When she first started her career as a barber, several clients didn’t realize Rachel Mayta had a prosthetic eye until she shared her story as a survivor of childhood cancer.
She began the conversation by embracing her identity and feeling confident enough to post photos and videos of herself playing the ukulele, hiking, and singing, without her prosthetic eye inserted. She felt beautiful and whole again—like she had removed her inner critic and the voice that told her she couldn’t.
“I love being a barber, and I love that idea of being a one-eyed barber. It feels cool to me to have overcome some obstacles that two-eyed barbers would have never thought of, with hand eye coordination and depth perception skills that a normal barber would use in daily life,” said Mayta.
In her early barbering years, Mayta admits she felt inexperienced and nervous, especially because she was styling and cutting hair with one eye, she shared. She wondered if others underestimated her talents or thought differently of her because of her one eye.
“Men’s hair leaves no room for error. If you mess just one thing up, you’ll see it,” said Mayta, who added that angles are important in hair design.
“When cutting hair, it’s important you see every hair that’s between short to long. Most people can see the difference when they are looking straight ahead at the client, but I really have to utilize angles and make sure that I look at the haircut from every perspective.”
Mayta learned to eventually put a pause to her negative self-chatter, and to believe in her talents. Instead, she saw barbering as a unique challenge and a way to express her creativity and embrace her identity as a “one-eyed barber.”
“I loved the idea of being in a field that was once dominated by men. It took me a while to believe in myself—and I’m sure a few bad haircuts— to learn how to navigate men’s heads using one eye,” said Mayta.
There were techniques she used in her early barbering days to get the desired look, she explained. “I have other tricks I use to get the desired look, such as using white or colored combs so I can see the contrast of the hair, typical blending combs are black and without depth perception… Other things like doing my cross checking with the clients head at eye level ensured I was giving the best haircut possible.”
Mayta is passionate about being a barber and is grateful for finding a career that is equally fulfilling and helps people feel confident about themselves through something as simple as a hair trim or style.
Sometimes the conversations go beyond just the surface of hair, though.
“My clients talk to me about everything: from divorces, promotions, vacations, to illness or death in the family. And I love that my clients know that if they need someone to bounce ideas off of or just need someone to laugh with, then they can come to me. “
As a child growing up in Forest Grove, Oregon, Mayta recalls she was bullied in school because of her one eye. Kids were quick to point out her differences, but Mayta says she was mature about the situation and understood that there was probably a deeper insecurity issue with those who taunted and bullied her, and not herself. She realized, at an early age, there was something beautiful about her being “one-eyed,” even though the journey to finding herself wasn’t always an easy and self-loving one, due to the lack of media representation and role models, she shared.
As she became a young adult, she started to feel self-conscious about her prosthetic eye. “I didn’t understand why I had to be the one who got dealt the hand that I did. It was early adulthood where I felt like my confidence had taken a huge step back.”
In retrospect, during her early twenties, Mayta says she often felt like she needed to hide the fact that she wore a prosthetic eye because of the way society celebrated and normalized the beauty of two-eyed individuals, she shared.
“I think the only thing that has changed since, is my attitude. The power of positivity is incredible. Your inner monologue and how you speak to yourself when no one can hear is life changing.” She started referring to herself as a “strong and beautiful survivor,” instead of feeding her mind with negative energy. She said that this was the mantra that changed her life and allowed her to love herself from within.
From the experiences she encountered in her early childhood through adulthood, Mayta has felt like she’s had to make a conscious effort to educate people and use it as a conversation starter while dispelling myths and stereotypes about being “one-eyed.” Over the years, she’s been asked various questions about having one eye like how she can do things like drive, cut hair as a barber, paint, hike.
“While I do have to adjust many things in life to make up for loss of peripheral vision and the complete lack of depth perception, this is the only way I know.”
Childhood Cancer: Retinoblastoma
Retinoblastoma is the most common type of eye cancer in children, according to the American Cancer Society. According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, approximately 200 to 300 children are diagnosed with the cancer each year in the U.S.
Mayta says she was just 16 months old when doctors diagnosed her with retinoblastoma, a cancer in the retina of the eye. After her parents took her to the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon health and Science University, doctors determined the cancer was at a growing, advanced stage and would not be able to be treated with chemotherapy or radiation. Mayta said doctors determined that a full enucleation of the eye was the only treatment option that would spot the progression of the growth before it spread to her other eye or the brain.
“I was so blessed and fortunate to have had cancer early enough to not have the memories that many other children fighting cancer have,” said Mayta, who aims to continue to spread awareness about childhood cancer while sharing the stories of other survivors of retinoblastoma.
Mayta says her entire family came together when they heard about the rare diagnosis.
“I was the first born for both my mother and my father, and so it was devastating to them both. They just tried to stay positive and kept telling themselves that everything would be okay.”
When she turned 18 months old, doctors removed one eye. Most of Mayta’s post treatments included regular appointments with her ocularist. When she was younger, she’d feel a sense of uneasiness about wearing a prosthetic. “I used to scream at the top of my lungs when I could come in,” Mayta shared.
Beyond her childhood cancer diagnosis, Mayta wants to be known as someone who has a great sense of humor and enjoys expressing herself through art in any form. Since childhood, Mayta found comfort and freedom through music. Growing up surrounded by a family of talented musicians, Mayta felt encouraged and inspired to find her own voice and to not let her insecurities or inner monologue stop her from chasing her dreams.
Music quickly became her favorite way to express herself and feel deeply. When she was younger, she sang professionally for local community events and made it to the third round of “American Idol”—an accomplishment she is immensely proud of.
“I didn’t actually consider myself a musician until later in my teen years. My family didn’t know I could sing until I got into high school and joined the choir.”
‘One Eyed and Wonderful’
Today, Mayta runs an empowering Instagram page, One Eyed and Wonderful, where she posts encouraging messages and shares stories from men and women who have either lost an eye or have been survivors of childhood cancer.
“Being able to empower other people in my same situation brings me so much joy, it’s immeasurable.”
Mayta’s goal for the page is to create a sense of empowerment and awareness in the community, especially for those who feel they have to hide their prosthetic because of the fear of being bullied or treated differently.
“One Eyed and Wonderful is a space where people can come together and be open and honest. It’s a safe place for us to all share our stories and feel like we are part of a community of people who have been through similar situations.”
When Mayta first created the page, she knew there were many people like her who wanted to navigate their journey and benefit from the community. Whether it was someone who had lost an eye, or the parents of a child worried about the challenges their child may face— Mayta knew she had a calling to create a platform where people could ask questions and not feel alone.
Since creating the page, Mayta has received countless messages from people in various countries thanking her for creating a space where they can share their stories.
“I get messages almost daily from people who needed the community that this page has created. One of my favorite things that this page has produced is confidence.”
Mayta is happy to know that her platform has helped several individuals regain their confidence and feel less alone. Mayta shares the story of a woman she was recently in contact with, who mentioned that she never felt confident enough to share a full picture of herself on her Instagram page because she was embarrassed of how her eye made her look. But after following Mayta’s Instagram page, the woman felt more encouraged to share her story and post pictures of herself without her prosthetic. That healing exchange made Mayta feel immensely proud of her platform, and using her voice to inspire others to come forward, too.
“Eventually she had the confidence to post a picture of her smiling this big beautiful smile without her prosthetic in—a woman who had never been able to show her face. Always hiding behind her hair had come as far to make a post putting everything out in the open. This is just one way it’s helped one person.”
Practicing Mindfulness and Self-Love
Mayta shares that childhood cancer can manifest at such a young age, and that some survivors have no recollection of hospital visits, such as herself. Often, it’ll be the parents who will remember and internalize and carry on the traumatic memories of their child going through treatment for the rest of their lives, she shared. Mayta says she wishes more people would try to be more aware of people’s feelings: “We are all at different stages of healing and we are all affected differently by people’s words.”
There are still days when Mayta goes through a whirlwind of emotions and insecurities.
“Everyone has things they are self-conscious of. I try my hardest anytime I feel down about myself to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. I’ve had people over the years that have hurt me with things that they have said. But when you love yourself, and you give yourself so much positive reinforcement and you tell yourself you are worth it, then it’s amazing how the words and opinions of other become irrelevant because you know your worth and your cup is so overflowing with self love that that one drop of negativity doesn’t make a dent.”
-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni