“The ‘self-image’ is the key to human personality and human behaviour. Change the self image and you change the personality and the behaviour.” - Maxwell Maltz
One of the main comments I received after my diagnosis was “At least you can have a collection of wigs; you can have a new style and hair colour everyday!” I understood the humour and goodwill behind these comments and at any other point in time I would have done so, however it couldn’t have been further from my actual feelings at the time. For anyone who knows me, they would know that I LOVE costumes and that Halloween is usually my favourite day of the year. I’d worn all sorts of wigs for all sorts of characters. On my 20th birthday, I even threw a wig party where everyone had to wear a colourful wig:
However, like any Gemini, I have two sides. As the implications of my diagnosis set in, my outgoing party girl persona went into hibernation to let my more grounded and calmer side prevail. At a time where everything about me was changing; I was no longer just Kristen, that Australian girl living in London, that girl in Human Resources or that girl who likes to party. I would become Kristen, that girl who gave absolutely everything she had to beat Ovarian Cancer. Being at such a scared and confused point of life with so much uncontrollable change, all I wanted was a sense of normality. I didn’t care to be a redhead on Monday and a brunette on Tuesday, I wanted to be my normal blonde self, everyday. Knowing that nothing would be an exact replica of my natural hair, I avoided wig shopping at first as it was just too daunting to face. My support nurse ended up organising a consultation with the hospital’s wig supplier. I was anxious going in, but my nerves were quickly put to ease by how friendly the consultant was. She made me feel so comfortable and almost excited at the prospect of getting a new wig. I tried on a couple of styles and although not completely convinced, settled with 'Kimberly’:
The wigs on offer by the hospital were high quality, but synthetic; something with which I struggled. I hated the idea of fake plasticky hair and its unnatural shine. Although I was appreciative to own the wig, whenever I wore it, I was self-conscious of what I thought other people would be thinking. Deep down I knew no one would, but I was so insecure that I’d picture scenarios where strangers would come up to me and say things like "do you think that’s fooling anyone” or “you look ridiculous”. Anytime someone glanced my way, I was convinced that they were examining and disapproving of the wig.
Desperately seeking an alternative and with the London winter being too cold to brave bald, I explored the world of headscarves. I had always assumed that women wore scarves designed specifically for headwear. It turns out they’re just regular summer scarves that you’d usually wrap around your neck! After watching many YouTube videos, I learnt how to tie them in different ways and soon enough you couldn’t keep me away from the scarf wall at TK Maxx. I ended up with a scarf to match almost every outfit or occasion. Headscarves were so much more comfortable than my wig and it gave the outside world a clearer message. They knew they weren’t just looking at a girl with bad hair; they were looking at someone going through chemotherapy. Although benefiting from the perks of the headscarf such as being offered seats on the tube, I still missed my real hair. In the months that followed I began to make enquiries about human hair wigs. They are renowned for being very pricey so I looked in to private medical insurance to assist with the cost. However, according to many insurers; losing your hair through chemotherapy is considered medical, but replacing your hair is not. Feeling disheartened by the large price tag, my Dad reminded me that being able to feel yourself is 'priceless’. I contacted a few human hair wig suppliers and had mixed experiences both bad and good. The worst was a badly stuck together mop of bleach blonde hair that I struggled to return to an eBay store and the best was definitely my current wig from Moklox. The owner went through each type of wig feature and what would suit me best. I then ordered a custom wig that was the closest to my normal hair. I designed it to have dark blonde roots to look more natural, a medium blonde base for the lengths and lighter blonde highlights featured throughout:
It was amazing the difference that my outer appearance made to my inner self. I felt my old confidence return, like I could conquer not only cancer, but also the world. I was no longer questioning what strangers were thinking, or avoiding running into friends or acquaintances on the street, I even had the self esteem to meet new people. With my newfound sassiness, we nicknamed the wig 'Karmen’.
Not only did my appearance make a difference to how I felt, but there was a shift in how strangers perceived me. When switching from headscarf to wig, my social interactions completely changed. In the headscarf, I was treated ‘preciously’, strangers would look at me confused or sympathetically. If anyone did strike conversation with me, it was usually to ask about my diagnosis, offer their condolences or tell me a long winded story about their grandmother’s second cousin’s wife or friend of a friend’s neighbour who once had cancer.
In contrast, when I wore the wig, people would not tread lightly around my feelings, busy crowds would push past in peak hour and people would say whatever they felt like saying without thinking twice. Throughout treatment I had been regularly going to a local café where one of the waiters had never taken notice of me during my headscarf days. However as soon as ‘Karmen’ joined me at the table, the waiter welcomed me saying he’d never seen me there before and spent the entire lunch flirting a little too obviously. It was a somewhat flattering and nice change of pace, however it all felt like a big lie. Although I appeared 'normal’, it was just a façade; he could never have imagined what I was in fact going through. Even if he (or any other guy) were to leave looks and locks aside and accept the fact that I was actually bald, there was much more to deal with. Not only was I going through chemotherapy that left me bed bound for days at a time, I had an upcoming invasive operation, I was severely menopausal, I had become infertile at 21 years old and worst of all, I mightn’t have even survived the cancer. However depressing, it was just easier for me to turn down any advances that the Karmen and Kristen duo received.
I continued to make the most of switching between headscarf and wig, depending on my mood or occasion. It soon became clear that my close friends and family didn’t mind what I looked like, they were just happy to see me. One evening I went to dinner with friends and halfway through I got fed up with my wig and went to the bathroom to switch. When I came back with the headscarf my friends didn’t even notice, it wasn’t until I pointed it out hours later that they realised. It proved to me that those who matter in life aren’t concerned with appearances. It became clear that I wasn’t fighting a battle with my friends or family, but with my own self image and esteem. There was no denying the fact that I was now bald and uncomfortable with it, I just had to learn to accept it and carry on. Karmen was my gateway to normality, however false, I’ll admit it was nice to have the option.