Crossed Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

Photo taken by Kathy Tipping
My eye may not look straight ahead, but I can still see right through you.

While I waited for the reporter and photographer from my local paper to interview me, I wasn’t worried about telling the world I was a professional dominatrix. I wasn’t fussing over the tidiness of my studio, or what I would say to the savvy reporter, or the potential reaction of my friends in the local Labour Party, where I’m an activist. What I was worried about were my eyes.

In a lot of ways, I don’t fit the standard models of beauty approved by advertising agencies. I’m not thin, and I don’t look 18 years old — I’ve got three big wrinkles on my forehead, and my boobs aren’t as perky as they once were. Black curly hair grows in my nose, and pulling it out makes my eyes water, so I leave it there, and wonder if clients notice it when they’re strapped down on my bench. None of these things have been an obstacle in making a living as a sex worker. But my crossed eyes have occasionally given people pause.

When I was a baby, worried family friends asked if there was something wrong with me. I held my head cocked to the right so I could see clearly, so my little brain could learn to process the world around me even though my right eye was consistently drifting towards my nose. When I was a year old I had an operation — I don’t remember it, of course, I just bear a tiny little scar in the corner of my eye — but it didn’t work, and the eye kept turning in.

My eye doesn’t hurt me physically, but it has caused me a world of emotional pain.

That eye doesn’t hurt me physically, or obscure my vision, but it has caused me a world of emotional pain. Our society prizes fitness and beauty, because that’s what capitalism says we’re good for. We are expected to look happy and relaxed — to convey that we don’t just work hard, we also go on beach holidays and we exemplify a particular, socially atomised concept of wellness. For women, systematic misogyny compounds the problem; systemic expectations of social and sexual subjugation to men mean the standards are even stricter. We are forced to fit in. To vary from these standards is to be invisible — or, worse — to be visible in the wrong way.

That eye made me visible in the wrong way. When I was growing up I was a loud, bold little girl with lots of ideas. But my inward-turning eye made my schoolmates and teachers view me as not just out of the ordinary, but as someone whose loud voice was a pathology. The eyes are windows to the soul, the old dictum says, and my window was hung askew. The thick glasses and the astigmatism didn’t help. My mother had had my sister and me a month early, and I was a surprise; she would have been happy with the curly haired perfect little girl, but I was an extra set of work, unwanted, and I ruined all of my baby pictures by cocking my head to one side. No wonder she didn’t like me, I used to tell myself.

As a teenager I shaved my head and wore baggy clothes, letting the weirdness shine through. I still wore the glasses and I would still cock my head to the side when lost in thought, and my eye would still track inwards towards my nose when I was nervous or tired. I forgot it most of the time, but after an especially bad day of teasing or mocking, of false friendship that took advantage of my good nature only to set me up for a cruel prank, I would see the eye in a car window reflection and remember. Worse, I was navigating these emotional minefields alone and confused. My neglectful parents hadn’t bothered to explain that people’s perceptions of me could be altered negatively by my eye. When I discovered that the majority of people with noticeable strabismus — the medical term for a crossed eye — face social challenges, it was a weight off my shoulders; I realized that despite what my mother had always told me, the ostracism wasn’t entirely my fault.

When I became a sex worker I learned to wear makeup and walk in heels for the first time, but at first I still carried a sense of shame, a notion that femininity was not allowed for someone like me. The shame went away after the first few bookings, when a man came in and said, “you are much more beautiful than your pictures.” Eventually, along with the heels and makeup I learned how to take a photo I like, how to angle my face so the eye tracks away from the nose.

My eye will never be normal. One set of muscles that governs the movement of that orb are weaker than the others, and if I get tired, or I am wearing contacts, or I am under stress, my eye will creep towards my nose. But on most days, and even in most photographs, I feel all right about it.

But even though I am no longer afraid of showing my face to the world, I still feel a twinge when I see the pictures of me on page three of the Plymouth Herald, in a full page article announcing that I am hoping to run for Plymouth city council. Whenever I appear in the local press, the comments show up — on the newspaper’s Facebook group, on right wing websites. “Boss-eyed,” they call me, which is Cockney rhyming slang for cross-eyed. I will admit that it stings, and that I remonstrated with myself for not standing the right way in those Plymouth Herald pictures, letting pictures with my inward-turned eye go national.

The right-wingers know that I’m gunning for them — that no matter which way my eye turns, I’m staring them straight in the face.

But then I realize that it is only right wingers saying that sort of thing — that they are, maybe, threatened by hearing that a left-wing sex worker wants to kick the right-wing, xenophobic U.K. Independence Party out of our city council. They have to call me boss-eyed, or fat, or saggy-titted, or a whore, because they’re afraid of me — not because of my whips and canes, but because I represent all of the people who hate racism and poverty and welcome refugees, who want to be part of Europe instead of standing alone. I stand with the people who know that it wasn’t immigrants who have strained our National Health Service to the breaking point — it was the right-wing politicians who decided to privatize it, bit by bit. The right-wingers know that I’m gunning for them — that no matter which way my eye turns, I’m staring them straight in the face, and I can see that they don’t measure up.

The people who never mention my eye are the people on the left, whose activism is fueled by compassion. We’re all a little different, and that’s what’s brought us to social justice work. We know that it’s the competitive nature of society that makes children so cruel, that makes parents reject a child who isn’t quite perfect enough, and we hope to build a society where being kind isn’t just easier — it’s the norm. We’re building a society where cruelty won’t be rewarded, but will be seen as the disease that it is, whether it’s in a family or in the White House.

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