find out their 'anti-obesity preference'. 14.5% said they would choose blindness over obesity. So I now think the original question was asked for valid reasons, but it has been massively distorted by the media coverage which mostly takes it completely out of context.... Why am I not surprised by this?

  3. In a way this reminds me of the question about the importance of the senses: "Would you rather be blind or deaf?" However, these questions are addressed to people who are neither blind nor deaf, and they'll only be focused on what they lose. The question changes if you ask a blind person if he'd rather be deaf, or a deaf person if he'd rather be blind. Personally, I'd rather be mute than deaf or blind, but then, I'm a writer and the absence of speech wouldn't necessarily be a detraction of my life as long as I can make myself understood. However, nobody asks 'Would you rather be mute than blind', because speech is apparently held in lower regard than vision.

    As to your comment about the media taking research results out of context, media has to sell itself, so skewing research results to sell more newspapers or get more online clicks is enough reason for them to mess with our minds.