Monday, 27 April 2009

Quitting image.

A few years back, I got pretty fat. Not quite to Beth Ditto levels; more on a Kirstie Alley scale. Either way, I'd chalked up a few extra pounds and it wasn't pretty. But, as far as I was concerned, it wasn't a big deal, either – I was also happy and in love and had just bought a flat with a man who was a demon in the kitchen. It wasn't until seeing a photograph of myself, however, that I realised how fat I'd become. And boy, did it give me a tearful surprise.

At the risk of this sounding like a Slim Fast commercial, I swore then that never again would I put myself through that kind of shock. (You can see the ad, can't you? Here's a cardboard cutout of Fat Me, and look at me now! I eat salads! With wine! I wear red dresses! I dance salsa with creepy men! And you can too! All of this over a sickly, sisterhood soundtrack of Shania Twain or Heather Small or somesuch. Screw the Slim Fast – that's enough to put you off food for life.) And so, keen to put my hefty days behind me, I signed up to Fat Club, learned how to photograph better and threw away the thirty-years-too-old-for-me, baggy, brown clothes I'd been wearing in the photo.

Cut to last week, AKA New Image Day. Me and my brilliant friend Tills (EVERYONE should have a Tills, by the way; I've never known such unending support from someone who wasn't contractually obliged through blood or marriage) had spent a lovely girly morning at the salon, turning my hair impossibly blonde, getting our nails done and chatting our way through everything from cancer to cats. The colourist had listened to everything I'd asked for and duly obliged, and the hairdresser had somehow managed to rid my head of its wispy chemo curls and yet still keep my hair looking the same length. Things were going well. New Image Day was looking like a success, and with everyone around me being especially lovely and complimentary about the shock of short, platinum hair that was confidently contrasting with my black gown, there was no reason to feel anything other than chuffed. Finally, I had hair I'd chosen to have.

But, as the harsh light of day and several suspicious sideways glances expertly demonstrated, the hair I'd chosen didn't suit me. I might have wanted a funky, punky, peroxide, statement 'do, but Lady Gaga I ain't. And so my poker face lasted the distance from the hairdressers to the Topshop changing room, where Tills took a few photos of my new crop on her mobile phone, and I collapsed into sobs when I saw them, just as I had when looking at a photo of myself at my fattest.

The fault was entirely my own. I had got what I'd asked for: the trendy, relevant, never-would-have-tried-it-otherwise look that would tell the world how I'd changed; how I was on top of cancer; how I was ready to take on anything that life threw at me. But what I'd asked for wasn't right. Not only did it make me realise that this wasn't, in fact, hair that I'd chosen to have (if I could choose hair, I'd have it exactly the way it was pre-Bullshit, and not have cancer force my hand into a pixie crop), but it also made me confront the fact that right now, I'm just not feeling feisty enough to carry off the look I thought I wanted. It was hair that stood out from the crowd – and, as it turns out, I don't want to stand out. It was hair that screamed confidence – and I don't have as much as I'd thought. It was hair that suggested its owner was cool, attractive, hot and edgy – and, baldness aside, I've never felt further from those things. I can talk the talk all I want, confidently proclaiming my new image to be the triumphant, cancer-beating look that's all mine, making me way cooler than the girl I was pre-Bullshit. But, having surrendered all the goods to back it up along with the hair I lost in the first place, now is categorically not the time to be cashing in on my confidence. It's the time to start slowly building it back up again.

Sobbing in a post-salon Starbucks stop with Tills and P either side of me, I kicked myself for learning nothing since the last time the three of us attempted to make the best of my hair-loss situation. Here we are again, I thought, back at my first wig-buying experience. Back then, I walked into the room expecting to skip out with something I loved as much as my original hair. And this time around, I'd expected exactly the same. Better yet, I wanted people to pass me in the street and think nothing of me. Not 'ooh, is she wearing a wig?' or 'crikey, she's young to be wearing a headscarf'. Not even 'wow, look how confidently she's carrying that crop'. Nothing. Because them thinking nothing would mean that I'm no different to anyone else. And when it comes down to it, that's the kind of normal I'm after.

My problem wasn't just in failing to realise that a girl with freckles needs something a bit warmer than bright, white hair. It was in allowing my expectations to run away with me. In my mind, I was going to walk out of that salon the new Agyness Deyn. Better than that, actually – I was going to walk out of there the New Me. I had built up New Image Day to be a defining moment in my escape from cancer's grip. The day on which I stopped being the girl with breast cancer, and started being the girl with the funky hair. The day on which I could stop hiding away, and return to the world with a bright, blonde bang. I'd even given it a name, for fuck's sake. New Image Day was going to be as significant a turning point as the day of my diagnosis or my mastectomy or my final chemo. 

When am I going to learn my lesson? Almost 11 months into my experience of The Bullshit, and I still can't get my head around the fact that I'm not in control. Cancer is in control. (There, I said it.) And no amount of new clothes or hair colourant or New Image Days can change that. The reality is that the milestones aren't the scripted occasions, but the seemingly insignificant rites of passage that you don't notice until they've passed. Washing your hair for the first time after losing it. Walking the length of your street without having to stop for a rest. Falling asleep without the help of Nytol. Catching yourself saying 'I've had cancer' instead of 'I've got cancer'. These are the things that matter. These are the things that make a difference. They're the niggling, nil-nil away draws that guarantee your safety at the end of the season. They're not pretty, they're not memorable, and they're definitely not going to make it onto Match of the Day, but they're vital nonetheless. They're the things I should have been writing about, when instead I've been more interested in the showy wonder-goals that'll make for a better highlights package. As my old man says, 'the unplanned moments are the best moments'. (And given that I always make a point of swerving New Year's Eve parties, you'd think I could have figured that out for myself.)

'Nobody talks about this part,' I whined to P and Tills over a mug of tea. 'People warn you how hard it is to get a diagnosis and go through chemo and lose your hair. Nobody ever warned me how hard it would be to get over treatment, or how long it takes to feel right after chemo, or how difficult it is to get your hair back. There isn't a leaflet for this stuff.' But how could there be? Hell, I've been writing about all this for the best part of a year and I still wouldn't know how to tell someone who'd just been diagnosed that there's so much more tricky stuff to negotiate once treatment has finished; that you're suddenly left to deal with the gravity of what's happened to you; that you've somehow got to alter all of your expectations. 

But harder than even doing those things is accepting that you've got to do them in the first place. I still feel like I'm having a tantrum about it. Yes, cancer has changed my life. But I shouldn't have to change the way I live to accommodate it. It's just not fair. I don't want to lower my expectations. I want to get excited and look forward and face my future with optimism. Right now, as it goes, there's lots of stuff I ought to be getting excited about, and I want to be able to run downhill with it guilt-free, waving my arms around in the air. I want to plan ahead. I want to feel normal. I want to stop seeing cancer when I look in the mirror. I want to take the credit for my crop. I want to turn the things that cancer's making me do into significant, fun moments that I'm in control of. I want to turn The Bullshit into something brilliant. I want to slap on a brave face and make the very best I can of every single shitty situation I've been strong-armed into. But not only does that kind of thing lead to disappointment, it's also really bloody exhausting. Particularly when you're already working so damned hard at keeping it together when all the while it feels like you might spontaneously combust.

After pouring out my heart to the third hair colourist I visited within 24 hours, he couldn't believe that I'd wanted such a drastic change of colour in the first place. 'You've always had long hair before this, yes?,' he asked in his lovely French accent. I nodded. 'Then suddenly having short hair is enough of a new image for you! You don't need crazy blonde too,' he advised, before turning my hair just a couple of shades lighter than its natural colour. And he was right. For now, at least, the short hair is a big enough life-change to get used to. (And, let's be honest, I've had more than my fair share of those already.) So I'm sorry to disappoint, but there is no New Me. But nor is there an Old Me. There's just Me. Albeit with a little less hair (and a little more tit).


Unknown said...

Well. I think the Me that is you is pretty bloody marvellous. It's always a rubbish thing to say and worse, to hear about time being a healer. But dammit, it seems true, if very, very annoying. It's a just a shame time doesn't go faster, sometimes...

You're a star, L. Mwah x

Fletcher of the Day said...

Talk about a Bad Hair Day!
Sorry to hear about your experience but I think it demonstrates one fundamental thing about you that hasn't changed: Your sense of wonder. No matter what your body, the doctors, your past year of treatment has told you, you seem to have projected a sense of optimism about certain things. you BELIEVE that things are going to get better, you BELEIVE in empowering yourself (wigs, haircolor, etc). It says something amazing about your character that you continue to smile and try to mark these occasions with celebration. The Bullshit hasn't taken that from you. And with patience and time you'll be able to RUN down your block soon (maarten went on his first bikeride saturday and didn't need a few days to recover... so your time is coming up).

Your Tilly Sounds Amazing. We certainly wouldn't make it through these times without friends like her.


Freudus said...

The rumour is you look fantastic. And New You might have been nice, but I'm pretty sure that anyone who had known Old You would have missed her terribly. (excuse the dangling participle)

Amy Huff said...

I think it was incredibly brave of you to try the wild & adventurous hair also just as brave is to admit it was not as awesome as anticipated.

Anonymous said...

Promise me you will never, ever, ever lower your expectations. Your brilliant head-on enthusiasm, combined with complete awareness of how massive the little pleasures actually are is the whole point. And know it’s not the helpful, but you actually look rather lovely at the mo. x

lynn said...

'It was hair that suggested its owner was cool, attractive, hot and edgy'

Lady gaga/'pokerherface' is not cool nor attractive nor hot nor edgy..she carries a teacup around forgodsakes!

However YOU were the brave one who went the hole hog and done the mental hairstyle (which on hindsight maybe didnt suit your pretty features)

YOU were the one who decided it doesnt suit you (instead of everyone claiming'oh its beautiful it suits you!' yack yack yack)

YOU are the one whos strong enough to keep going (along with ur angels tills and P)

YOU are the one we are all proud of for dealing with this and coming out the other side with a new tat and tit

However i, for one, am certainly looking forward to the new barnet bulletin

* note: i dream of having the spikey blonde hairdoo.. still wimp out and i havent had ma lady are one strong women..we salute u*

Sam Currie said...

Cripes Love , sounds like you've been through the mill on that one. I have also been thinking about going for the Annie Lennox, Brix Smith peroxide crop look but now I am forewarned.

My regrowth is a bit behind yours but still no idea what to do with it - drat!

Hope you are loving the new colour x

antonia said...

God I'm so sorry I wasn't there with you and Tills. Stupid Atlantic in the way again, but so good to chat yesterday. Slowly you ARE regaining control of looking and feeling your best. It's the slowly part that sucks, but it is there and it's on the increase.
I think you look so, so pretty, with the skin of a porcelain doll, beautiful features and gorgeous curves.
Please think of that and believe me anytime you feel low. It's true.
Love you and calling you tomorrow xxx

Megan said...

I've always been suspicious of that salsa weight loss advert. That woman who was supposedly the same woman from the cardboard cut-out has no trace of saggy skin. Who else yells 'photoshop!' when they see her compared to the 'cardboard' her? Xx

bill said...


I am two years on from diagnosis, and just over a year past the what to do with the new short hair thing. You will find that no matter what you do with your hair there will be people who tell you how amazing it is every time you see them. It must be to do with it just changing so fast. For a while I thought I would stick to the pixie crop but then I realised how expensive it is to get it cut so often so it's growing. Thank you for your fantastic blog. You say so much that makes me go YES, I know exactly what you mean. x