Reimagining Beauty in the Face of Illness

By Tiphaine Mercier

Tiphaine talks to her grandmother, Malou, about her raw experience of losing her hair as a result of chemotherapy.

 

There are days when you look in the mirror and nothing feels right. You have bags or dark circles under your eyes and your skin is terrible, but the worst thing about your image is your hair. You would like to cut it, even shave your head but your hair is too precious to cut it all off. Unfortunately, every year, more than seven million women have no choice but to shave their head due to cancer treatment. This is the story of Malou, 67 years old, a grandmother of two little girls and married for 50 years.


Malou is an active grandmother, who plays sports every week and eats healthily. But on January 30th, 2016, her doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. Soon after the diagnosis, Malou started chemotherapy sessions, not knowing what to expect, but the doctors informed her that she will lose her hair little by little. Having grown up in the 60s and 70s, Malou always had short hair. At the time, short hair was in fashion and she never really cared much about it. She was never interested in letting it grow or having long hair like you see in all the magazines. “I always had short hair, like boys, but the day I came to make an appointment at the hairdresser’s to shave my head, I was terrified, petrified… I felt empty. I didn’t want to go out with my husband or my friends. The very idea of having to see myself without any hair made me nervous. I was ashamed and I wanted to be alone in order to come to terms with the way I look.” She explains that she felt overcome with a sense of shame because she thought that everyone would know that the cause of her hair loss was cancer.


Women have hair – that is the norm. In magazines, models all have hair and you rarely meet a woman on
the street with a shaved head. People assume that there must be a reason for a woman to have their head shaved, dismissing the possibility that this could be done simply because she prefers it that way. “People expect to be given a valid reason when they ask us ‘why are we bald?’”

 

“When I left the hairdresser’s, I thought that everyone was looking at me, judging. I felt naked. I never even showed my bald head to my family except to my husband.” During her 6 months of chemotherapy, Malou joined an association for women with breast cancer. Every Tuesday, they sit themselves around a table in support of each other. “It’s thanks to these meetings with these women that I understood a lot about our relationship with hair. I realised that the beauty of a woman is not through her hair but through her soul. Hair is like an accessory and femininity is not just about a woman’s hair.” Malou explains that these women helped her to regain self-confidence, that the beauty of hair is only subjective and that people don’t need to follow fashion or worry about people’s judgment as long as they accept and feel good about themselves – that’s the most important thing. “Shaving my head was a test in my life, I felt destroyed both mentally and physically. It’s like the cancer was taking away a part of me. Thanks to the help of this association and my family, I realised that beauty did not depend on my hair, but in what a person represents. I accepted myself over time, I was still in chemotherapy but I felt less oppressed because I knew I was at peace with myself. When my hair started to grow back, it’s as if I
began a new life.”


Since her recovery, Malou has been trying to live life to the fullest. She travels more in order to visit her family members living overseas. Throughout her illness, she found it impossible to remove her wig as she was afraid that people would categorize her as being ill. Nowadays, she lives life one day at a time, no longer afraid of being seen without hair. Cancer has made her realise how precious life is; to be able to walk, see and be in good health. Although Malou has regained her strength and her hair has begun to grow back, she still, and will always, believe that a woman’s beauty is not determined by this part of the human body.

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