Sunday 17 May 2009

It's different for girls.

At the risk of moaning about my hair when I promised you'd heard the last of it, I'm now onto my fourth colour in three weeks. Just as I once declared myself a wig-slag, it now looks as though I'm heading into tint-slag territory, too. I'd love to tell you I'm enjoying such promiscuity, but in fact it's simply a means to an end. A way of filling the tedious weeks until such a time comes as I'm happy with my lot, hair-wise. And if extending my overdraft to get a new hair colour every time I reach can't-look-myself-in-the-mirror levels is what's needed to keep me ticking over until the next crisis of confidence, then that's what I'm going to have to do. Right now it's dark brown. Which basically means I've spent £300 turning my hair back to its natural colour. (A tip: try to avoid getting cancer in a recession. And another: the grass, it seems, isn't always greener. Though my hair might soon be if I keep mucking about with semi-permanent dyes.)

I like to think of this as the Honda school of grooming: hate something, change something. And since hating my hair so very much is becoming quite a boring pastime, at least I can make it slightly more bearable by varying the hate-levels occasionally with a new tint. But, of course, there's more to all of this than hair dye. It's a confidence issue.

I had resigned myself to the fact that The Bullshit would take away my boob, my hair, my eyebrows, my lashes. Even my hopes for a worry-free, unencumbered future and a year's worth of bra-off sex. But not my confidence – that's another thing they neglected to mention in the leaflets. Not that I ever had heaps of self esteem in the first place. (I've mostly been a lights-off kind of girl.) But all that means is that it took less for me to reach confidence ground zero. Hair-wise, I had a lot to lose. Confidence, not so much. But I can't say that's made it any easier to stomach. (Has Gok Wan ever considered a How To Look Good Bald spin-off, I wonder?)

Perhaps this feeling has been heightened because of my tentative, toe-in-the-water steps back to normal life; because I've started doing a few hours back in the office after an eleven-month hiatus; because I'm back walking the same Soho streets where even people's lunches look pretty. Suddenly, my surroundings have changed. Where for the best part of a year my 'colleagues' have been doctors, virtual social-network friends, my kitten and an impressive assortment of remote controls and pyjama bottoms, I'm now back in the company of the gorgeous girls of London's publishing world. And boy, does it give you inadequacy issues. I feel like the new girl who's moved to Tatler from Therapy Weekly – suddenly my wardrobe is 12 months out of date, my shoes are scuffed from last year's underground-platform squeezes, I'm desperately playing catch-up in the who's-wearing-what game, and I'm baffled by the high street's sudden reliance on shoulder pads. It's amazing how quickly you can forget the stuff you once stayed so diligently on top of. At this rate I'll be spending the summer wearing socks with my sandals and a knotted hankie on my head.

I wore a swimsuit for the first time since my diagnosis recently, when P and I escaped to a country hotel for the night and headed straight for the pool. And, considering this was my new boob's introduction to lycra, the experience was pleasantly non-event-ish. Until, that is, a bikini-clad blonde made her way out of the changing rooms. Up to that point, I'd not allowed my body issues to get in the way of a nice time – not the worries about whether my left tit looked particularly different to my right, the visibility of the scars on my back and under my armpit, nor whether a liberal application of fake tan had done anything to slim down the appearance of my legs. It's a hotel pool, I told myself, not a fashion show (to quote my Dad's default line whenever my pre-match hair-straightening held everyone up on a Saturday afternoon). But the moment Barbie walked into the pool area, all neon orange bathing suit and confident catwalk, I suddenly felt as self-conscious as a spotty, pre-pubescent teen in the Playboy mansion; the pressure of unspoken female competition weighing down on my exposed shoulders. (Mind you, the same woman later faked a loud, unconvincing orgasm in the hotel room next to ours, so perhaps her self-assured swagger wasn't entirely genuine.)

But whether it's because cancer's made me more conscious of my body, because I'm heading back out into the world I used to know, or simply because I've got a crap hairdo is irrelevant. Because, whatever the reason for my confidence dip, it doesn't change the fact that I'm cross with myself for allowing this stuff to bother me so much in the first place. I mean, hell – appearance issues aside – I am an empowered, intelligent, loved, successful, liberated woman with her priorities stacked up in precisely the right order. So why am I still ranking myself against other women in tube-window reflections? It's pretty fucking ridiculous, really. I'm nearly 30, for crying out loud. These things should have long since passed me by, along with cropped tops, snogging boys on park swings and crushes on Gary Barlow (okay, so one of the three still remains). In fact, sod my thirties – I've done chemo, ferfuckssake! All these minor confidence problems should be mere toe-stubbing in comparison to the far-more-important issue of breast cancer. I ought to be walking aloof in my scuffed shoes, proud to have faced something far more life-altering than a bad haircut and lived to tell the tale. 

There's every chance, of course, that you, too, tut when you look in the mirror, that you long to squeeze into last year's skinny jeans or wish you looked more like the girl sitting next to you on the bus. I can't speak for blokes, but for us girls this is pretty everyday stuff, and I'm not for a second suggesting that these issues are cancer-specific. But what I can't decide is whether The Bullshit just holds a magnifying glass to this kind of thing, or whether these are, in fact, the same old worries I had pre-cancer? (Albeit then about longer hair and a natural bust.) There's one fact I can't escape from, though: it might not be the correct or cool or even responsible thing to admit, but cancer to an image-conscious young woman is as much about the effect on your looks as it is the effect on your health. It's why you immediately think 'shit, my hair' instead of 'shit, I could die' upon getting a diagnosis.

You don't love the hair that grows back just because you've once been bald, just as you don't stop tying yourself in knots about the seemingly smaller issues just because you've had to face some altogether mightier ones. Throwing a tantrum about a broken boiler when you've had cancer is strangely comforting. Feeling miserable about the way you look isn't. It's infuriating, pathetic, depressing, energy-wasting and contrary to decades worth of feminist progression. But just as the broken-boiler episode taught me that it's possible to shed as many tears over a few hours without hot water as it is over failing to find a headscarf that suits you, getting worked up about the perfectly acceptable way you look when you've once been hairless and embarrassingly bloated is another lesson in how frustratingly impossible it is to compare your problems against each other.

'I feel like such a twat for allowing this stuff to get to me after everything I've been through,' I sobbed to my friend Ant. 'You can't be thinking like that,' she said, pulling me up with characteristically perfect precision. 'What, so I'm not allowed to talk to you about my bloke issues now just because you've had cancer? For fuck's sake, bird, if that's the deal, this could be the last conversation we ever have.' She's spot on, of course. But normal as it is to get back to worrying about things like the colour or length or style of my hair, the circumference of my ankles or whether my arms look fatter from the front or the back, it's a pretty fucking sorry state of affairs that these things do still matter to me. The important factor, let's not forget, is that the normal life I've spent months longing for has finally begun to resume. It's just really sodding disappointing to discover that, while cancer has changed so many things about me, one thing it hasn't changed is the amount of time I spend worrying about my thighs.


Anonymous said...

Lovely, lovely Maclet. So hard to know what to say, because I know you really feel like that and that is completely and utterly horrid, but I still feel the need to point out that your absolutely stunning. Does it help to know that I wish I had you skin, teeth, eyes, nails and just about every other bit? Probably not. But at least you know the only thing you'll fake in a hotel room is your tan. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll never give up snogging on swings either. Love you x

Anonymous said...

"it's a pretty fucking sorry state of affairs that these things do still matter to me"

Yeah, you, me and most other women. Certainly anyone whose mother brought them up with broadly feminist ideals but still hates the woman next to her on the tube for having great legs *and* good hair. (One or other is just about allowed, both is excessive.)

Anyway my point is, don't be so hard on yourself. Nobody expects cancer to turn a person into some kind of sage, untroubled by the trivial concerns of lesser beings. Who says you even have to come out of it a better person? Anyone who can live through what you've been through and come out of it anything less than a complete arsehole is probably exceeding expectations. Don't beat yourself up so much. Embrace your shallow side. Welcome to normality.

R said...

"you don't stop tying yourself in knots about the seemingly smaller issues just because you've had to face some altogether mightier ones."

Thanks - this is just what I needed to read right now. This, and your friend Ant's comment. I've been feeling guilty about throwing strops about rather trivial things lately while there are bigger issues affecting myself and my friends - though none as bad as The BS - it's reassuring to know that other people have these feelings too...yet again, you help me readjust my perspective on life! Thanks!


MBNAD woman said...

Lovely poignant writing, as ever.
Pop over to 65 Roses and tell her where to go shopping in London. I'm too old - I think Homebase is a treat ...

jane__w said...

Just echoing the comments above to say please don't beat yourself up about this. Firstly because after everything you've been through and the year you've had, you get a free pass to kick off about whatever you like for a bit surely (central heating is as good a reason as anything), and secondly - as you rightly point out - we all do it, and the only thing worse than thinking 'I hate my legs/hair/elbows' is thinking 'I'm a failure as a woman because I hate my legs/hair/elbows'. We all do it and it doesn't help. When you've got swishy long hair again you'll still hate it sometimes.

Sorry if this sounds like a lecture, it's not meant to.

You rock, by the way.

Unknown said...

Well, the Bullshit does Change Everything (note the caps) but this is part of finding what the new "normal" will be. And shockingly - some of it looks a lot like the old "normal."

No one gets a free pass from the everyday "normal" baggage we used to carry just because we had cancer but the upside is, now we get to worry about the old "normal" stuff again like bathing-suit-worthy bodies and thighs like cottage cheese in a carrier bag (that last one is my worry - not yours, BTW.)

Welcome back to the new "normal."

Miss Leaky said...

Er sorry, dark brown is your natural colour? I think we both know that ain't true lady!