After I was first diagnosed with breast cancer I signed up for a workshop offered at most hospitals. According to their website:
“Look Good Feel Better is Canada’s only cancer charity dedicated to empowering women to manage the effects that cancer and its treatment have on their appearance, and often on their morale”. In short it is a workshop about make-up, wigs and head gear.
All my life I have been challenged by make-up. The whole process seems like an immense variety of products combined with a complex layering system thats only goal is to build up your face to look like it did prior to application. Usually by the end of any attempt of a makeover on my part, I’m left feeling baffled and frustrated. Although it is true that the outcome of this complicated process is even toned skin and smouldering bedroom eyes, I always feel like I’m playing dress-up.
I remember getting a makeup trial done for my wedding. I opted for what could only be called a “power spray” application. I chose this method because the makeup artist assured me that unlike traditional makeup application, in order to achieve photographic perfection, it wouldn’t have to be applied in thick layers. My sister-in-law Claire had come across this artist at a Sephora makeup store. Claire had promised me that although one of her eyes had sealed shut with pinkeye because of an unclean eyeshadow brush, the results of her makeover had been very natural looking. “The only thing to keep in mind”, she carefully warned me, “do not judge the artist by her face”.
I decided to put complete faith in the advice of my sister-in-law and made an appointment. To my obvious glee the session would take place in the comfort of my own home. The door bell rang. There standing in front of me was a mid height woman who looked like she just stepped out of a 1950’s science fiction film. I carefully tried to prevent my eyes from bulging out of my head in shock. Her black hair was neatly shaped into a curved mound that ended at her shoulders in a flipped out singular curve. Her eyes were framed with giant black spider like eyelashes which oddly complimented her dark red lips. Her make-up was anything but natural. I balled my hands up into fists and determinedly sat myself down at the kitchen table to await my fate.
As it turned out Claire’s advice was sound. After an hour and a half of being power washed, sprayed, and painted; I looked in the mirror and the person who looked back was almost me. The only foreign part of my face was a loud set of false eyelashes that I had decided to try at the last minute. The lashes had brought a sense of a trollop to what would have been a fairly naturally glowing face of a bride to be. The look of recognition and approval returned to my fiancé Ian’s face once I removed the adventuresome lashes.
Armed with my previous positive make-up experience I walked into the Princess Margaret wig-shop hoping to find possibilities of the new cancer me. Standing behind the till, flanked by an array of conservative hats and Styrofoam heads, was a friendly volunteer in her eighties. She warmly waved me on to the meeting room at the back of the shop. Eight little make-up mirrors were set on eight disposable placemats around the table. The volunteer took one look at my fair skin and pulled out a box labelled medium. I looked across the table to see that an older asian woman had also been deemed medium. I decided the ignore the implications and patently smiled as a younger volunteer painstakingly removed the twenty plus products from their packaging, neatly grouping them around my mirror.
As I assessed my peers who sat around the table I began to notice that I was approximately a quarter century younger then the most youthful of the group. The woman beside me, who looked to be in her mid fifties, nervously sipped a cardboard Tim Hortons cup. In an unsure voice she addressed the room, “when does your hair fall out?” I had shaven my head days before. I confidently replied, removing my hat to expose my closely shaven head, “mine has not fallen out yet, but I’ve been told it takes around ten days”. A bald woman with a large silver scar across her head concurred and then added, “my hair had started to fall out in clumps 10 days after treatment “. The first woman looked horrified and I started to feel like this was going to be a long day.
The workshop began with a middle aged mousey looking volunteer describing the look good feel better makeup application though the aid of a well traveled flip chart. She carefully described make-up application for the hairless cancer patient all the while dolling out praise and cautions about various infections one can get from unclean applicators. A well put together volunteer in her early twenties, ignoring the flip chart steps, applied make-up to a grumpy wheel chair confined lady in her seventies. It was fascinating to watch them, there was a direct correlation between the amount of make-up applied and the woman’s mental state. The more make-up the volunteer gently added the more positive and friendly the older woman got. It was almost like the make-up had brought hope in a lonely discouraged woman. With that I began to understand the purpose of the workshop.
The second half of the workshop was led by the sexually ambiguous man who runs the hospital wigshop. You could tell just by his body language that making cancer patients feel good is a deep down passion for him. His presentation began by loudly announcing “Under no circumstance should you shave your head.” The room got very quiet. “It is very dangerous and you could be susceptible to ingrown hairs,” he finished with a tone that all but implied sudden death by ingrown hair. I could feel fourteen disapproving eyes looking my way. Inwardly I argued with him “the risk of an ingrown hair and razor burn is highly outweighed by the sense of control and mental empowerment”. Outwardly I just looked back at the other participants and shrugged my shoulders. One volunteer tried to distract the room by asking if there was anything you could do to avoid ingrown hairs. With a dramatically sullen voice he replied “no”.
The wig portion of the presentation covered in detail how to chose a wig, how care for it and the ins and outs of placing it on your head using “your forehead as an assistant”. According to Mr. Death by Ingrown Hair, the only thing that will expose your wig status to the public is improper placement. “With just a little tussle with your fingers and precise wig placement no one will ever know.” I looked across the table at the older asian women he had used as a model. She was wearing a honey blond wig and smiling ear to ear. The whole group was excitedly proclaiming how amazing she looked and how realistic her wig was. I wanted so bad to agree but, real hair doesn’t hide your scalp in the same way a wig does. Real hair does not move on mass like a wig does. Real hair doesn’t sit perfectly aligned on your head like a wig does. Real hair is always slightly imperfect and messy in a way that can’t be faked with the tussling of your fingers. Saying that, the woman’s face had glowed once the wig had been placed on her head. Just because for me, empowerment comes from shaving my head, doesn’t mean that for others it can’t come from the application of a wig.