IT HAPPENED TO ME: Cancer Made Me Ugly, And I Couldn't Be Happier About It
If you saw me out shopping on, say, Christmas Eve, 2012, you’d have spotted a petite girl with long brown hair, thick eyelashes and probably a chipping manicure. In all respects, the girl you’d see would be anonymous – just another white girl in leggings and an infinity scarf trying to find the right last-minute gift for her dad.
But if you met me three months later, say, while I was out walking the dog, you’d encounter a girl who looked quite a bit different. She’d be in a baggy top, covering up a bandaged chest. She’d be wearing a beanie. She’d have a weird titanium button protruding from just below her collarbone. But that’s not why you’d do a double-take. You’d do a double-take because she wouldn’t have any eyebrows.
It’s not that I was beautiful before I got sick. But I was, at least, unremarkable. I looked a way that allowed me to move through the world easily, without comment, with the tacit approval of strangers because I looked the way we expect 25-year-old girls to look: harmless, thin, feminine, ornamental, pretty enough.
But then I got breast cancer, and I lost my hair, my boobs, and the person I’d seen in the mirror for the last two decades – the person who had gotten so good at being the right kind of girl.
When I was standing in the bathroom a week after my first chemotherapy infusion, watching my eyebrow hairs drift down into the sink like tiny, spiky autumn leaves shedding from my apparently deciduous forehead, I just kept thinking, “Oh, shit.”
When my long curls fell out, first in strands and then in clumps, I panicked again: “I can’t look like this!”
When I woke up from the surgery that removed my breasts and replaced them with saline bags, leaving me a scarred, disproportioned mess with four Jackson-Pratt drains snaking through my body and stitched into my bruised ribcage, I looked down at what was, I guess, the form of a girl – and asked myself, “Am I ever going to look right again?”
For 25 years, I’d been perfecting the art of looking like the girl magazines wanted me to look like. What kind of girl was I now?
Without my hair, my eyebrows, my breasts, my beauty, I felt exposed in a way I’d never felt before – completely vulnerable, like a shaved deer in the headlights.
But there’s freedom in that vulnerability, too. Realizing that maybe, just maybe, I don’t have to give a fuck about any of it. About the curling irons and the magazine covers. About being someone else’s idea of pretty.
My treatment ended in June, and slowly my hair began to grow back in. A few weeks after I started going without wigs, sporting a buzz cut, I was relaxing in a coffee shop with my headphones in, absorbed in a book, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up, and a young man was standing behind me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I just wanted you to know that I think you could be so much prettier if you grew your hair out.”
For a good 30 seconds, I just stared at him. I wanted to grind up and spit out the perfect witty comeback but I felt my jaw go slack and my tongue go impotent with shock. Who was this guy? I’d never seen him in my life. By simply existing as a woman in the same region where he was drinking coffee and being a massive douchebag, he thought he had the right to offer his opinion on my appearance.
What’s worse, his earnest smile proved that he truly thought that by suggesting such an outrageous thing, he was doing me a favor – helping me avoid a lifetime of ugliness and undesirability. Helping me to be, once again, the girl the magazines told me I should be.
“Thanks,” I finally stammered, weirdly, because his rude comment deserved anything but gratitude. Then, summoning some more of that deep-down-not-giving-a-fuck-itude, I added, “But I had cancer and all my hair fell out so this is what I’m working with now. So deal with it, and leave me alone.”
And suddenly, there I was, being an ugly girl in public. Holy shit, what a rush.
It was like I tapped into this deep internal reservoir of confidence and comfort in my womanhood and worth, no matter how I looked. I had lowered a small bucket into this well of identity I didn’t even know I had, and brought up something better than beauty.
I felt like a snake sloughing off the scaly skin of impossible expectations I’d spent a lifetime trying to uphold. I felt the pressure of having flawless skin, a perfect coif, not a single eyebrow hair out of place lifting off my shoulders. Here I was. Bein’ unapologetically ugly to this dude. And it was glorious.
Certainly, I’d been deeply unattractive in public before. I’d made many a hungover morning trip to the bodega in sweats and sunglasses, last night’s mascara smeared across my undereye circles, but my previous ugly ventures into the world were always tinged by apology – Sorry I look like this, I’ll keep my head down, just please, give me all of the Gatorade before I vomit on your floor. This time, I had my shaved head held high. The protruding circle and thick scar of my PowerPort peeked out next to the hollow of my neck. No excuses. No apologies. No shame.
The more I existed as an unconventional-looking person in the world, the more I realized that all the time I’d spent trying to be the magazine girl was a pointless exercise in futility.
It’s not that I think I shouldn’t be able to doll up and look as conventionally amazing as I can when I want to. But I should be allowed to feel beautiful all the time, not just when I look “the right way,” not just when I’m performing femininity the way all the coffee shop douchebags of the world expect me to. When I think of all the times I didn’t order what I really wanted on a date because I was afraid of looking like a pig, all the times I put my hand over my face when a friend snapped a picture because my makeup wasn’t quite right, all the times I felt like bursting into tears in the Nordstrom dressing room, I just want to uglify myself to the Nth degree, venture out into the universe and remind myself that my worth is about more than my hair, my breasts, my mascara.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to have my eyebrows back. It’s certainly easier to look “normal” than it is to look sick, or weird, or different, or unpretty. But damn, unpretty can be powerful.