Losing My Eye Didn’t Stop Me From Becoming A Fashion Influencer

Belle Bakst
Losing My Eye Didn’t Stop Me From Becoming A Fashion Influencer
Photo: Belle Bakst. Aida Batres/Unsplash.

I’m what you would call an open book. A true Aries born on April fool’s day, I have a flair for long tulle skirts and a loud, honest laugh. Usually, I’m someone who will tell you pretty much anything you ask, and my openness makes having an online presence and social media-based career easy. As an influencer, my willingness to share when it comes to all things fashion and beauty comes naturally—but for a long time, a large part of my story went untold. For years, I opened up to virtually no one about my eye loss, but now I’m proud of how I’ve embraced my physical differences as a pivotal part of my journey.

When I was around four years old, I had a total eye enucleation after a complex series of medical events, and my left eye was entirely removed. Prior to the age of 18, I told almost no one about this, although it was definitely apparent that something was going on with my eyes. They weren’t symmetrical and they crossed often. Whenever someone asked about my eyes I would shrug it off, chalk it up to being born that way and change the subject quickly.

You’re probably wondering how someone with one eye hides the fact that the other one is a glass prosthetic, but believe me, I went out of my way to ensure no one caught on, usually covering my eye (and a good portion of my face) with a side-parted veil of hair. Even with my supportive family and partner behind me, I never felt at ease. I was always terrified of the rejection that might be on the other end of opening up about my eye loss.

I was trying to fit into society’s perception of ‘normal’ beauty, instead of investing in my own.

Looking back, I know exactly why I felt the need to hide my eye loss while growing up. Kids could be so cruel! As a girl who grew up in the early 2000s—way before anti-bullying initiatives took over middle schools everywhere—I did everything I possibly could to conform and blend in with my peers, so as not to be ridiculed for my personality or appearance.

Said efforts included buying preppy clothing I didn’t really like and searching tirelessly for the perfect shade of lipstick. I was convinced that if I bought the right shade of lipstick, it would somehow make me a more acceptable form of pretty. I went through every major makeup brand in 2008 searching to find that lipstick. I was trying to fit into society’s perception of ‘normal’ beauty, instead of investing in my own.

Even so, I felt like I was keeping a huge, terrible secret, and I carried it with me through the years. After going on a second date with a boy I really liked during my sophomore year of high school, I told him about my prosthetic eye. He responded by calling me “way too weird.” We never spoke again.

It wasn’t until I ditched the preppy duds and embraced my personal style that I really fell in love with fashion. I had always found a sense of normalcy and comfort in clothing, and my love of colorful fashion transformed my mood like nothing else could. There was no denying that a good pair of shoes could lift me emotionally. Fashion and clothing were the physical armor that I used to suit myself up in confidence.

After moving to New York in 2015 to pursue my dreams of working in fashion, I found an amazing community of friends in the blogger and influencer space. In addition to social media, I started working as a freelance fashion assistant at print magazines. In 2017, one of my best friends, Christine Buzan, asked me to participate in an online advertisement campaign for a lingerie brand. The theme of the campaign was challenging beauty norms. I was hesitant, but she was so encouraging that I ultimately decided to be a part of it.

The day I arrived on set for the lingerie campaign, I was spotlighted and given a platform to open up about what living with eye loss was like. Surprisingly, I found it easier to talk about than I had previously imagined. In fact, it felt great. Sharing my struggle with my appearance was something I assumed others wouldn’t be interested in hearing about, but I realized I might be able to help other people feel like they weren’t alone.

When the campaign went live, I shared it on my own social media platforms and waited to see how my followers would respond. I was so anxious that everyone would bombard me with negative feedback. Despite working as an influencer, prior to this moment I had never imagined that a social media post could mark such a pivotal moment of my life.

After posting on Instagram, I was overwhelmed by the volume of messages that poured in from all over. Girls as young as 16 messaged me to share their stories, many of which echoed my own. A friend even connected me to another woman in the industry who had a similar experience with blindness. I met Ashlee of BeEyeConic and five minutes into getting to know her, I opened up entirely. I told her my whole life’s story from top to bottom, probably scaring her a little with how openly emotional I was getting right in front of Starbucks. Talking to her, it clicked for me that other people were experiencing the same things I was, and there was absolutely no reason for me to feel insecure about or hide my journey. I began to feel empowered by what made me different—not afraid.

A few years have passed since I first shared my story, and I still get messages to this day about my decision to open up. Sometimes they’re about eye loss, other times illness, anxiety, hair loss or other physical and emotional struggles. I’ve had my fair share of mean comments about my appearance, of course, but nothing as cruel or unsettling as the things I made up in my own head when I was sure I could never let the real me show. Turns out, this whole time I was just scaring myself.

There’s a special kind of magic that happens when you don’t just learn to live with yourself, you learn to like yourself.

Opening up on social media was extremely cathartic, and I felt liberated after receiving concrete proof that I didn’t need to be apologetic about the way I looked. It also allowed me to have a conversation I desperately needed to have with myself: one about self-worth, eyeliner, and why being photographed cross-eyed is totally fine.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t met most of the people messaging me about my eye loss, I felt like I had my own little community championing me through my journey. It wasn’t just a one-way conversation about a deep-seeded longing for acceptance; it was acceptance, in the form of late-night DMs, virtual friendship and helping each other through our self-image struggles. My followers showed me in-depth tutorials on how to apply eyeshadow for my unique eye shape and even walked me through how to navigate the world of false lashes and lash glue.

Now, I have zero fears when it comes to being bullied online for my eye loss or appearance. It was a difficult concept for me to grasp, but I know now that anyone who would poke fun at someone else for their differences is just projecting their own insecurity onto others. I still have bad days every now and then, but they’re few and far between. Yes, I now have a deeper sense of self-worth (and a banging wardrobe), but my anxieties are not completely erased. Still, all of my best selfies now are cross-eyed and I love the way they look. There’s a special kind of magic that happens when you don’t just learn to live with yourself, you learn to like yourself.

For anyone out there who is struggling with self-image, know this: it takes time. It took me much longer than I hope it takes you, but learning to love yourself can be done, and everything feels that much sweeter when you embrace your whole self. Speak to yourself with the same kindness you would a friend—and reach out to find friends who can support you on your journey. The community I needed was right in front of me, liking my posts the entire time. It was up to me to open up to them.

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