Photo by Christine Buzan Hair and makeup by Heather Schnell
It’s taken me twenty years to finally feel comfortable enough to really talk about this. More importantly, to find the right words.
I’m half Mexican and half Ethiopian. When I was born, my dark brown eyes were almond shaped. At about four years old my retina detached and because of it, I had a total eye enucleation surgery. My entire left eye was removed. For years, I refused to talk about it. I had no idea how to cope with my changed physical appearance and it made me hide away in fear. I was endlessly teased in elementary school, and the biggest difficulty I had was making friends up until high school. Unlike everyone I had ever known, my self loathing didn’t come from a place where I couldn’t loose weight or change an outift. I could never alter the part of myself I most disliked.
Throughout my youth, with the few friends I did have, I was the center of every sleepover for “makeovers”. It didn’t occur to them that they were being crass. Similar to most growing girls, I went through an awkward stage. On top of that I was still attempting to normalize my eye loss. I felt frustrated, and what’s worse, is that I didn’t like or appreciate myself. I was completely embarrassed by the way I looked. Because of this, I spent most of my life covering half of my face with my hair. I felt like I had to hide my face and my prosthetic. No amount of “makeovers” would make my prosthetic cool. My mother encouraged me to be courageous and stop hiding behind the hair, but I still struggled to want to do it for myself.
All I saw was a reflection of a girl who was missing a part of her face. I couldn’t help but feel powerless over my own body. Learning to love your face after such a life altering surgery is so immensely difficult. Nobody ever tells you that even though you’re okay physically, that there is still major emotional scarring that comes along with eye loss. For me, I just avoided looking at myself altogether. What I feared the most was that it wasn’t just kids being cruel to me, but that for the rest of my life, the entire world would be cruel to me also. When my world felt dismal, I grasped at ways to find beauty in myself, and that’s when fashion came into the picture.
With fashion, I could be anyone and anything my heart desired. I had always loved fashion, so much so that as soon as I could walk, I was twirling around in circle skirts. In high school I gained a better grasp of my sense of aesthetic. Personal style gave me a confidence I didn’t realize existed. Wearing the clothing I loved gave me the armor I needed to step into the world with confidence and grace. The realization for me was that attitude, and just like style, it transformed me.
With newfound love and acceptance for myself, I was able to overcome the fear and doubt instilled from my surgeries. Though I never considered talking about my experience and my prosthetic until I found a personal hero in an unlikely place. It was 2015, when Fetty Wap ascended to the billboard top 100. It was the first time I had ever seen a person appear without a prosthetic and proudly show it off.
It was the first time I felt like I could face the world without my own.
Fetty didn’t just put his face on the cover of his album. He put his most vulnerable self on display. I felt empowered by him, blown away by his immense confidence, and quite honestly, it made him even more fucking cool.
There’s a special kind of magic that happens to your sense of self when you don’t just learn to live with who you are, but you truly like who you are. And while I don’t like everything about myself and my eye loss, I have learned to deeply appreciate how God formed me, and I’m grateful for the vision I do have.
My advice for anyone who is struggling with their body image after loss, or self-esteem in general, is to take it one day at a time. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your very best friend. You deserve to be loved just as much as anyone else. Healing for me has taken almost twenty years, and I’m still growing and learning to accept every part of myself each and every day. It’s a process. It doesn’t end after a string of good days, it lasts the entirety of one’s life. And while I’m now happy with who I am, I know this is a never ending journey. I embrace it openly, without fear. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you don’t just have to accept the body you’re in. It’s okay to like all of yourself too. Quirks and flaws included. God doesn’t make mistakes. Beauty is and can be anything. And just because I may not be viewed as beautiful by traditional standards, I’m beautiful by my standards.