This article was first published on Not Plant Based and is republished here with permission of the author.
"You don’t look blind."
It’s a comment that I’m often greeted with, and one that I’ve never quite understood. What is a blind person supposed to look like?
It’s a common misconception that if you’re visually impaired you cannot be stylish, sexy or beautiful. It’s assumed that appearance and image fall to the bottom of your agenda as though they don’t belong to you. As a visually impaired 17-year-old, I find this idea laughable. Whether you can or can’t see makes no difference to how you dress or your superficiality.
I pride myself on how I look and that’s just the way I am, because I’m a normal teenager. Among other things, I love fashion, makeup, going out in London and girly chats with my friends. Oddly, this is somewhat of a revelation to some people. They look me up and down, spying my confident smile, Topshop ensemble – and white cane – and don’t know what to say. Either they start babbling away or they stay silent, staring. I was 4 years old when I lost my sight and now, over 13 years later, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have the most amazing life, family and friends. Being blind doesn’t mar my outlook or stop me from doing anything I want to do.
But growing up, I was often stung by the derogatory way disabled people were portrayed in the media. I’d listen to the audio stories of my favourite films and TV programmes or rely on the descriptions of friends and family. I awaited a Disney princess who was strong, independent and just so happened to be disabled. When I got a bit older, I became increasingly aware that there were no girls like me playing kickass movie characters, posing on the covers of fashion magazines or starring in reality shows that everyone was talking about like Love Island.
When blind characters did appear in film and literature, they were old, surly dudes who wore dark sunglasses and anoraks. These stereotypes had a major impact on my body confidence and self-image. I felt like I had to go above and beyond in everything I did, from my school work to my appearance, just to prove those depictions wrong.
Soon enough, this perfectionism spiralled into body dysmorphia. When you have a visual impairment, your body image is built upon other people’s perceptions and descriptions. Sighted people can glance in the mirror to check if their hair looks good, whereas I have to seek confirmation from people around me and hope to God they are being honest.
I began to start wondering; did that person really mean it when she said I looked pretty? Or was she just saying it to be kind? Of course I know that sighted people face similar anxieties – thanks to our minds playing tricks on us, a mirror reflection can be about as flattering and reliable as an article written by Gillian McKeith for Wikipedia. Nonetheless, there are times when I would feel much more confident if only I could be the one to make the final judgement.
I first became conscious of weight when I was about six or seven. Due to my multiple health conditions, I attended GP appointments on a regular basis and, before I was called into the doctor’s office, I would often be weighed and measured. I would stand on the scales and there would be this stilted silence as we waited for the digits to flash up on the screen. Occasionally, the paediatrician would show my mum charts, discussing percentiles, BMI, that sort of thing. But I didn’t fear the numbers; rather the nervous ritual, which installed in my mind that weight was something to worry about. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I never had a concept of realistic body proportions. Buried under all the Playmobil and Lego in our toy cupboard were several Barbie dolls. I used to love getting them out, playing with them, dressing them up. But as I played with them in my hands, I became more aware of their plastic bodies; how tiny their waists were. I would feel my own tummy, wondering if it was classed as 'normal'.
Then I went through a phase of being a fussy eater. On the paediatrician’s instructions, my parents encouraged me to broaden my repertoire of foods. Unfortunately, their efforts were unravelled by some other diet-obsessed relatives. You know the ones I mean: the type who will bang on about their latest Slimming World milestone during an otherwise enjoyable family meal. You grit your teeth, listen and smile when all you want to do is shove a hot potato in their mouth to stop them talking. Instead of praising my cooking efforts (I’d often help Mum out in the kitchen), they’d heave an exaggerated sigh and say: "Well there goes the diet" or "I dread to think how many calories are in this". And I would put down my fork, suddenly not so hungry. Then they’d comment on my portion size which is particularly damaging when you can’t actually see the plate. "Blimey, you’ve done well, that was enormous!" they’d exclaim. In that moment, I would go from feeling satisfied to physically sick. Deep down, I know they loved me. But their words messed with my head.
I was bullied at secondary school and, even though I had friends, the sense of loneliness was stifling. Many of the boys dismissed me as 'less' than other girls, either talking down to me or looking through me like I did not exist. Girls were nice enough but there was never really a sisterhood. I was continually on the outskirts of their groups. Perhaps the place I felt this most keenly was in the girls’ toilets – the HQ of teenage girlhood, the place where everything happens; the drama, bitch-a-thons, getting the lowdown on the latest break-up while trying out a friend’s new brand of bronzer.
I felt awkward in these situations – and not just because of the cramped conditions and heady scent of Victoria’s Secret perfume in the air. Being blind, it’s harder to compare my appearance to others'. Sometimes this can be a blessing but at others, it can be extremely isolating. As I reapplied my lipgloss, I had no idea what the girls around me looked like: whether they had nicer hair, better makeup or clearer skin than me.
If I woke up in the morning to find a spot on my face, I’d stand in my bathroom holding onto the basin, tears streaming down my face. What were people going to think? I would panic. Would they notice? It didn’t matter how hard my mum tried to reassure me; I was convinced that I was ugly and disgusting. Little did I know, my skin was just like any other teenager's.
Around that time, when I was 13, Instagram landed with its next level pressure of perfection. My friends told me I was 'lucky' I couldn’t see these warped, unrealistic images. But their assumptions could not have been further from the truth. Being blind didn’t filter out society’s narrow principle of beauty. And social media shouted these messages louder, making it impossible not to listen. I was desperate to fit in and I felt like I had no control over my life. Food and exercise combined to form the perfect solution.
I quickly became immersed in the online health scene. What began as leisurely reading of virtuous posts about health and wellness quickly blurred into a dedicated hunt for articles about clean eating and weight loss. I would sit transfixed as celebs and vloggers preached their dietary doctrines or perform their toning workouts. It never occurred to me that they were lacking any scientific backbone. All I knew was that they were popular, and if I wanted people to like me too, I had to do what they said.
Soon, I felt shut off from the world and withdrew from social situations. All day long, I would obsess over how many calories I’d consumed and restrict myself. If I dared eat something that was 'bad' for me, it would play on my mind for hours. When Dad would bring me my traditional weekend treat – a flaky, buttery almond croissant – I’d plaster on a smile and thank him. Inside though, my heart would hammer. I bargained with myself that if I ate it, I would have to work out extra hard to burn it off.
At school, my head felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool and I could barely concentrate in classes. My moods were all over the place, leaving me laughing hysterically one minute, then snapping the next. Regardless of how long I slept, I would wake feeling mentally drained. I wasn’t only anxious about my appearance anymore. I’d developed a voice in my head that criticised me constantly, telling me I was a terrible person making everyone unhappy and that the world would be better off without me.
This rumbled on for three years during which time I had some therapy for OCD-type symptoms. It was helpful but it didn’t help with the underlying problem. The difficulty was I couldn’t talk about my body image issues as I was petrified I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
But in the summer holidays after my 16th birthday, I reached breaking point. Following a stupid argument with my sister (the cause of which I can’t even remember) I became inconsolable, throwing myself onto the bed and sobbing uncontrollably. The tears kept coming and coming. I’d bottled up these feelings for so long and now they were forcing themselves out of me. Having heard my sobs, Dad came in and sat on my bed. He put his arms around me and said, "This can’t go on." The tiredness and resignation in his voice hit home – I knew that something had to change. The next morning, I went downstairs to find my dad waiting for me in the kitchen, holding a pen and paper. "Start from the beginning," he said.
And I did; explaining everything from start to finish. Afterwards, both my parents hugged me and told me it was going to be alright, that they were going to get me sorted. And they did. That day something clicked in my brain – I realised that there was a way forward.
A year on, I’m stronger than ever and cannot wait to see what the future holds. I’ve learned to accept that despite my imperfections, I am beautiful and I am more than good enough. Like everyone, I get bad days. But I’m not going to let that stop me.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.