by guest columnist
So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Madonna is back with her new album, Madame X. This would normally have passed me by without much pause for thought, although I did wonder slightly bitchily if she had reinvented her
image for the umpteenth time. She must surely have tried every look under the sun by now…
And that’s where my thought process ended, but for a comment from a friend who yelled in passing, “I can’t wait to hear what you think of Madonna’s eyepatch…”
Well, fuck me sideways if I didn’t need to see what she was on about. I pondered on it as I did some baking with my toddler and cleaned the house from top to bottom (by this I obviously mean I googled it the moment I shut the front door).
To my amazement, my computer screen was filled with images of a surprisingly young-looking Madonna wearing a conspicuously large black eyepatch, with a huge silver X in the center.
My first reaction was one of concern as she clearly has a health issue (well I am a nurse so it’s a natural reaction). My second
thought was that it was slightly convenient that her eyepatch should sport the same symbol as her new album (again I reiterate I am a nurse, and we are naturally suspicious individuals, able to sniff out a strong smell of bullshit at ten paces).
It transpires her ocular health is of no cause for concern. Recent interviews with Madonna reveal the eyepatch is part of her new persona, Madame X. She told Today, “She’s a spy… a secret agent… she sleeps with one eye open… she travels through the day with one eye shut…”
In essence, she has used the eyepatch to create an air of mystery. Moreover, her new alter ego is apparently defined by the eyepatch.
So in a world of ever-changing fashion and all the ridiculousness associated with it, why do I care that Madonna has decided to wear an eyepatch?
Well, I also wear an eyepatch. I don’t wear mine for reasons of fashion, nor to create an air of mystery. I wear it because in my early twenties, I had a very rare cancer. In a bid to overcome it, the surgeons cut out my eye. They literally scooped it out and took a wide margin of tissue with it, including my eyelids and my eyebrow. Ergo, I wear an eyepatch to cover up the giant hole in my head.
I’m a woman in my… let’s go with late twenties…okay, early thirties… right, full disclosure… so I’m sliding towards my latter thirties. I have character-building, wild hair that has an aversion to rain. And as I live in the UK (and it rains a lot), I arrive everywhere looking as though I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. I’ve also acquired a few extra pounds in weight over the years. I blame this on my previous career as a military nurse, my associated fondness for an alcoholic beverage (or three)
and a taste for fast food (us nurses are, after all, the epitome of health and fitness). I’m also a wife, and proud mum to a giant dog and an energetic toddler.
I’m defined – in part – by all these things. Not because of how the world sees them, but because each has shaped my personality
and life experience. For example, I’ve befriended my out-of-control hair because it reminds me to pick my battles. There are some things you can change, and others you can’t, so why worry about them (I say this as the nurse whose colleague once told her to tie up her hair or she would frighten the patients)…
I’m shaped (literally and figuratively!) by my extra pounds because, sometimes, I can’t ignore the ‘love handles’ around my waist and think to myself, “Good God, get thee out for a run, and if you don’t hear what sounds like clapping following you en route, then your thunder-thighs are not hitting each other hard enough… so put more effort in…”. So I head outside and however
slowly I run (last week I was overtaken by an elderly man walking his dog), I’m chuffed that I got out in the fresh air and had a go.
But unlike Madonna, I don’t use my eyepatch to create or enhance my character – it’s merely a piece of cloth. I am, of course, defined in some ways by losing an eye because it has changed the path of my life and military career, but it is only one aspect of the rich pattern of definitions that shape me as a person.
It didn’t ever occur to me to associate wearing an eyepatch with anything other than an eye issue. From my first day post-op, my Mum insisted I went out daily. I didn’t think much of it at the time. More recently I realised she had two reasons for it.
The first reason was to ensure I never lost confidence in my ability to set foot outside the door, given that my vision was substantially altered. The second reason was that I had to face the public with my new face.
Just to be clear, I’ve never had cause to laugh at anyone’s face… mainly because I can’t think why I would. We’re all different and that’s absolutely fine with me.
But right from the moment I left hospital, I realised that a proportion of the general public think very differently. The first person I saw that day looked at my face and said, “Arghhh”. Drugged up on pain relief, I didn’t get it until Mum explained he was making a pirate reference. The second person said “Aye-Aye!” Both of them thought they were hysterically funny. In the intervening
decade, these two comments have remained the mainstay of the public’s piss-taking response to my eyepatch.
That said, there are some more imaginative bystanders, and they mostly ask questions…why do I wear an eyepatch (“I had an operation”)… what kind of operation…did you get a firework in the face etc.
The most common question however is, “Can I look under your eyepatch?”
Oh I’m sorry, on what planet is this level of personal intrusion acceptable? It’s never been on my list of reasonable questions – within five seconds of meeting someone – to ask if I can look under their shirt or down their trousers (even in my nursing role)… so why on earth would this be any different?
I’ve heard every eyepatch-related phrase thousands of times. They are trotted out on a daily basis by the general public so I am well-practised in handling even the most outrageous of comments. Nonetheless, it comes at personal cost because a constant barrage of negativity would challenge even the most confident person. Other eyepatch wearers have told me they feel hugely isolated and some have been severely bullied.
I am fortunate that I have hung onto my self-confidence. But I’m saddened that the public response to my face hurts those closest to me. Even my toddler, who is hugely proud that his Mummy has one eye and loves my face, will soon have to face the reality that
other people view me as ‘different’.
I am able to recognise that comments come from a place of ignorance and, in some cases, unkindness; also that the piss-taking is not necessarily levelled at me as a person, but at the eyepatch. But as his awareness of public reaction to my face increases, he
will not understand the reasoning for their comments, and it will hurt him.
In the intervening years since that first cancer diagnosis, there has been much surgical cut and paste around my face. Consequently, the exposed bone of my eye-socket is now covered with a skin graft, so I could choose not to wear an eyepatch. But it remains a slightly unusual sight. Oh the irony that I wear an eyepatch to protect the fragile stomach of the general public – who
ridicule me when I wear it- but who would doubtless be utterly horrified were I to take it off.
I have learnt to hold my head high, square my missing eyebrows, and live life with a facial difference to the full. But you only have to look at the comments on the Twitter feed of a UK show that recently featured Madonna, to realize the extent of the negative response to an eyepatch. They include:
“Has Madonna turned into a pirate?”
“That patch has to go!”
“Madonna, for the love of all things holy, please take off the freaking eyepatch already.”
“The eyepatch tho – not liking it.”
“I just can’t deal with…the eyepatch.”
Madonna herself reinforced this when responding to an interviewer’s opening gambit, “I have to start with the eyepatch…”
She replied, “Of course. The eye-sore.”
Oh Madge, take your head for a shit. You have the platform, the opportunity and therefore the responsibility to be a role model. You could have delivered a powerful message that strived to decrease the stigma around facial differences. Instead, you chose to wear an eyepatch to set yourself apart, to create a difference, for no reason other than to sell a record.
Every day, people with facial differences roll with the verbal punches. Honestly, we don’t need any extra, unhelpful associations when we already have to contend with so many challenges. I faced the fallout created by her thoughtless, image-related stunt when I was in a supermarket the day after her UK chat show appearance. A member of the public clocked my eyepatch, laughed, and then asked if I was “trying to do a Madonna”.
Utterly woeful. In one fell swoop, her stunt to promote a music album has negated all the work that many of us do to normalise facial differences.
In this social media age, Madonna’s concept that an eyepatch sets her apart as different, her ‘eyesore’ comment, and the resulting increase in negative feedback associated with an eyepatch, has done much damage. Initially, it has given the public free rein to let
loose with negative comments. Furthermore, a barrage of unhelpful social media reaction surrounding facial differences has just gone out to a worldwide audience of young and impressionable minds.
As children, we don’t have a filter, and it would be an acceptable leap to see a picture book about a pirate, and then associate that phrase with a person wearing an eyepatch.
It is people like myself who deal with the fallout of such unfiltered ruthlessness, because when it transcends from the screen, it is uplifted into everyday life. There, it takes the form of comments and more brutal interactions to my face. A friend recently commented, “A whole generation has lost its filter.”
In the same Today interview quoted earlier, Madonna said, “Each child requires attention, vigilance and guidance”
Yes, Madge. Yes they do. They need guidance to accept facial differences as a normal part of life.
I’m doing my best to be a positive advocate for facial difference. However, I’m a miniscule cog in a global arena. But Madonna, you have the world’s eye on you (pardon the pun), so you need to think about your actions and the message you portray. There is
absolutely no need to hide behind an alter ego, defined by a piece of cloth over your eye. You are more than that.