Bald and hairy legs. Not the definition of the perfect woman. More like a middle aged man. And nonetheless how I look now. Funny thing is that all this change in my appearance has only strengthened my self-esteem. It’s as though all the things that could make me insecure before seems so tiny now, that I’m much more confident. I love the baldness, my scar, my still hairy legs and every little inch on my body. Literally every inch. Because I’m alive and my body functions. And it’s mine. That is truly a gift.
But I don’t like the way women in general are told how their bodies are wrong. It’s striking how the information from the hospital is colored by this. “Chemotherapy causes hair loss and for a period in time everyone is going to need a wig” is just one example. It’s like no one reflected upon the choice of words and how that can affect women’s self-esteem – and choices for that matter. When you are bald you need to wear a wig. The devil is in the detail; it’s very clear what constitutes a real woman. It’s hair on top of your head, on your eyebrows and eyelashes. Not anywhere else. That’s the hair that is mentioned in writing and that is problematised to loose. Not that it is any surprise, but this is the one place that you would hope for professionals to be extra careful with their message. It would have been enough to stress that you can wear a wig if you feel like it. I have seen other women hit by cancer talk about body hair loss as an advantage of chemo. No need for shaving! But at the same time to mourn the loss of eyelashes.
Because their femininity lies in the second, but definitely not in the first; quite the contrary. The arbitrarity of this is wicked, some hair is good, other should be removed. I definitely respect every person’s choice to remove hair or not, but for many women hair removal is something you just have to do and if you don’t it’s embarrassing. Something to hide. Hair on a real woman is in top of the head and not on the rest of the body. You need to oblige to the requirements of woman, otherwise you stand out. And once again health care perpetuate this idea.
All together there’s a lot of talk of “womanhood”, as if it’s a well defined entity, when you are hit by breast cancer and need chemotherapy. “You are no less of a woman without breasts and hair on your head”. This is emphasised by doctors and nurses, but also by people you meet. Funny thing that we have constructed the entity “woman” in society, that is so tightly linked to breasts and long hair, that you really need to say out loud “you are no less woman” if you lose it. Because that is not what people will feel. It is not the obvious.
The “look good feel better” foundation is the epiphany of this. It states that “Clinical trials shows that many women feels greater wellbeing and strengthen their self-esteem if they get the chance to take care of their appearance during illness”. It teaches (only!) women how to style a wig, to put fake eyelashes on and draw eyebrows. It once again confirms that women are defined by their looks, that these looks are well defined and women should not deviate from this. Not even during extreme illness are they allowed to deviate from the norm. They need to take care of themselves and look good. Women are only allowed to be women if the meet these criteria.
In the article Body Image of Women with Breast Cancer After Mastectomy: A Qualitative Research it is concluded that “Most of the participants in this study stated that the breast meant femininity, beauty, and motherhood.” and furthermore that “The participants also said that they felt that half themselves was missing, as individuals and women.” Numbers from the US “breast cancer survivorship care guideline” tells that concerns about body image affect from 31% to 67% of the estimated 3.1 million survivors of breast cancer. The psychological effects on women that feel like they’ve lost their femininity can be profound and one of the ways society tries to fix it is to give them a beauty day.
I’m in a sense lucky, because at least this is not a struggle I had to deal with on top of cancer. Because to be honest, I have personally never related to the term woman. Yes I have female reproductive organs and I had two breasts, but the way society frames “a woman”; I never truly connected with that term. It’s definitely not someone good at math, that has been well confirmed all my childhood by the continuous surprise by adults when it turned out, I was just that. I continued on to study theoretical physics and almost every time I talked about this, people pointed out how odd this was for a woman. Not necessarily in a bad way, but always enough to make it clear that this was no way to be a normal woman. The times I was met with the sentence “wow, that unusual for a girl” are endless. And that does something to you. If you are constantly told that you are doing “girl” or “woman” incorrect, then you start to question your own identity.
At some point in my life I found peace in the fact that I’m a person, I’m Trine. I’m not a woman; in the sense that there are things you are suppose to be good at or certain ways you have to look to be just that. In some ways this have done my current journey so much easier. I never felt a loss of my identity because of losing my breast or losing my hair; I have rooted my identity in something else entirely. I find it amazing to have one breast in this context, because it materialises my non-binary gender identity. It’s a physical manifestation of my personality, where I don’t adhere to either gender, in the sense that the specific concepts are firmly defined with a preset of qualities, good and bad. I’m just me with my own set of qualities, good and bad. But they’re mine. And my physical appearance is in itself a protest against conforming.
No one should feel confined by the rules of society that comes with a certain set of reproductive organs. And no one should feel less of a woman because they are rid of their breasts or hair. The strict boxes of gender and their predefined set of properties risk causing limitation to every person. When saying “this is a woman” you exclude all those that does not fit the form. In some cases this happens during breast cancer and the blow is tough to handle. Sometimes it happens way earlier in life. No one should ever be told they are wrong in any way. Let’s throw away all the sneering boxes and let people be whoever they want to be.