I have a dirty secret to confess. Although I am an ardent feminist, I’ve always looked down on those women complaining about the pressure they were under, the time and money and energy required to apply enough slap and remove enough hair to leave the house without incurring the disdain of the patriarchy. “Silly twats!” I thought. I never wore make-up, my hair was wild and unkempt, I never waxed any part of my body, and I sported a fabulous, feminist bush. I’d even given up shaving my legs and my armpits, that’s how hardcore I was. (Also, I had one of those boxy showers at the time, and it’s bloody hard to shave your legs in one of them.) If these women didn’t want to do those things, why didn’t they…well…simply, not do them?
All of that was BC. Before Cancer. Last year I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Luckily, it responds very well to chemotherapy, so I got that for 5 months, and now I am fine. Hurray! But all my hair, including my glorious bush, fell out.
About a week before my hair was due to fall out, I took myself off to the hair loss specialists who provided me with a wig. She told me that for many women, hair loss was the worst thing about getting cancer. A couple of weeks later, I went to a workshop called ‘beauty for the cancer ridden’ or something, during which we were given free cupcakes and make-up tips. The beautician assured us that we would feel so much better once we had a ‘pop’ of colour on our cheeks. We were also advised to wear big, shiny earrings to detract attention away from our miserable, bald heads. Again and again it was emphasised that a positive image would make us feel better.
At the same time, friends and family were rallying around and telling me my wig was gorgeous, I looked great, I’d put on loads of weight, my eyebrows hadn’t fallen out, etc. During this time, I had a very uneasy relationship with my body and my appearance because it had changed so much that it didn’t feel like me any more. I wanted to ignore my looks, and just power the fuck through, but my attention was constantly being drawn back to it by the comments of the well-intentioned. Someone told me I looked better and better every time he saw me, at a time I was actually getting sicker and sicker from the chemo. I told him at this rate by the time I finished treatment I’d be a fucking supermodel. Sinead O’Connor was often cited as an encouraging example of bald femininity, but let me tell you, the majority of women who lose their hair through chemo look more like extras from Schindler’s List than a music video by Sinead O’Fucking Connor.
I was upset, generally and specifically, and I got increasingly angry, as is my default response to many things, including but not limited to hunger, tiredness, increases in bus fare, running out of milk, and those ads that keep popping up on YouTube.
Over the course of my illness and treatment I experienced night sweats, nausea, constipation, gas, diarrhoea, insomnia, hot flushes, steroid-induced mood swings (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), thrush, nerve pain and fatigue. My fertility was compromised. I coughed for about 3 months straight and had difficulty breathing and speaking. I went from weighing 65 kilos to 50, and back again. I had bone marrow and lymph node removed from my body with whopper needles WHILE I WAS STILL CONSCIOUS. I had to answer questions about my bowels, and eat hospital food. After my first treatment, I had to piss into a bucket so they could make sure I wasn’t retaining water. In light of all that, doesn’t it seem absurd and perverse that, as my consultant had said, for many women the worst thing was the hair loss? Really? The hair loss? The fucking hair loss? Seriously?! I was furious.
But the hair loss specialist, the beautician, and the people around me were reflecting, reacting to and reinforcing the wider reality that it is important for women and to women to look good. They told me I looked gorgeous because they assumed that that was important for me to hear. Never mind how I was feeling, how did I look?
But here is another confession: I hated being bald, and I mean I REALLY hated it. And my appearance WAS important to me. However upset I was when people said I looked great, how upset would I have been if they didn’t?
I have to take responsibility for that, for my own vanity, for my own desire to be desired, to be pretty, to flick my hair, and go on dates, and be under an admiring male gaze. I am ashamed of that, disappointed in myself. I realised that my previous refusal to engage with what I saw as unnecessary and excessive grooming was a luxury afforded to me by the fact that as a healthy 27 year old woman of average looks, height and weight, I didn’t need to do much to look all right. But when my hair fell out, I certainly wasn’t above painting eyebrows on my face or donning a synthetic wig. I never left the house without them. I didn’t always want to wear the wig. So why didn’t I…well…simply, not? Because I was afraid of people reacting to my ugliness, that’s why.
I acknowledge that it isn’t only women who agonise over their appearance, but there can be no doubt that women are still disproportionately judged by their appearance. And to put it baldly (ha!) I suffered in a very real way from living in a sexist society while being ill and undergoing chemotherapy.
This is why we need feminism: so that losing your hair ISN’T the worst part about getting cancer. Because surely we have more important things to be worrying about than how we look. I know that we have a biological imperative to procreate, so fuckability is always going to be important, but do we have to embrace it to such an extent when the glorification of female beauty does so much damage? I know I am not alone in this – in feeling that bad situations are made worse because we can’t always look pretty or even normal, and that this isn’t good enough. We shouldn’t have to. I tried and am trying to resist it in myself, but, for the good of all of us, we need to resist it in society too.