Everywhere I look I am bombarded with images of what society deems beautiful today. Images of Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian, the Victoria Secret models... the list is endless and fills the pages of every magazine I pick up. "Hot or Not?" we are asked. "Dress Like A Celebrity" we are told. And, my personal favorite: "Get a 10/10 figure with a celebrity body blitz in less than a week." We are told that in order to be beautiful, we have to have the flawless, size-eight figure, legs up to our armpits, long silky hair, a perfect nose, perfect teeth, plump lips, firm breasts... not to mention a million-dollar wardrobe.
I have to admit, I was one of those women who fell into this trap of needing to look a certain way in order to be seen as beautiful. I spent my twenties endlessly dieting in order to maintain my size-eight figure and fit into the skimpiest outfits which I thought were attractive at the time. My bathroom was filled with hair products promising to turn my curly, frizzy hair into gorgeous silky locks and I was the proud owner of a makeup collection that kept Napoleon Perdis in business.
Venturing outside meant an hour-long ritual of washing hair, straightening hair, cleansing and toning, applying primer, foundation and powder, contouring, highlighting, bronzing, applying eye shadow, eye liner, mascara and lip gloss... that was just to take the rubbish out. My Facebook page was filled with endless photos of me looking immaculate, and, just like anyone else, my ego got a big boost the more likes and comments I got on them.
My husband always told me he preferred me without makeup wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers and my hair swept back into a ponytail. The casual look, he called it, a term which didn't seem to exist in my vocabulary.
That was until I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
After my diagnosis, I sat in a daze listening to the nurse talk about possible side effects of chemo. Hair loss, nausea, mouth ulcers, weight gain, loss of appetite, skin conditions, fatigue and, worst of all, early menopause -- and that was just to shrink the tumor before having a double mastectomy and then reconstruction.
I somehow naively convinced myself that I would be one of those people who wouldn't have any side effects, or that I would do whatever I could to minimise them. I chopped my long locks into a pixie cut which, to my surprise, looked better on me than long hair. I rocked up to my first chemo session as if I was going to a fashion show -- seemingly unaffected and determined that cancer wouldn't change my life.
One night, just before heading out on a date with my husband, reality brought me back to earth. My beautiful hair fell out in clumps and, just like that, our dinner date turned into me sitting in the bathtub listening to the sound of the shaver and watching my husband carefully shave my head.
Afterwards, standing in front of my husband with mascara running down my face, my clothes covered in hair, bald head feeling as if my whole world had collapsed around me, he turned to me and said: "You know you look like Sigorney Weaver in Alien, you are so sexy." I couldn't help but laugh.
Since my first chemo, I have experienced most, if not all, of the side effects that come from Taxol or, as my oncologist calls it, "the red devil of chemo". Hair loss, including the world's fastest and most painless Brazilian, 5kg weight gain, mouth ulcers, constipation, debilitating fatigue, hives that won't go away no matter how much Clarytine I take, nausea so bad I go to hospital for three days after each chemo session and, last but not least, the hot flushes that come from the big M. Yes, menopause
And yet, for some strange reason, I have never felt so liberated in my life.
The first time I went out in public without a scarf or a hat was purely by accident. My hubby picked me up from home to go look at some furniture and I just ran out of the house without thinking. As I got out of the car, my hubby said: "You are so brave for coming out without anything on." To be honest, I didn't even think about it -- it seemed natural and I realised that, for the first time in my life, I was comfortable in my own skin.
Now my morning ritual consists of waking up and turning the alarm off 10 times before my son shrieks aaaaaaaarrrrrrrggggg at 7am. I get out of bed and throw on a t-shirt and trackies, brush my teeth, rub sunblock on my face and bald head, take a gazillion tablets and run downstairs into my son's room and yell "good morning". I take my son for a walk around our neighborhood and chat to my neighbors, never worrying about how they will see me.
Which brings me to the perception of beauty. I no longer look at magazines or aspire to look like Jennifer Lopez like I used to.
I see beauty so differently now.
Beautiful is the woman whose skin was red from radiation but who came straight after her treatment to sit with me during chemo.
Beauty is the woman with the elastic sleeve on her arms from the Axillary Lymph Node Dissection who had coffee with me as I told her about my cancer.
Beauty is the woman with the portacath who talked me through the chemo while undergoing treatment herself.
Beauty is the woman who told me she wishes she had a double mastectomy because, after 12 years of remission, her cancer came back in the other breast.
Beauty is the woman with breast tissue expanders who talked me through the process and the woman who, after having reconstructive surgery, dared to wear a top with a plunging neckline.
I see beauty through love, now. I see it through my son's eyes when, even without hair or trace of makeup, his face lights up when he sees me and he yells "Mama". I see it in the morning as I look over at my husband and he wraps his arms around me. I see it in my mum, who wanted to shave her head so I didn't feel alone. I see it in my sisters when they message me saying I inspire them. I see it in my friends who drive across the state just to see me.
I see beauty walking on the beach, with the sun on my face and the sand on my feet. I see it in the pink, yellow and purple flowers that grow in my garden. I hear it lying on my bed listening to Andrea Bocelli. I feel it in the laughter that comes from being with friends. It's true beauty and it's magical.
So when the day comes for me to remove my breasts, it's going to be an easy decision. At the end of the day, they are only skin deep, and I will always choose life because life is beautiful.