Losing my eyesight at 21 helped me overcome my body confidence issues

At the age of 21, while working as a cocktail waitress in a bar (name that song..!), I was trying to get several dirty martinis onto a table for the members of a raucous hen do.  

Normally, this would have been second nature to me but this time, I couldn’t see the table or the napkin –  or even the penis straws – in front of me. 

In fact, everything was getting darker. It came on suddenly, with no warning and almost resulted in the unsuspecting bride getting a lap full of vodka and olives. 

Out of nowhere, it was as though a pair of curtains were slowly descending over my right eye. Clearly, this would be inconvenient for most people but, as I am already blind in my left eye, it was particularly problematic and of course, utterly terrifying. 

Within hours I was plunged into complete darkness. I felt the sort of terror that forces you to shut down and hide like a wounded animal. 

I immediately did what any self-respecting twenty-something would do, I rang my mum for help. Along with my dad, she collected me, grabbed a hastily packed suitcase (my flatmate Drew did it and forgot to pack my tampons) and brought me home to them. 

They tried to cocoon me in reassurance – especially as the coming months brought with them uncertainty about whether my sight would ever return. Fortunately, after three rounds of painful surgery, the doctors were able to repair my right eye and a majority of my sight came back to me. 

Still, I lost around 10% of my vision, needed a new prescription for reading, and scar tissue at the back of my eye means my peripheral vision is limited on the left. 

But I think you’ll agree, not a bad turnout. 

Without wanting to sound like too much of a cliche, it really was a life-changing experience – but not in the ways you might expect. I didn’t get an inspirational tattoo of an eye, hike up Mount Fuji, or quit my job to pursue my dream as a yoga instructor. 

One change – and the most significant one – was my attitude towards my body image. 

I have been visually impaired since I was four years old due to a chronic eye condition called Secondary Glaucoma Uveitis. It causes my inner eye to become inflamed over a period of time, with pressure building up, damaging the optic nerve (without which you can’t see a scooby).

I also had to have my lenses removed (they sit at the front of your eye and filter light to the retina) due to cataracts at a young age. 

Despite this, throughout my childhood and teens, I could still do most things other than drive, become a pilot or an optician – and contact sports were not my strength. 

However, this condition is an unpredictable one and despite regular eye appointments from some of the best doctors, the pressure could not be controlled in my left eye. By the time I was 16 years old, I was blind in it. My right eye had hung in there with the help of a lot of surgeries, eye drops – and avoidance of ball games.  

As if that’s not enough, I have also had juvenile arthritis since I was three years old. Yes, little girls can get arthritis too. It was worse as a child so again, no sport, I wore leg sprints and took immune suppressants but – once again – I had the best doctors and, with my current medication, it’s just the odd aches and pains on a rainy day. 

Alongside these conditions, from my teens until I was 21, I was a spoiled and vain little madam who was determined to look as perfect as possible. 

By ‘perfect’, I mean trying to look like images of skinny models fronting fashion campaigns, or parades of Victoria’s Secret models selling the ‘ideal’ of the perfect body. 

In an attempt to achieve this and correct the most ‘flawed’ part of my face, I even went as far as to have a very painful eye operation to tighten the muscles at the back of my eye, correcting its ‘laziness’ to make it more aesthetically pleasing. 

To be honest, the results were minimal and not worth the pain of eye surgery but this was what I thought had to be done.

I suppose I did it to fill the void I felt inside. I never saw disabled people like me on the TV, advertising campaigns, or filling the pages of magazines. My disability is not what fits the norm of ‘beauty’, apparently.  I therefore not only hid it but I also overcompensated by trying to perfect the rest of me.

Now, did any of this work? Did it sausages! 

Especially as after years of caring about how I looked, I went to a bar to start work and by the end of the shift was completely blind. I could no longer even see what I looked like. 

I cannot speak for all of the visually impaired out there – we aren’t all the same – but when I was blind my mind created images for me. My imagination swiftly kicked in and created the world based on what I remembered and then filled in the gaps. 

I marvelled at my body’s ability to adapt and give me this gift. The desire for perfection I previously held on to didn’t matter because I was so in awe of what my mind and body were capable of.

My body is resilient, flawed and capable of so much more than just what it looks like

After months of surgery, anxiety and my whole life being turned upside down – I put my glasses on for the first time, and I could see my little face again.

I loved every flaw, wrinkle and spot on it. Why? Because it was there for me to see. I had functioned blind and mentally survived this agonising period of my life, and guess what? The world hadn’t ended.

When I saw myself for the first time, I just didn’t critique myself as I had before. The stakes were much higher. 

What I looked like seemed irrelevant because I was overcome by the endurance and resilience of my body and that mattered so much more. I was able to find body positivity in a wholly negative experience. 

I rather poetically found light in the darkness.

After everything my body had put me through that year, I didn’t hate it: instead, I admired it. I was in a body that had adapted to blindness and would now have to adapt to seeing again. Remarkable! It had shown resilience and strength, mentally and physically and I had never been prouder of it.  I chose not to waste my time worrying about what I looked like. 

The first test of what I had learnt after I had my sight back was while minding my own business on the Tube. Standing waiting, I saw an advert asking, ‘Are you beach body ready?’  Next to the caption was a non-disabled model with tight abs and a symmetrical face. 

A year or so before I would have looked down at myself and thought, ‘My body is nothing like hers. I must buy whatever they’re selling to change it and be happy and perfect!’  Instead, I chuckled and thought, ‘Beach body ready?!  You won’t fool me Don Draper/ad executive/corporate robot. My body is better than a beach body. It is resilient, flawed and capable of so much more than just what it looks like.’ 

My legs might not look like hers but they work despite having arthritis. I went blind once, and I might go blind again – but I will still thrive.

If that isn’t the definition of body positivity I don’t know what is.

It seems to me that the voices of those who are disabled are what’s missing in the body positivity conversation. We are never heard when the topic comes up – but who better to talk about loving our bodies, than those who are most challenged by them? 

My body positivity comes from a state of mind. Knowing that this little disabled body can conquer so much, I will try to never devalue it again based on what it looks like.  

And if you’re still guessing, I will put you out of your misery: ‘Don’t you want me’, by The Human League.  

Now, go and put it on, lock your front door, strip naked, dance around to it and love your body. 

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