There have been a few times in my life when I have liked and appreciated my own appearance, and this is one of them.
I’m starting to conclude that one aspect of happiness is arriving at a basic contentment with one’s physical body and face. This means not only feeling well but also feeling well about how one looks.
This emphatically does not mean attaining to any external standard of beauty.
We know from surveys that most women are self-critical about their appearance, including women who are conventionally beautiful. I suspect that dissatisfaction with appearance is at least as prevalent, maybe even more so, among those who look good by society’s standards.
One of the biggest fears involved in the cancer experience is about what one will look like during treatment and afterward. Of course, there’s the fear that one might die, one might go through a lot of pain, one might feel wretched. And: oh my God, what am I going to look like? And, how am I going to survive the feelings that come up about what I look like?
Cancer strikes people of all ages, and people of all ages care about their appearance. When cancer strikes at middle age, it hits buttons about a process of changing appearance that is already underway. Caring about this can be dismissed as being superficial. I don’t think so. I think it’s fundamentally social and emotionally wholesome to want to “look good,” in our presentation of self, whatever that happens to mean to each of us uniquely.
Before I got my cancer diagnosis, I was not thrilled with my appearance. It seemed I was always in a battle of the bulge, and I had “issues” with my hair. On purpose, I had had long brown hair since childhood. Like most women my age, I was addicted to coloring it to ward off the gray. But I was regretting that choice, wishing I’d let the gray come in naturally. To go silver after years of hair dye, I would have had to look like a skunk for some period of time, and I wasn’t ready to do that.
When a cancer diagnosis strikes, one’s former appearance may have to be sacrificed.
For most women, depending on the type of breast cancer and whether there’s a known genetic component to it, a mastectomy will not increase one’s chances of survival. If possible, a preferred approach is called “breast conservation surgery.” The word “lumpectomy” often understates what is actually done. Surgeons don’t just take out a little “lump.” They may take out a significant part of a breast, leaving one lopsided. I was fortunate that mine came out just barely mismatched post-surgery. It is, nevertheless, a major blow to any woman to lose part or all of one or both breasts. It is, effectively, an amputation.
While I was preparing for surgery and then chemotherapy, I was treated to a host of unwelcome comments, mostly having to do with appearances. The gist of the commentaries was that I had “no right” to be worrying about my appearance, that it simply didn’t matter that I was going to lose my beautiful long hair and that my breasts would never again be matched. When I told people that losing my hair was one of the worst experiences of my life, many tried to argue me out of this, as if they would determine what was and was not an effing nightmare, for me.
From the many unwelcome comments, I noticed a nasty little pattern. It may make some of you readers uncomfortable to read this.
Comments about how I had “no right” to lament the toll on my appearance came from an eventually predictable group. These were middle-aged women whose own appearances had seen better days. Comments that “losing a little breast tissue” was “no big deal” came from flat-chested women, and comments that I had “no right” to worry about my hair came from women whose own hair was a sad mess. Women who are conventionally good looking were way more sympathetic about what I was going through.
Then there were innumerable comments, especially from the not-pretty women, about what I “should” do with my own damn hair once it grew back. Under normal social etiquette, it is rude to give unsolicited advice about someone else’s appearance. As a cancer patient and survivor, I’ve been surprised at how many people have felt they have license to comment.
This is particularly harsh when one has not yet re-gained self-satisfaction about one’s looks. I am sympathetic to those who, years after treatment, are still struggling to look good and to feel that they look good.
I trusted that my hair would grow back thick and wavy in the natural silver shades I’d been covering up, and that it would be long again before too long. What I did not expect was how beautiful my hair would appear – to me. And how much I would enjoy that.
One acquaintance, middle-aged and dutifully dyed and coiffed, asked me recently, with a kind of disapproving tone: “Just how long are you going to let it grow?” “Probably down to my waist,” I said, partly true and partly to irk her. “Older” women aren’t “supposed” to let their hair grow long and wild and gray. As if I care what I’m “supposed” to do. Now that my hair is long again, I feel normal.
I’m also no longer struggling with weight. I’m content with the way my body is at 56. It’s getting stronger and more toned by the weeks and months as I do a lot of exercise, especially pilates.
People I know who run into me on the street tell me I look fantastic. I find this amusing since I’ve always been about brains, not beauty. The fact that I feel fantastic and that I now like my own appearance may have something to do with looking good to others.
We’re all given a set of genetic traits that make us more or less in conformance with shifting societal views of beauty. In my 20s, a doctor told me to get used to the fact that I’d never be a supermodel, and I did. Looking good is largely about accepting what we’ve been given by genetics and life’s travails, and then making choices to work with and present our body, face and hair in a way that reflects our inner nature.
Looking good is very subjective from the outside in. From the inside, it’s about deciding that what one has received, and what one is charged with taking care of, is something very worthy of appreciation.