First Hide All the Mirrors: Chronic Illness & Appearance



I am vain. Generally I like how I look. Not beautiful, I am grateful to my mother (who was beautiful) for giving me a decent face. That face is now quite puffy and I can no longer fit into much of my wardrobe. I waver between extreme self-consciousness and forgetting about it until I look in a mirror or worse see a photo or video of my puffed-out, hollow-eyed self. The longer I live with the puffy face and body the more it’s become the new normal.¬†Sometimes that just depresses me.¬†Sometimes that helps with acceptance.

Illness and its treatment can alter your appearance until we don’t recognize who that person in the mirror is any more. It can make you gain or lose too much weight, drain your complexion, cause dark circles under your eyes, make your hair thin out or fall out completely… We feel we look old before our time. Make-up is a girl’s best friend but you can’t hide everything under concealer and blush. All of it can do a number on our self-esteem because we are attached to how we look. That’s not being vain, that’s being human!

What helps with acceptance? A huge thing for me is how kind and supportive people are. Family, friends and clients let me know the change in my appearance doesn’t matter to them. In the last few months I have heard several versions of “I know you are going through a hard time, I see it, but you are still beautiful.” Even when I am not in the mood to believe it, I feel their sincerity, the kindness. Allowing it to sink in makes me feel all warm and good inside.

How do you handle the changes in your appearance as a result of illness or treatment? Please share your wisdom or frustration! It’s all good!

Side bar!  A friend who knows how my puffy face makes me feel bad told me about Ashley Judd. She went through some very public criticism for her puffy face, the result of having to take steroids for an illness! She is very articulate about how the change in appearance can be criticized by society and how cruel that is towards all women!

2 comments


  • Very interesting and provocative, Dr.A. Thanks for including this Ashley Judd video here.

    A close friend is slowly recovering from several months with a Bell’s Palsy diagnosis (in which half of her face drooped and sagged alarmingly, affecting her speech, her smile, her eye, but most of all her sense of self). She felt extremely self-conscious about her odd appearance, and started to limit her social life (the exception was going out to the movies in the evenings!)

    For women especially, who are socialized to be focused on appearance from early childhood, any medical condition that affects our face (why oh why couldn’t this be in the ELBOW?!) can feel disturbingly life-altering.

    2012/06/04
    • Carolyn, I feel so much for your friend and understand completely. It isn’t right that we have to think twice before accepting an invitation to a party or just meeting friends for a coffee. I feel apologetic (“Sorry for my appearance, I usually don’t look like this.”) and then angry for feeling like I have to apologize. It’s so complicated in part because our society puts so much pressure on women regarding our appearance, in part because our appearance is part of our identity in a healthy way and in part because of the connection with loss and mortality it all implies. I tend to think we are way too hard on ourselves and see too much of what others don’t, droopy or puffy face, and not enough of what others do, radiant eyes, a sharp mind, a lovely voice.

      2012/06/04

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