Monday, January 16, 2006

Melancholy Monday: Skin Deep

A few months ago I was introduced to a 15 year old young woman, whose oncologist had requested that I visit her to address issues that she was having dealing with her hair loss following her first round of chemotherapy.

Addressing the issue of hair loss with younger children is oftentimes as simple as explaining to them why their hair falls out, and introducing hats, scarves, and helping them write letters to their classmates and friends to explain that they would look different when they returned to school. I had one child who used to love having his head painted, as any other child would enjoy having sports logos and animal faces painted on their cheeks at carnivals.

However, the subject is far more delicate when the patient is an older child or teenager whose self image is inherently dictated by that of their peers, and with any deviation from the norm being viewed as essentially devastating. When a 1 5 year old girl loses her hair, it’s difficult to convince her that hats or even wigs are acceptable bandaids. It’s amazing how hair loss can be more devastating to a young woman than the diagnosis that caused it. The pain that they experience from feeling ugly, from feeling different from their peers is viewed in their eyes as the greater tragedy.

This mentality is so frustrating, and yet understandable when one considers the society in which we live, and the emphasis that is placed on molding oneself in an effort to look like everyone else. In a society where women pay to have indicators of their ethnicities smoothed out and cut away, where women are constantly looking at their reflection only to notice the things that they’d love to change. The chin that could be tighter, the acne scars and sun spots that could be lightened, the lips that could be fuller as to create an exquisite pouty expression, the lines that could be injected with fat so as to create an illusion of youth.

But what image is the ideal and who creates that ideal? What is the picture that exemplifies the beauty that all of us try to attain? Is it attainable, or is it so elusive in its nature that with each surgical enhancement, each waxing, each make up application, we become less and less satisfied with our own reflections?

For who among us has not at some point in time succumbed to the propaganda, looked in the mirror and felt ourselves to be wanting? Wanting because our skin was too dark, or our noses too wide, or our hips too large, or because our hair wouldn’t grow and never blew in the wind, or just because we never seemed to measure up… wanting. Yeah, that sums up what happens to women in this country when it comes to the beauty thing. ‘Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?’ Most of the time when the question is raised, the answer isn’t you. In fact, most women rarely (as in almost never) look in a mirror and are satisfied with what they see. You are either too short or too tall, too fat or too thin. Your eyes aren’t the shape, size or color that is considered beautiful. Your hair doesn’t blow in the wind or drape on your shoulder, or fluff out on the pillow. You have too much butt or too little. You worry because you have skinny legs or thunder thighs, 32 A’s or 36 DD’s. You worry above gravity sending nipples downward, about time and wrinkles, stretch marks and cellulite... And for beauty’s sake millions of women in this country today walk around with silicone time-bomb breast implants. Women are made to feel insecure because their breasts are too small, insecure because they were disfigured by cancer surgery.” (an excerpt from Marcia Ann Gillespie's article "Mirror Mirror")

My 15 year old patient went back to school following her treatment, where she was relentlessly taunted by her peers because of her hair, which was about an inch long by the time she returned to school. Her classmates called her a dyke.

A young woman who should feel empowered by her ability to survive instead feels like an outcast in her own skin because of society’s preconceived definitions of beauty. Her mother recommended that she try wearing a wig, and my patient showed up to her appointment at the hospital last week wearing a wig that required her mother to take out a loan from a friend to purchase. All of this so that strangers wouldn’t stop and stare at her when she was in the mall, and then franticly pretend as if they weren’t when she returned their gaze, all of this so she wouldn’t deviate too far from the image of what we as Americans, and as people consider beautiful, so that she would fit neatly into the conventional albeit undefinable ideal of beauty.