There's a TV spot for a beauty brand where women describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist. At first their self-portraits are dowdy, and sad music plays. Then, complete strangers describe the same women to the artist, and the music lifts. Gorgeous new portraits materialize, and the women pat their faces in disbelief. "You are more beautiful than you think," the tagline reads.
If I could, I'd stamp another tagline over the ending:
"NOW GET ON WITH YOUR LIFE."
I hate the ad, but it's memorable. When I found out that I have breast cancer, I was standing on a sidewalk outside a diner and that stupid ad was all I could think of. My doctor talked through my cell phone while cars sped by, and I tried so hard to listen as she spelled out my prognosis. But all I could hear were those women, dissecting their appearances like idiots. I am those women. I've been wasting time, I thought. I'm probably gonna die, and I just did a 14-day juice cleanse.
"Sorry, I didn't get any of that," I said, and asked if I could call her back. I hung up and looked at the neon diner sign glowing OPEN in fiery orange, and my heart cracked. Wastingtimewastingtimewastingtime.
I used to think the world was tougher on me because I'm a singer-songwriter. There are rigorous standards, after all. Taylor Swiftian codes regarding short shorts and blondeness, a Beyoncé clause on chaps. Even the "who needs the male gaze" artists are impossibly photogenic—I'm looking at you, Ani DiFranco.
I collected stories to prove my unique plight. Like when I was a twentysomething in Nashville and a Music Row overlord asked me, straight-faced, to become anorexic by the time I put on my label showcase. And would I dye my hair something other than my natural red? I was gently reminded that Reba was already a redhead and Wynonna was already a fat redhead. There was a quota on husky gingers in pre-Adele times, so I needed to be a totally different version of myself, stat.
I refused to dye my hair, but spent a whole month at a low-rent weight loss spa. Then I ran a half-marathon, just so I could eat a sandwich in the recording studio without getting the stink eye from my producer. I was my all-time skinniest, groomed like a show pony—and miserable. But show business made it my business to be as visually appealing as possible, so I did the dance.
But even with my gloomy little Nashville anecdotes, I'm not unique. The world is tough on everybody. Heads of state, stay-at-home-moms, string theory physicists, baristas: It doesn't matter. If you're a woman, your mandate is looking good. And now, the laws of self-esteem dictate that even if you don't care about looking good for the benefit of others, you should for your own benefit. Because it says something about how you feel about yourself. How do you escape that?
Even Oprah, with all her good intentions, is addicted to makeovers. It's not enough to found an organization that immunizes Sudanese orphans, to be in her magazine you must be made over. With a little bit of eyeliner and the right cinched cardigan, you can be more than a humanitarian—you can be a beautiful humanitarian. Wastingtimewastingtimewastingtime.
There is nothing attractive about my illness. My big hairless head and glow-in-the-dark chemo pallor cannot be made over. And I assure you this isn't a fishing expedition—Dr. Evil and I don't need your compliments. We've got stuff to do.
I've got wigs and press-on eyelashes for job interviews and fun, but I resent the time they require. I'd rather be reading a Stephen King novel, calling my mom or walking along the Charles.
It's never clearer to me than when I'm locked to a chemo pole: I wish I'd spent more time living my life and less time worrying about my looks. I resent every diet, every hour in a salon chair and every time I glared at my reflection when I could have been doing something. But if there's beauty in my cancer moment, it's that I'm freer from my vanity than I've ever been. Screw eyelashes, who needs 'em.
I'll be up to my old tricks again when my hair grows back. Cancer doesn't make you a sage. I'm sure I'll continue to make squinty mirror faces, wince at unflattering photos and suck it in. There's no remission from vanity—it's only human. But I hope I never forget how I feel right now. Time is ticking, and I've got better things to do.
Get your hair done if it feels good, ladies. Enjoy the hell out of your beauty, whether it's Dove-real or only good at certain angles with the right Instagram filter. Juice-cleanse your little hearts out. And men, I'm talking to you, too. Manscape, comb your comb-overs and wear those little handkerchiefs in your suit pockets, if that's your thing.
But don't spend another second beating yourself up about whether you're pretty enough. You could be reading a great book, shaking your ass on a dance floor, brokering a peace accord or eating good cheese. You're more beautiful than you think, but in the end it won't matter as much as you think. Don't waste your sweet time.