'When I was told I had cancer using make-up became my armour, my protection'
At 30, Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe needed a mastectomy but managed to make it through a difficult year by reclaiming her vanity
There are hundreds of articles written about all the wonderful things people discover about themselves when they go through cancer treatment. Scores of people discovering their bodies can take them through marathons or their pets could save their lives. While I would love to be part of that inspirational pantheon the only thing I discovered when I had cancer was how vain I was. And that isn't, necessarily, a bad thing.
It always seems that when I write about myself, I want to draw a huge black line dividing my life from pre-cancer when I was faced with all the normal problems someone just turned 30 goes through (Where is my life going? Will I ever find someone to love? Do I have wrinkles now?); then, after, when I was suddenly very aware of my own mortality.
A few weeks after my 30th birthday I found a lump in my breast while taking my bra off. Three days later, I found myself in the Royal Free Hospital being jabbed and scanned in their breast clinic. I went away for Christmas in pain from the needle biopsy and fretting about a possible centimetre-long scar. When I returned in January 2014 I went alone to my follow-up appointment convinced it was a formality, and looking forward to peeling the last bandages off. Instead, I was told that I had stage three breast cancer and would need a mastectomy, removing my entire right breast, and some lymph nodes in my armpit. I had a fortnight to say goodbye to my breast. At first I wrestled simply with the unfairness of it all. I cried all the time - at home, on buses, in doctor's surgeries, at dinner with sympathetic friends.
It wasn't my mastectomy that upset me: I knew that having one breast was a temporary inconvenience, at worst. And internally I congratulated myself on having overcome the societal pressure for women to constantly criticise our own appearances, to see our bodies as works in progress that will never be quite ready for public consumption. When I grew up my second wave feminist mother would ask me why I wanted to moisturise. "You've just cleaned your face, why do you want to put s*** on it?" she'd snap as I begged her to buy me a bottle of Olay. Even though teenage me seethed, desperate to spread that pink gloop on my cheeks, I grew up glad I had a parent who never pushed me to be too focused on my external appearance.
The friends around me who I cherished the most never mentioned that my first breast prosthesis' lack of movement compared to my natural (rather jiggly) breast was somewhat disorientating, or that in a dress it looked a little like a mannequin's forward pointing nipple-less mound. They said they loved my new short hair - which I had cut thinking it would soften the blow when I started chemotherapy, and it began falling out. It didn't. I can remember the day I sat on a chair in my bedroom, my mum and I both crying as she shaved my head with a pair of clippers. Somehow this was not the worst it would get.
Feeling ridiculous in a wig, I turned to scarves and learned how to wear them with some dignity. I became so adept at tying them that a nail technician told me she loved my retro style, reading my pinchbeck Carmen Miranda headwear as an aesthetic choice rather than a necessity.
After I had become somewhat used to my bald head, more of my hair began to fall out. You never think about that. The bikini line was nice - no razor rash. When it came to my eyelashes and eyebrows I felt utterly destroyed. It wasn't that I was so attached to my eyebrows: I've been plucking away a unibrow since the age of 12. It was that without them it was obvious there was something very wrong with me. Even when I dug my wig out it looked strange perched on my ghostly white expressionless face. I thought often about an Iggy Pop anecdote where he shaves his eyebrows off, paints himself in glitter, then while sweating profusely, discovers how important eyebrows are, as I blinked away sweat droplets on hot summer days.
I went bare headed and bare faced often - I am lazy as well as vain. But learning how to create a face on my blank hairless canvas became an obsession. In the day time, I watched cooking shows to compensate for losing my sense of taste to a puffy ulcer-filled mouth. At night, when the rest of the world was asleep, I turned my reading lamp to shine straight on to my face and surrounded myself with eyeshadow palettes and lip liners.
First I learned how to work black liner deep into my waterline to mask the blank space between where my natural lashes would have been, and the false ones I glued on in their place. When my eyebrows fell out I spent months watching YouTube tutorials learning how to draw them back on becoming so practiced at it that a make-up artist on a TV show I was a guest on (talking about cancer, naturally) rubbed her thumb hard across them refusing to believe they were not real. Make-up became not just artifice, but armour. Protection.
At my core I know that the beauty industry is not a benevolent place. It markets make-up to us so that we will correct flaws we didn't know we had. But when you step away from the rhetoric and look at how people use make-up out in the real world, you see its true power. What we wear and how we present ourselves isn't just to attract a mate: it's an expression of who we are and what we want to be.
Before cancer my make-up bag consisted of one tube of concealer, a mascara, and maybe five or so lipsticks. After cancer I had to invest in 'storage solutions' from Muji to contain it all. There is, in my front room, a suitcase that exists solely to house make-up that isn't my colour, but that I would like to keep and use on willing guinea pigs. My fridge now devotes equal space to sheet masks and doubles of limited edition lip colours as it does to food.
I won't say that I spend my time drawing my face in to terrify or confuse every morning. At 32 I already feel too old and too normal to be experimenting with my make-up in a way that lies outside of the boundaries of convention. When I do my face I still want to be beautiful. Since treatment ended my hair and eyelashes have grown back and my eyebrows are still sparse but grow thicker with every week. It makes me happy to have someone tell me they love my lipstick or that my eyeshadow is the most stunning colour. Rather than being obsessed with the transformative power of make-up, I am interested in how it can shape what is already there. I know now that there is power in the colours and strokes that I use. When I am nervous, or sad, or tired, or simply fed up with the world, I can dig into my make-up boxes and pull out a new person.
Now that I no longer 'need' make-up to go incognito in the normal world I am happy to go without it most days. When my boyfriend comes over for an unexpected lunch date, I no longer find myself hurriedly painting my eyebrows on before he arrives, because I know his first reaction - everyone's reaction - upon seeing my bare face will not be "Oh god, are you okay?". Make-up isn't an armour anymore. It doesn't have to be.
I look back on pictures of me at my sickest, covered in make-up and maniacally grinning for a photo and I am able to appreciate how hard I worked while sick, how much fortitude it took to make it through that year, and the year after where I suffered with the worst depressive episode of my adult life, and come out of it as a functioning person with a life, hobbies, friends, and even a new set of skills.
In reclaiming my vanity, and allowing myself to indulge in it at a time where I was a shiny, spotty, puffy faced, red-skinned, goblin means that I was able to find a way to separate myself from the awful reality of cancer treatment.
Of course, I wish I had run a marathon or been saved from imminent death by an adorable puppy, but I found a reserve inside me that I can tap into whenever I need to escape from reality. And I can draw in really, really great eyebrows.