Blind Chinese make-up artist teaches thousands of visually impaired women to apply make-up using sense of touch

At 14, Xiao Jia began losing her sight, by the time she was an adult she had taught herself how to apply her own make-up, today she teaches others.
PHOTO: Baidu

When blind woman Xiao Jia asked a passer-by for directions in a Beijing pedestrian tunnel seven years ago, the person assumed she was a scammer because of her perfectly applied make-up.

"How can you have trouble seeing things when you can apply make-up to your face?" she was asked. The stranger then laughed loudly and walked away.

It was then that Xiao became determined to become a professional make-up artist and teach other visually impaired women her skills.

"What's wrong with wearing make-up when I can't see? Not only will I wear make-up myself, I will teach more blind people how to do it," she told herself.

Today, the 30-year-old woman has taught thousands of visually impaired women how to apply make-up through her online and face-to-face courses.

From age 14 Xiao started going blind and had lost her sight by the time she was an adult.
PHOTO: Baidu 

Diagnosed with inherited retinal dystrophy at age 14, Xiao gradually lost her sight over the following years as she approached adulthood.

As her sight failed Xiao learned how to apply her make-up by making full use of her sense of touch.

With her lips, she can feel the direction of false eyelashes. With the touch of her fingers, she understands the texture of the skin and facial features so she knows where to apply certain cosmetics and the amount needed.

When there's powder falling on her hand after shaking the powder brush, it means she has used too much.

"The make-up doesn't necessarily change a person, but by learning how to apply it, they can take the impulse and get the power to feel better about themselves. This is what makes a difference - they're breaking limits," she told the South China Morning Post .

"There should be no limitation to beauty. Everyone has the right to pursue it, whether you are able to see it or not," she said.

Although it is increasingly socially acceptable for men to wear make-up, it is specifically women that Xiao wants to help.

For women, the impact of being visually disabled is worsened by social expectations about their appearance that do not apply to men, she said. "If we assess the negative impact of these two factors mathematically, it's not addition, but multiplication."

With her in person and online tutorials Xiao has helped thousands of visually impaired people learn how to apply make-up.
PHOTO: Baidu 

After nine years of compulsory education at a local school in her hometown in eastern China's Jiangxi province, she was sent to a school for the blind.

Most of the students were male and most of their time was spent on learning massage therapy, which it was assumed she would become as this is the default vocation for many blind people in China.

Despite the limited knowledge and skills she could learn at the school, she was still lucky she said, as few blind girls in China get the opportunity to attend school at all.

"There were only a small number of girls besides me in my class, who were sent from an orphanage as they were abandoned by their parents after being born," she said.

"People tend to think that a blind girl doesn't need schooling, her mission is just to become an adult and marry one day," she said.

After graduation, Xiao started a massage parlour in her hometown, a decades-old industry in China, largely built on the labour of blind people.

Because of the scarcity of female workers, she could make 2,000 yuan (S$417) a month when she first joined the industry, compared to 700 yuan for a male therapist.

Despite limited opportunities for blind women in China, Xiao succeeded in holding a variety of jobs before settling on make-up artistry as her career.
PHOTO: Baidu 

But it didn't last long - she quit the industry because of frequent sexual harassment from clients, long a serious issue for female masseuses in China.

"Female therapists seem to have an advantage in this industry in terms of pay. But behind this was another form of inequality because female workers face a very high risk of sexual harassment," she explained.

At 20, she decided to leave her hometown for Beijing in pursuit of better opportunities. Her family was strongly opposed to the idea. "'How will a young woman like me survive if travelling so far from home?', they asked. It's interesting that if a blind man wants to go on adventures, he will often go with his family's blessing," she said.

Despite her family's opposition, she left for Beijing with the help of a blind friend, who later became her husband.

On arrival in the capital, Xiao at first worked as a stenographer then joined an non-profit organisation (NGO), before going on to learn teachable make-up techniques in 2015. She started her own make-up course business for other visually impaired women the following year.

One of the students, Xu Wei, said in a recent thank you video sent to Xiao, "During the 21-day course I was happy every day. I found my self-confidence again. It was like I returned to the old days before I lost my sight."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.