In July last year, writer Alice-May Purkiss was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 26. In a post originally published on her blog alicemaypurkiss.co.uk, Purkiss describes how cancer transformed the parameters of her body confidence - and shares the beautiful photo shoot she took part in, to remind her of the strength she has found in the face of her battle:
Self-confidence is something I’ve often grappled with. Like most people these days, I scroll through Instagram, Facebook, the internet as a whole and I’m subjected to images of photoshopped bodies, made to look smaller, more taut, more toned.
I see adverts every second breath telling me how to get glossier hair; I’m subjected to images that suggest women are little more than a pair of knockers. Or magazine articles that exclaim “Fix your eyebrows, find love!”. I'm bombarded with articles, adverts and posts, all telling me how I “should” look.
So what do you do, when you find yourself squidgy round the edges because a grueling healthcare routine has left you with little time or energy to put on your running shoes? When you no longer have any hair on your head at all? Or when one of the parts of your body that defines you as a woman is taken away from you? When you haven’t a single eyebrow hair to speak of?
How do you find self-confidence if you don’t even recognise the face, the body, looking back at you in the mirror?
When you’re as far away from how you “should” look, as you possibly can be?
Self-confidence is a funny old thing and often in the UK it gets confused with arrogance, much like its close sibling, self-belief. People would far rather pick at things they don’t like than look at the things they do like.
So next time you’re brushing your teeth or your hair, or figuring out if you really can wear that skirt with that top, I’d like you to do something for me: look at yourself.
Really look at yourself and find one thing you love about your face. Maybe you’ve got beautiful eyes, maybe you’ve got really full lips, maybe your cute button nose is a real family trait. Perhaps you can look at your body and be proud of the strength you see in your biceps or calves or maybe you’ve got stretch marks that prove you’re a mummy and you love them because they show you carried another human for nine months.
These things are what make you, you. They tell your story. They don’t have to be perfect. But if you can come to terms with them now, it won’t matter what’s thrown at you in the future.
I stepped out in a swimming costume the other day for the first time in seven months. Chemo and surgery had both played a part in stopping me from doing one of my favourite things.
I didn’t wear a hat and I don't yet have a prosthetic designed for swimming. I was terrified, worried about what people would think of me if they noticed how lopsided my boobs were. Scared that people would judge me and my bald head and my tired eyes. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to swim fast or for long any more.
All of these things came down to self-confidence. And there were two things my friends said to me that gave me pause, and helped me park my insecurities. “No one will notice what you look like because they’ll all be too worried about what they look like” and “you may be being treated for cancer, but you’re still a swimmer. That hasn’t changed”.
And when I got in the pool, it didn’t matter. I did get some weird looks, but I get weird looks when I’m not bald. And I reminded myself that it’s OK to look like a cancer patient. Because that’s what I am at the moment. It’s not all I am, but it’s a big part right now. And that’s OK.
For my whole life, I’ve been conflicted by wanting to avoid having my photograph taken, but being desperate to take – and be involved in – an image to preserve a memory. And I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding mirrors too.
So why then did I appeal for someone to take professional photos of myself when I looked less like myself than I ever could have envisaged? Because cancer has changed my approach to self-confidence.
That’s not to say I’m any more confident than I was BC (before cancer) but I guess the parameters have changed.
I have a list of things I won’t moan about when I don’t have cancer and some of the more superficial of them include “bad hair days” or “looking like shit”.
If I’ve got hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and skin that doesn’t look like tracing paper, I’m a step ahead of "cancer me".
I want to remember the strength I’ve found during my cancer treatment. To celebrate the me that’s finally become brave enough to be out without a hat on and be comfortable with it.
So I had some photos taken of myself so that I can look at them in the future and remember this version of self-confidence when I can’t find another.
If I hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer, there is no way I would have bared my chemo face and my scarred body to a stranger (who I now hope is a friend). I hope these photos, especially the ones of my mastectomy scar offer some strength to other breast cancer sufferers.
I bloody salute you all.
Photos: Georgia Devey Smith
Alice-May Purkiss was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015. Her blog, alicemaypurkiss.co.uk, is following her treatment, and trying to find the funny side of getting a breast cancer diagnosis at 26 years old. She's working on getting women across the country to check their boobs more frequently through her #CheckYourChebs campaign social media campaign.