I have a medical condition called blepharospasm.
In my body, this manifests as a muscle twitch in my eyebrow that gets worse when I’m anxious or under stress. The twitching turns into headaches and irritation that make it difficult for me to focus while reading or writing.
My eye twitch developed over the past year, surely unrelated to the misadventures of being an urban Indigenous woman on the Canadian prairies, travelling to Paris for an international climate conference, and attempting to challenge the racist structures of academic philosophy.
Botox is the only treatment available for blepharospasm (no, my face is not expressionless and yes, I can still raise my eyebrows), but it is not a permanent solution. So every few months, I go into a clinic that specializes in cosmetic surgery and injectables for treatment. In my experience, the clinic serves a clientele of apparently wealthy, sometimes older, almost entirely white women.
As I hit my mid-twenties and note the already substantially different ways that academic men/all men interact with me as I get older, I should make it clear I’m not here to shame anyone who uses injectables or surgery for cosmetic reasons. Peoples bodies are their own, full stop. Furthermore, the chance to conform to certain expectations of femininity is crucial for avoiding increased violence for many people, something which ought to be recognized as medically necessary.
Still, the world of cosmetic surgery is a space where whiteness is upheld as the standard for women’s health and beauty (with the two often conflated), accessible only by the relatively wealthy.
An example of the type of posters I get to read while waiting for the doctor. Those “vaginal rejuvenation” posters especially amplify my twitchiness.
And so my colonial-trauma-eye-twitch brought me deeper into the wacky world of white femininity and cosmetic surgery.
It costs about $550 for my injections every 3-4 months, which is covered under the Saskatchewan health plan’s exception drug status. Even though the treatment is medically necessary, I’ve had trouble accessing the proper information and paperwork to get timely reimbursement, and I’ve missed treatments as a result because I couldn’t pay out of pocket.
In the office, the workers are kind, but I can’t help but fear that I will receive worse treatment because I’m a poor visibly Native woman asking for health care in a space not meant for me. I consciously dress as well as I can for my appointments in an attempt to lessen the impacts of racism on the health care I will receive. During my last appointment, a peppy young white woman walked in off the street into the fancy waiting room with bare feet and a hemp ankle bracelet, showcasing a carefreewhitegirl privilege which aggravated my twitchy eye even more.
Sometimes my eye twitch is a mini-manifestation of my body’s refusal to exist without complaint under a suffocating colonial order. I wish this acknowledgment made it a less exhausting and expensive condition to live with.
The doctors, nurses, and office workers at the clinic are all very white-skinned, most with platinum blonde hair. As a result, I rarely leave an appointment without getting comments on my hair, my skin color, and my appearance in general.
Once, while laying back in the chair being examined for a condition that is likely a direct result of the stress of colonial trauma on my body in the first place, a nurse told me: “Your skin is such a beautiful color. It’s not brown, but just, like, the perfect tan.”
While this might seem like a compliment, it was also an attempt to separate my beauty from the fact that I am a Native woman. It was a statement meant to exempt me from the category of “brown-skinned”, as if pointing out my Obviously Indigenous appearance would be an insult. I wanted to tell her that my skin is not “tan”: it is brown, and my beauty exists because of my brownness and because I am Native, not in spite of it.
With Fanon running through my head and the doctor’s french-manicured hand maneuvering a giant needle around my eye sockets, I just mumbled, “oh thaaaanks!” and offered up the name of my favourite sunscreen when she asked.
(Is this #sisterhood???)
The remark led me to recall another incident, when I was in a similar-but-different vulnerable position with a white guy who also told me “your skin is such a beautiful color”. I wondered for the rest of that evening why – though I already knew the answer – he couldn’t simply have said, “you are beautiful”.
Native women aren’t allowed to be beautiful in the eyes of white folks, at least not in the same way as white women. Our long dark hair is a “beautiful” object of fascination in the same way they admire furs or hides. Our beaded earrings are “beautiful” magnets for white folks who can never resist grabbing at our ears without our consent, as if they expect we’re made of the same hard plastic as the little Indian dolls sold in Canadiana gift shops, and not of flesh that feels legitimate pain worthy of proper medical attention. Our skin color is “beautiful” as long as it is caramel or golden or tan and not brown while black isn’t even a possibility on their checklist of What Natives Look Like. Our features are prized as exotic objects, but to be deemed a beautiful subject in one’s entirety is still something generally reserved for white women.
Earlier this year, Billy-Ray Belcourt gave a talk entitled “Gallstones and the Colonial Politics of the Future”. He mentions how his doctor was shocked that as a young person, he had a condition that generally only occurs in older people (except in the case of Indigenous folks), linking it to the real impacts of colonialism on our physical health and on the health care we receive.
As the doctor empties a third needle into my face to temporarily freeze the colonial eye twitch I’ll endure the rest of my life, she chirps, “It’s great that you started this procedure so young: you’ll never get wrinkles!”