Kicking a gift horse in the mouth

Or: Look Good, Feel Better!

(no actual horses were harmed in the making of this blog)

‘Look Good, Feel Better’ is a program run by the American Cancer Society where for the cost of an hour and a half of time, cancer patients can get a bag of cosmetic goodies, tips on skin care through chemotherapy & radiation, and quick lessons on how to disguise some of the more obvious effects of chemotherapy.  I had severe doubts going in, I’ll admit, but I’m just shallow enough to do it anyway; so, I signed up, I’m not proud. Hey, free dummy, right?

I’d have preferred the dummy.

First, let’s start with the assumption that the program is well meant and well meaning, as indeed I’m sure it *is*,  and remember that one has to sign up for the program; no one’s shoving it down our throats. I do wonder if male patients are offered the same service on a routine basis, though – does anyone reach out to them and offer them the chance to look their best while undergoing cancer treatment? Because, you know, if you don’t look good, you can’t feel good, right?

But I went – mea culpa mea culpa – and on the fourth day after chemo as well, so I was looking and feeling my very bestest.

Here, it’s held as a group session, and there were four of us that day: that is,  four cancer patients, two helpers, and the volunteer cosmetologist, all sitting round a rather too large conference type table. A hen party – o joy!

I was easily the youngest, the only one with blue hair and bad skin, and the only one with a really bad attitude (comes naturally, but sharpened a bit by pain). The victims seated about the table were:

One quite dignified woman of a certain age, alone

One woman  five to ten years older than I, clearly professional, with a female friend.

One woman of a certain social class, harder to tell age, with her female friend.

Me, with my blue hair and bad attitude

and our erstwhile social director and trained volunteer cosmetologist (poor thing!). All of the victims were in the early stages of treatment, we all still had our hair, and were as yet unravaged by treatment – aside from me, with my  badly blotched skin and occasional stifled groans as the Neulasta took its toll.

Paper placemats were put in front of each of us, and rather smallish standup mirrors, we were made to watch a quick presentation ( – not actually that one, the quality of what we saw was much worse), while the volunteer cooed over it, how much better the women looked in their ‘after’ photos, how *young* some of the poor women were – and quickly explained wigs were NOT on offer in this particular program. We then each choose our skin tone (light, medium, dark, or extra dark) and were handed a little red vinyl bag with the stuff.

The Stuff:

(starting at 1:00, products are displayed in the order in which one is expected to apply them; ‘bonus’ items -including a SPF 15 one use  sunblock wipe! – are in the center)

Next – we had to go through it all, in ‘public’, using the  awkward mirrors that sat far too low on the table… the 12 steps to “beauty” as described and prescribed by the program. Wash, cleanse, moisturize, cover-up, foundation, powder, blush, eyeliner, eyeshadow, eyebrows, mascara, lip conditioner, lip liner, lipstick – I’m already tired, and that’s just from listing the steps apparently involved in presenting myself to the world as a human.

I learned you must always always always use foundation, not for appearances but because it protects the skin (unlike a good sunblock?); lipstick must be re-applied throughout the day, you just have to accept it, ladies!; nail polish – at least clear! – should be worn throughout chemotherapy to help protect the nails (or you could just keep them short and let them breathe); your wig is an investment that you can wear the rest of your life, it’s not just for cancer (but why would you want to?); you can add more layers to your ‘day face’ if you’re going out and want a more dramatic look; and this is a gift we give ourselves, a way to pamper ourselves; there’s so much that cancer takes out of our control but this is a way to wrest that control back.


I’m not buying it.

Again, I don’t doubt that the program is well intentioned and *could* contain valuable information, especially for those women who have to present themselves professionally while undergoing treatment – and even for those who don’t have to, but would like some time off from the role of ‘obvious cancer patient’ – but.

A) What they’re telling women, on a very basic level, is the same old message:  you *need* to wear makeup to look good; as you are, you are unacceptable. No matter that you’re feeling like crap and are quite possibly deathly ill, you should look good, so as to feel better about yourself (not to mention the need to protect others from your uglies). And the way to look good is to put more makeup on your skin.

This is known as “pampering yourself”, if you’re female.

Honey, when I’m looking like death sucking on a lemon and feeling worse, I just don’t have the energy nor the desire to run through the 12 steps of ‘looking good and feeling better‘. I don’t consider that to be ‘pampering myself’. Pat my head and say ‘poor little bunny‘ – that’s a step closer to what I’m looking for.

B) I would really question the wisdom of applying more potentially toxic or irritating chemicals to your skin, eyes, and lips during treatment for any serious disease. Doesn’t seem like a Good Idea to me. Most everything in the bag was highly chemical, scented and dyed- the dearth of ‘natural’ products (such as arsenic! such a great way to get that proper pallid look) was duly noted. Many cancer patients are highly sensitive to scents during treatment, and skin is likely to be especially fragile, remember?

Daily foundation to ‘protect‘ your skin? Nail polish to ‘protect’ your nails? Who the fuck are you kidding? Don’t blow sunshine up my ass; don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.

C) Unlike in the video, I felt that socialization between participants was discouraged… ok, the only people I really wanted to socialize with were the professional woman and her friend (she liked my hair!), but there was still potentially valuable information to share (such as the site, which I’ve found invaluable; or; or any other simple things we might have learned along the way).

I do understand, our social director wanted to keep us on schedule – as it was, she barely had time to demonstrate the hideous turban wrap one *might* make out of an old t-shirt if every other possible amusement failed- and wanted to make sure we all had our ‘day faces’ in place before we left… but, really, the socialization could have been the best of it.

D) The cosmetics were provided gratis – and I know some poor person had to actively solicit various cosmetic companies for donations and I do appreciate their effort, if not the results – and they mostly seemed to be in odd, unflattering, shades and combinations. My bet is that this is the stuff that didn’t sell well – by donating it, the companies took a nice little write off on their taxes and gained some ‘feel good’ points, as well as possible future sales (though not from the likes of me, of course, ungrateful wretch that I am!). Even the frigging bag the ‘loot’ was provided in – chemical, ugly, and ultimately useless.

You want to help women going through cancer treatments to feel better? How about more natural unscented products, more free socialization between participants, cosmetic tips specific to the ravages wrought by cancer treatments (I did learn how to draw on eyebrows in a semi natural way, which could be valuable), more emphasis on skin care throughout treatment such as radiation, and, most of all, working to change the attitude that we are unacceptable as we are, in sickness or in health.

Again, I really do get that this is well intentioned; I get that there are times when anyone might want (or need) not to look like a cancer patient, to have some time off from that identity; and that no one forced me to do this, I entered of my own free will, got free stuff (over $100 worth of product!), and now have the audacity to kick that gift horse in the mouth – and it still seems to me to be a fundamentally flawed program.

I just don’t feel I need lipstick to restore my humanity. I don’t think any of us do. And I left singing this song:

“I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO

Imperial War museum – UK

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5 Responses to Kicking a gift horse in the mouth

  1. Ahhh yes….hen parties…me not so good with those….brings back memories of all those damn bridal and baby showers where they discuss the right mustard for honey baked ham and swap baby labor in the delivery room war stories – and of course they look at the single call and all but pat me on the head and say “your time will come, dear”. You did get some good loot, though:<} And no I am not trying to diminish what these nice people are doing, but having had some not so stellarly attractive feeling days since surgery and not even having gotten to the rest of the treatment since the oncotype isn't back yet…well, I get it. I went to this Humane Society thing last night and it was one of my first outings on my own that did not involve breast cancer in a month. It was nice to be among the living…and well, BC or not I still looked more put together then half the women I saw there – and trust me, I am not Malibu Barbie. And if I have to have chemo, I can tell you right now I won't be making any GD turbans out of ratty old T-shirts. Good thing I have that bag of scarves picked up from flea markets, tag sales, etc, etc. And I don't get the whole must use foundation thing – ummm it clogs your pores if on 24/7 and well yuck then what do you get? Chemo acne?

    Sigh…hope you are feeling ok – I am remiss at not stopping by to your blog have been living my own drama. Hugs to you

  2. dropjohn says:

    The usable “loot” is actually fairly sparse – maybe the powder? Even when the products are relatively good brands (such as Avedo), the colors are dubious at best. The lotions are all pretty perfumed, and I’m normally sensitive to scent…. maybe I’ll send it all to Armenia.

    good moisturizers for face and skin, lip balms, more tips for skin care from a dermatologist’s POV (rather than a cosmetic cover it up company POV), more sharing of helpful hints among participants*… that would have been far more useful, IMHO.

    but I tend to have a jaundiced eye around this sort of stuff.

    *for example, in the chemo waiting room last time, I learned it’s possible to dye synthetic wigs using RIT dye…. oooo, the possibilities!

  3. Nathaniel Glosser says:

    Great post! I have to agree with you completely.

    Maybe we can shake up the ACS a bit – let’s send in a wringer to the next seminar. Have any gay men friends who are into makeup? Actually, I have a friend who would be perfect – she’s a very flamboyant 6’6″ tall transexual (M to F) who performs in drag shows. Damn – that would be something to see.

    You, my dear, are beautiful on the inside – no matter what happens to your hair or skin, the cancer and the treatments are not going tho change that.

  4. dropjohn says:

    You know, I was going to blame it on the volunteer cosmetologist – but then I realized that all the literature handed out was from the same satanic mill, and she was merely toeing the party line. Something needs to change with the hive mind, and drastically.

    It’s not that appearance isn’t important to how one is perceived (and to how one perceives oneself), but there have got to be better ways to accomplish this. Style!

    and thank you, btw. =0)

  5. SO glad to see this post! I too went to the Look Good Feel Better party and came away incensed — that we should have to worry about looking good (all the while being a dumping ground for cosmetic companies), that we can cover up terror with a little eyeliner, that no one NO ONE in the room that day ever said what all this really felt like. Puts me in mind of Barbara Ehrenreich’s comments about those damned cute pink bears given to women with breast cancer. Maybe if we make it all cute or pretty, we won’t have to think about the implications??? Thanks for writing this.

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