New Skills Bring Light Out of Darkness
“Next you can slowly touch your partner’s eyebrows, eyes, nose, cheeks, and lips to familiarize yourself with their position, size, and shape. This is the first step before applying makeup,” said Xiao Jia, a blind makeup artist who instructed a group of more than 10 participants wearing blindfolds on how to apply makeup to their team partners’ faces at a non-visual makeup workshop held at Danish Cultural Center in Beijing in March 2023.
Known as the “blind beauty magician,” Xiao is the first blind makeup artist in China. She is also a yoga instructor, a free diver, the founder of non-visual aesthetics, a lecturer at the Chinese Braille Library, a trainer at OPO Disability Group, and a pioneering female entrepreneurial model of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). After losing her sight, Xiao began to search for new skills with various identity tags, and also shared what she was able to do to inspire more blind women.
Adapting to Blindness
Born in 1992 in Ganzhou City, southeastern China’s Jiangxi Province, Xiao was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 14. Xiao and her family were told by a doctor that this disease had a very high rate of blindness and she would probably be completely blind by the time she was 20 years old. In desperation, Xiao dropped out of school and stayed at home.
The fate of becoming blind came as a great blow to Xiao. Every time she thought of being blind and being led around by other people, she felt devastated and frightened.
Soon her vision began to blur, and her nightmare began to become a reality. Xiao had studied brush painting for six years and dreamed of enrolling in the Central Academy of Fine Arts to study animation. During her life at home, she would pick up a brush to create a painting, but as a result of her declining eyesight, the brush strokes became less and less distinct. This made it increasingly difficult for other people to understand her paintings.
In order to adapt to the days of impending blindness, Xiao would deliberately turn off the lights and practice cooking in a dark environment. She taught herself how to estimate whether the water was boiling by feeling the evaporating steam with her hands and used chopsticks to find the position of the hot pan to avoid getting burned. “I knew I would eventually be blind in the future, but I didn’t know how big the impact would be. I started to try to adapt to a life of being blind and let myself feel the state of not being able to see,” Xiao told China Today.
At that time, if life was not already challenging enough for Xiao, her parents’ decision to get a divorce increased her state of sadness to the point of even having suicidal thoughts. She and her father agreed to do all they could to enjoy the days while she could still see a little. She began to eat frantically and stay up late watching TV to fill the emotional void. Soon her weight increased to 75 kilograms. One day while she was helping her father look after his store that sold liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), someone asked her, “Auntie, how much is LPG now?” Only then did she realize that her 16-year-old body shape had changed significantly.
From then on, the girl who once loved looking in the mirror and dressing herself made up her mind to lose weight. She began practicing yoga at home following along yoga broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV). Through exercise and cutting back on the amount of food she ate, she reduced her weight to 45 kilograms in around a half year. “At that time, my ability to lose weight rekindled hope in me. Suddenly it didn’t feel like I was completely unable of doing anything because of blindness. Many of the yoga routines require persistence. So, during the process of learning yoga, my endurance become stronger, and I no longer got hysterical when people asked me about my eyes like I did before. I also thought of opening my own yoga studio. I can guide people’s movements by touching them, and they can learn from me by watching my movements,” said Xiao.
In 2009, Xiao heard on the radio how blind people could use computers. Later, her father bought her a computer with screen-reading software. The Internet brought Xiao in contact with a larger world, and she made many visually impaired friends online. She gradually realized that there were more fields she could explore by learning about various industries in which blind people worked. She started to learn how to write about the world of her imagination. Her metaphysical romance novel was once topped by Baidu Tieba, a popular online forum. This inspired her with the idea of becoming a writer.
Following the advice of a blind friend she met online, Xiao began making plans to continue her studies at a school for the blind to further improve her literacy and continue writing books. However, there were basically no culture related classes, only courses for the massage profession, a fact which she found hard to understand. After three years of closed-off study in Jiangxi Province’s capital Nanchang City, Xiao returned home and found a job in a massage parlor. As there were some customers who did not respect her work, and the risk of sexual harassment, Xiao soon left the parlor and began running her own massage store with the support of her father. She chose to operate only during the day time, but as a result of the sluggish business, she soon decided to give up trying the massage business.
Exploring Different Skills
Xiao often spent her evenings online chatting with visually impaired friends. She also wrote down her thoughts and experiences and submitted them to Youren magazine. Gradually she became familiar with the OPO Disability Group from this first private publication in China dedicated to serving people with disabilities and learned about their philosophy of multiculturalism and disability rights. This broke through her original impression that blind people could only do massage. After hearing that the group was looking for a stenographer, despite her family’s objections, she took a 19-hour train ride to Beijing and joined the group. It was also in this team that she met and bonded with the man who would later became her husband.
After coming to Beijing, Xiao worked as a stenographer. Later, she became acquainted with feminist issues and worked as a trainer for disabled women’s programs, attending various social events to give speeches and training courses.
Once she sent a video to her family of her participating in a TV program. After watching it, one of her aunts replied, “Why are you so off color? Are you not doing well in Beijing?” This made Xiao realize that her face stood out in sharp contrast to others because she had not used any makeup. Later, she heard that there was a British blind makeup artist who could not only do her own makeup but also teach others how to do it. Hope grew in her heart and she started to pay attention to makeup.
In an event organized by the group to improve the image of the visually impaired people, Xiao, as a model, worked with the teacher to teach the participants how to apply makeup. Xiao paid close attention to the teacher’s movements on her face and was praised for her resemblance to a popular singer after applying the make-up. When she asked the teacher if she could be accepted as a student, she was rejected because of her visual impairment. “At that time, I had a strong feeling that if I could learn how to apply makeup myself one day, I must teach my blind friends how to do it. Since I know how blind people feel and think and also understand the difficulties they face when applying makeup, I was confident I could teach them successfully,” Xiao told China Today.
Xiao bought a full set of cosmetics, and learned through trial and error how to apply the makeup by following the instructions of online articles. Later, she was introduced to a makeup teacher who worked at a makeup salon. After working during the day, Xiao went to the studio to learn about doing makeup and skin care from the teacher. She gradually summed up a set of beauty methods suitable for blind people. Once after helping a friend doing her makeup for a program in which her friend was the host, Xiao was appreciated by her friend’s boss. This gave her full confidence to do what she originally thought was impossible.
In 2016, the birth of Xiao’s daughter added the role of being a mother to her life. In order to take care of her daughter, she had to quit her job in the group and has been teaching cosmetics makeup to visually impaired people online ever since. After she posted her first video on her online account, many blind people across China began contacting her to learn more about doing makeup. Today, she has tutored more than 3,600 people. In addition to teaching makeup courses, she also shares her skills in cooking and doing yoga with many people through articles, videos, and live-streaming.
In 2019, Xiao heard that a blind person in China had obtained a diving license, and an experience program was recruiting participants. She immediately registered to learn how to dive and was attracted to free diving. She decided to try to obtain a diving license. Blind people mainly rely on sound to perceive their surroundings, but sound travels faster under water than it does in the open air, making it generally believed that people cannot discern direction underwater by merely relying on sound. However, Xiao discovered that as long as she focused on the sound, she could recognize the direction underwater. In this way, the sound of a bell from the coach helped her to distinguish direction underwater. After much practice, she successfully passed the test , and finally received a diving certificate.
Despite many obstacles in her life after becoming blind, Xiao has experienced a unique life through various exploration. The comments and feedback she gained from people online has also made her more determined to continue exploring the value of life, as well as share what she has learned to inspire more blind women.
“At first, I just thought it was beneficial for me. But after I started to teach other blind friends how to apply makeup, it helped them realize that their life could be more meaningful and they could do more things. I want to inspire them with the idea that life has infinite possibilities. Being blind doesn’t have to hinder our exploration of life. There is a wide range of things we can still do with our life,” Xiao told China Today.
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