Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer
Man looking into distance with nature scenery around head/shoulders and car driving away from sunset.

Letting Go of Vanity

A loved-one recently asked me out of concern whether I felt comfortable going out in public. She was referring to my pervasive rash, something that is readily apparent to anyone who so much as glances at my face. But I long ago came to the realization that how I look really does not matter. Letting go of my vanity was essential if I was going to continue participating in life the way I wanted to.

Will I lose my hair?

I used to joke with my oncologist that any treatment would be fine, just so long as I did not lose my hair. I half meant it — while completely irrational, being bald was one of my actual fears. For some reason, maybe the old, discredited practice of phrenology that claims you can tell all about a person’s character and mental abilities by the bumps on their cranium, or maybe the awkward lump of a scar just over my right temple, I have always felt that keeping my hair was key to retaining my good looks.

Finding my healthy weight

But we all have different ideas of what constitutes looking good. I was always quite lean growing up, skinny even, though I managed to keep some defined muscle on my frame throughout my twenties and thirties. I was proud of being able to spend a minimal amount of time getting muscle back if I had been extra lazy for a couple of weeks. When I began my treatment for lung cancer, the first thing I was asked to do was put on a little extra weight, just in case. I figured, okay, I can add some girth (by now, in my later forties, I was more or less doing that, anyway). After all, I still had my hair. My hair looked good. And my wife, she preferred me with a little extra weight.

Ironically, when I recently went through a rapid and drastic weight loss, I took some joy in glimpsing my old body. Not at first, because I lost too much to be healthy, but once I began to put weight back on. My wife asked me to gain more, but I was kind of pleased where I began leveling out. My old pants fit again. Still, it is evidence of how differently people see what is attractive or appealing. There are downsides to having so little body fat, from being chilly to being easily bruised, and I am still working to find a “proper” and healthy weight for myself, but I know enough to focus on healthy first.

Acne and rashes

Since early in my treatment, I have dealt with varying stages of acne. It was easy to joke that it made me feel young again, especially those impossible to ignore blemishes that would present themselves on the tip of my nose or the middle of my forehead. At some point, I just got used to having them there and stopped attempting any coverup. When you realize that there is nothing to do about preventing them, acceptance is refreshing; my acne became a part of my face, as much as my eyes or mouth, and that was just the way it was. Surprisingly, I found that it never hindered my social or professional interactions, perhaps because I never acted as though it was out of place.

And this rash that I have now, though far beyond the acne of previous years, is to me just more of the same. Whether I have coated my face in Vaseline just to soothe it enough to go out, or whether there are visible, bloody scabs on my cheeks or forehead, I just accept it as what it is and present myself as though none of it was there, or rather, as though everything that is there is supposed to be there, naturally. There is no more vanity for me. Except for my hair.

Last vestige of vanity

Although that may be going now. It’s my final refuge, I admit it. I’ve taken emotional shelter under this silver mop, and in the back of my head I could always say, regardless of the inflamed dots all over my body or my face bloated from steroids or even the weird smells that emanated from me at different times, at least I had my hair. But now I see it may be time to truly let go of this last vestige of vanity. The scabbing across my scalp is taking a toll. Every day, I can tell more about my character and mental abilities just by looking in the mirror. The shape of my skull, once elusive, is becoming familiar to my eyes.

Like all of the other changes my body has gone through, I will have to accept this one. Maybe it will be temporary, maybe it will be permanent, but regardless it will be the way it is and nothing less. Going forth, hat or no hat, covered in lotions or covered by gloves and sleeves, or not covered at all, I will still be going forth. And I will still be presenting myself as though this is naturally the way I am supposed to be. Because life is there waiting for my participation, and I am not going to miss the opportunity to join in.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.