“I like you: pretty, made up, well dressed … then you don’t look so bad!”: This is one of the comments that many of mine cancer patients or suffering from other important pathologies they have felt addressed, and which arouses in them reactions of anger, indignation and dejection. They hear it from acquaintances, friends, strangers; unfortunately, some have happened to hear this from doctors of the commission for the recognition of disability. As if taking care of one’s appearance were incompatible with a condition of physical or mental suffering, or as if having a well-groomed and perhaps attractive appearance was certainly an indication of the absence of serious problems to deal with.
That of external appearance and aesthetics is a question that interests cancer patients for several reasons, but the messages that come to them from outside are contradictory: on the one hand they are encouraged to “not let go”, to find comfort and relief even in small gestures of self-care, on the other they may be told that it is nonsense, that they should rather worry about health, up to the mockery of to hear others even question the seriousness of their illness, if any “Too beautiful to be really sick”. A suspicion that hurts, the more that cured aspect is the result of an effort or represents the way in which painful thoughts and emotions are kept at bay. It may also happen that you are told “You must not wear a wig, you must have the courage to show yourself how you are, because there is nothing to be ashamed of, and then you are beautiful all the same”, a message that in itself could also be shared, but in the current reality of the culture in which we live it ends up being hypocritical. Furthermore, in this way, a woman in conditions of greater vulnerability is expected to have the strength to escape and oppose social pressures in terms of beauty and physical appearance, pressures that most women normally find it hard to counter.
What is behind the cured appearance of a woman suffering from cancer or other important pathologies?
Sometimes there is just nothing special: he took care of his appearance before his illness and continues to do so afterwards, to do it during the therapies, to do it while living with a metastatic disease. He normally carries on what he has always done, a habit, a routine.
In other cases, the need to take care of one’s appearance emerges instead on the occasion of the illness. This can happen because the disease or the treatments cause more or less significant physical changes. Seeing oneself mutilated in one or both breasts, or bald, has an important emotional impact and for some women traumatic, because it represents a sudden break in the body image and because in the culture in which we live, breasts and hair are considered central elements to define beauty. and sensuality. Getting a wig, studying a hairstyle that hides a thinning, putting on make-up in a way that disguises the loss of eyelashes and eyebrows can be the way to continue recognizing yourself in the mirror. Even those who have never done it before, can decide to put on a lipstick to shift attention to the mouth, or to use accessories such as earrings and necklaces, or to use clothing colors to reconstitute a new body image as much as possible corresponding to self.
Having a nice look can answer the need to give others a certain self-image: not to be seen as a sick person, to be treated as always, not to arouse pity. It can be a way to to protect the others, as happens to mothers who do not want to worry a small child, do not want him to see signs of suffering, they try to show that they are well and that everything is going normally. It can be a way to keep at bay the fear of no longer being desirable in the eyes of a partner and of being rejected, like the lady who even goes to sleep wearing make-up and with a wig, enduring all the discomfort, for fear that the husband next to her will find her unpleasant and less attractive.
For some women it is a big effort to look after their appearance while facing a major illness, but they do it on purpose or even stubbornly because for them it is like hold on to normalityor it is a way to see and feel less sick.
For some women it can represent a challenge illness or a challenge to oneself. I have in mind a girl who, on every outing, always wears flashy high-heeled shoes on which she limps conspicuously. An enormous effort that can be clearly perceived even from the outside and that makes us think “But why persist in suffering like this?”, And which instead is contrasted by her extremely proud gaze, because for her walking on heels is the sign of her victory, the demonstration that the doctors who had pronounced “You will not walk after the surgery” had not taken into account his tenacity.
Not all women react the same way, some decide to show and not to disguise the physical signs of the disease, interventions or pharmacological treatments, and even this choice may depend on different reasons: because they do not consider these aspects of themselves important, because they do not experience them as a problem, because they prioritize other things, because they are too tired to even take care of this, because they consciously wish to challenge stereotypes about female beauty, because they claim the right to be accepted / appreciated / loved even as they are, without hair, or with a flat chest, either with more comfortable clothing, or with a less well-groomed appearance than usual. Behind every choice you can find very different reasons and meanings. Every woman should ideally feel free to act in the way that most relieves her and that most contributes to facilitating adaptation to the disease. An attitude based on delicacy on the part of others also on these issues represents a piece that makes the path easier.
Dr. Lucia Montesi Psychologist Psychotherapist Consultancy
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Studies in Piane di Camerata Picena (AN) e
Montecosaro Scalo (MC)
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