A couple of years ago, I had an encounter in the women’s change room of our local pool that was particularly embarrassing. By embarrassing, I mean a top-of-the-line face-palm cringe fest where I seriously hoped the ground beneath my feet would instantaneously open up and suck me into a vortex.
This particular disaster unfolded while I was busy trying to clothe two of my three children after a swim. It involved a big, busty naked lady and my then four year-old son.
Most kids are pretty skilled in speaking their minds freely, aren’t they! My son is particularly adept at it, often saying anything and everything that is on his mind, as soon as he thinks it, in a rather loud voice. On this particular day, as I was drying him off, he was busy ogling the entire change-room in great detail, examining each of the various shaped women sharing it with us. I was trying to hurry, knowing fully well that it was only a matter of time before he shared one of his little observations with the group. I was spot on.
After a time, he started tapping my shoulder quite urgently.
“Just hang on a sec Etty…we’ll talk in a bit. Get your pants on.”
“No, Mum…I need to tell you something. Mum…Mum…MUM!”
I set about deflecting and distracting with every ounce of my being. I’ve never worked so hard to keep talking in all my life. Unfortunately, I did have to take a breath at some point, and it was in that split second that my darling child decided to query why the woman next to us ‘had bigger breasters” than my (as he put it) “baby breasters”.
*Insert massive sigh of relief here*
At this point, I thought I had got off lightly! I proceeded to don my ‘perfect parent’ hat and give a great spiel about how people come in different shapes and sizes. It truly was gold star worthy, folks. However, while basking smugly in the wake of my triumph, and high-fiving myself for my expert deflection skills and overall parenting win, things went a little awry. Just as the change-room got extra quiet, my son decided to add, “Mum, I know why that lady’s breasters are big…”
“Because she’s FAT and OLD.”
Triumph well and truly over! It was suddenly time for an apologetic half cringe-smile and a hasty exit with my tail between my legs; oblivious children in tow.
These days, I find myself playing a part in similar scenarios on a regular basis, the one difference being that, as a bald-headed woman, I’ve suddenly switched sides. It’s made for an interesting change in my thinking.
After shaving my head a few weeks ago, I wanted to test my resolve by going out sans headscarf. Let me tell you, that on a Summery day, those things are really hot. Wigs are even worse! But the decision to do so was more than just an issue of comfort. Embracing the bald look in public has a lot to do with trying to accept the new me, and bravely acknowledge this point in my life.
I think a lot of the time, the expectation is to conceal, rather than display the ugly realities of things like cancer. The truth makes people feel uncomfortable. It makes situations awkward, and forces us all to confront the unbearable truths we work so hard to suppress:
Life is a wonderful thing. I know there are all sorts of horrible things out there, they just won’t ever happen to me!
Over the years, I’ll ashamedly admit to unintentionally recoiling in the face of physical disability, illness and mental affliction. I was embarrassed, I didn’t know where to look, my engagement with it was clumsy at best. I’m not proud of this, and I’m hopeful that with my newfound experience of being something of the ‘other’, that perhaps I can help elicit a small change within myself and my little part of the world.
Braving the bald at times has meant I encounter a barrage of people’s stares, a whole host of embarrassed second and third glances, and many, many uncomfortable reactions. It has meant seeing constant looks of sympathy in strangers’ eyes, ferrying children’s comments and questions while their parents wince with embarrassment, and having to divulge details about my illness when I would much rather go incognito.
It’s hard and sometimes I can’t face it. But on the days where I am feeling brave, I put on a slightly thicker suit of skin and try to be comfortable and confident just as I am. Cancer patients, myself included, are constantly told to be strong and positive and focus on the future. I do subscribe to this idea as a way of getting through the challenges of treatment, but it’s equally important for me to acknowledge each struggle and not be ashamed of my current bald self.
So let your children ask questions! Try not to herd them away at the prospect of embarrassment. Let them ask why I have no hair, or why I am dressed like a pirate, and embrace the opportunity to talk honestly and openly about difference. Although my situation is very different, the formidable Stella Young summed up my sentiment perfectly, here: “Your kids are going to stare. And that’s perfectly OK…Kids are interested in anything that’s different to the norm. And the thing is, if you tell them not to stare, or discourage them from asking questions because you think it might upset us, you’re teaching them that looking different is something to be ashamed of. It’s not.”