You were chosen to walk through fire.
— Pablo Neruda
Right now I find myself in the midst of a blazing fire, bathing in the heat of the flames, half way through a turbulent battle with cancer that is completely reshaping my mind, my perspective, my entire understanding of life and what is actually important. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a struggle to rise up and fight this battle every day. Yet despite these struggles, despite the obstacles I am facing, I find myself so much more alive in every present moment, so much more awake. I feel as though there is an awareness that comes from enduring suffering that cannot be accessed without walking through fire. As Dr Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” Despite this, I still find myself in a state of shock every morning, upon the sight of my reflection in the mirror. And as I wrap the headscarf over my naked head, I have the same thought over and over again. “I wish I still had my hair”. Why? Because if I still had hair, life would be a lot easier. It would mean I still looked the same as I always did. It would mean nobody would have to know the flames that leap up around me, the fire I am fighting everyday.
You see, I have always been pretty. You might be thinking, “Well, she’s vain.” But I’m not. This statement genuinely does not extend from any pretext of self-adoration. In fact, self-love is something I have always battled with. Growing up, I never felt like I was good enough. I wanted to be perfect and always fell short. But this is what society convinces little girls and boys. We live in a world ruled by capitalist tyranny, advertisers intent on endorsing the idea that perfection is attainable if you just buy this or that. If I just dye my hair or lose weight, I too can be flawless. But what are flaws anyway? Theoretically, none of us are flawed because there is no such thing as the perfect person. Yet, these distorted and imprisoning ideals of westernized beauty convince us otherwise. And so for years I focused on what I deemed were imperfections. This sense of unworthiness shrouded my existence, my daily interactions, relationships with myself and with others. I had so much going for me but could only see what was lacking.
However, underneath these petty insecurities lay the underlying knowledge that I was in fact attractive. That I safely conformed to society’s limited definition of beauty. Looking back, I knew somewhere underneath a cloudy lack of self-confidence, that I was attractive. And the truth is, I secretly enjoyed the attention my looks brought me. Even being catcalled by men on the street stroked my fragile ego. I reveled in this perverse attention, which proved in a twisted kind of way that I was worthy and attractive. I valued their lust. I unashamedly locked eyes with men on the street or in clubs or bars and found I gained a sense of self-acceptance from their lustful gazes, using my looks to get drinks, to make myself feel better, to boost my ego. As long as other people found me attractive, I was safe.
I write about this now because my ego is undergoing the biggest dismantling of my 23 years. My slim frame, white skin and blonde hair have always ticked the right boxes. I was never gawked at in the street for the wrong reasons. I never really had to struggle to be accepted. I see now that being an attractive person in this world is easy. There’s been actual studies conducted proving that people perceived as better looking get hired more often, make more money and are promoted faster than those who are not as genetically gifted. When you conform to a certain standard of beauty, the privileges come knocking.
Losing my hair has completely dismantled the safety net that was once my reflection. For the first time, by society’s standards, I am no longer conventionally attractive. And what has this taught me? I now see how warped and cruel this bullshit notion of commodified beauty really is. I feel as though I have joined the ranks of the non-privileged for the first time. The non – white, the “non – attractive”, the “unconventional”. Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming to suddenly know what it’s like to be a black woman in a white patriarchal world, or to be disabled or socially outcast because of my appearance. My point is I now personally understand what it feels like to be considered ‘different’. And it isn’t easy when you suddenly don’t fit into the cardboard box.
That being said, looking in the mirror and not always liking what I see has become the biggest teacher I have ever had. Because I now have to generate a sense of self – love from deep within myself, a self-love I never had before. I cannot just blend in. I cannot rely on men in the street, or in the bars or clubs to make me feel beautiful. I cannot rely on the stares or looks of other women to boost my ego. Feeling beautiful is now a personal task. It is entirely up to me. If I don’t love myself, how can anyone else? If I don’t consciously look in the mirror and tell myself, out loud, every day, you are fucking beautiful, nobody else will. It is up to me to love myself. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most externally beautiful person in the world, if you don’t love yourself inside how can anyone else? You decide how the world treats you by how much you value yourself. You determine your worth. So when I wake up and this thought comes to me, wishing I looked the same as before, I take a deep breath and remind myself that the loss of my hair is the greatest gift I could have ever received.
Because sometimes we need to lose in life, in order to gain.
I had to lose my hair in order to gain a sense of self – love I never possessed before. The person I am going to be, when all this is over, will be indestructible. For if I can love myself now, in the depths of the fire, then I can love myself for the rest of my life.