I have never thought of myself as vain. I am not much of a clotheshorse, as my mother or mother in law will tell you. A particular coat comes to mind, when I was about 14 years old. It was black and white, hood and zipper front. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, but my mother thought it was hideous. She told me if she bought I would have to wear it, no take backs. I wore it everywhere! I wear what I like, style and fashion be damned.
I think of myself as a tomboy. I live in my jeans. I would rather be outside than inside. Getting dirty was always half the fun of anything I did, whether it was on the baseball field or in the garden. Dolls were never my thing. Never cared much for jewelry and it was a rare occasion you would find me in a pair of high heels. But here I am feeling like not only has my body betrayed me, but my sense of who I am seems to be deeply tied to some sort of feminine mystique that has me frustrated, sad and self conscious about the way I look.
Cancer has robbed me of my female identity. The first go around was twenty five years ago with a mastectomy. I have always been slender and wore form fitting clothes. Wearing something loose or baggy made me look like a starved waif. After the mastectomy, it was years of wearing maternity tops to keep clothes from touching the scars. The pain of wearing fitted clothes was unbearable. I was 39 and struggled with the loss, the treatment and recovery, coping with what I thought was a muster of grace and dignity. I was grateful for my life, but like many women, the loss of my breast was a grieving process that both surprised me and horrified me. My husband was very supportive. It was never about him. It was about me. I had never considered that my body was beautiful or even attractive for that matter and yet, now, it was difficult to reconcile this new shape as my own.
Fast forward to ovarian cancer. The mass was so great that it impacted almost every organ in my lower quadrant. The surgeon not only had to perform a hysterectomy, but removed part of the colon. I am cut open from stem to stern and although I had no illusions of wearing a bikini again, the length of the scar is such that wearing jeans is restrictive and painful. Again, I find myself robbed not only of the last of my feminine parts, but I can no longer wear any of my clothes. An identity I have had for over 50 years. I hated being in dresses or skirts. Too girly and certainly not me. Yet, I am packing all my jeans and button pants, and heading to the Goodwill.
Now most women, would be thrilled to get a new wardrobe. I see it as yet another loss to recover from and a challenge to make friends with my new body shape. My doctor recommended a book called A Memoir of A Debulked Woman by Susan Gubar. She recounts her own struggle with the radical ovarian cancer surgery and the changes her bodied endured. It is downloading to my Kindle reader as I write.
It is not that I feel alone in this process but I am surprised that vanity was never a trait I thought I possessed. Yet here I am, sometimes teary, at how unhappy I am with my "new normal", as the doctor puts it. How do I begin to reconcile the picture in my mind of who I am and what I look like, with the image in the mirror? To heck with the gray hair, I am no longer slender, but square. I am wearing dresses and soft clothes (as opposed to denim and khaki). The loss of my hair with chemo was not as big an issue despite the fact I have always had long hair, but it is coming back in thick, curly and slowly. It looks like a bush on my head. So many things that make me want to hide, especially when people tell me how great I look. Are they blind? Do they not remember? Or do they see what they want to see...a survivor. A beauty that lies so deep within that no amount of clothes or hair can mask it? So deep that even I can't see it?
So here I am, about to have my 65th birthday and feeling like I am starting all over again to "find myself". Perhaps this is a gift I need to give myself. It is okay to be vain. It is right and true to feel vulnerable and self conscious. I am woman with a tomboy attitude and hopefully a little grace and dignity left to find something in my closet that I feel good in. Who needs mirrors anyway?