A Woman, Altered

My relationship with clothing always started with what I did for a living. The concept "dress for the job you want" was the driving force of  any new purchase and rarely did I shop for "weekend wear" or "Sunday lounging." I'm sure there were a pair or two of threadbare sweats and an old juicy couture hoodie I could toss on while puttering around the house on any given weekend but in general, my closet consisted of a series of tailored dresses, chic blazers, and other typical trappings seen on ambitious corporate climbers. 

At the time, I loved it.

I would spend my weekends pouring over the latest fashion magazine, folding down corners of pages to earmark a particular item that I coveted. Guided by those wacky gals from "Sex and the City," I carefully curated a wardrobe far beyond my means - the perfect trench coat, sky-high Louboutins, a ridiculously priced handbag that screamed "power bitch" - all designed to fool everyone into thinking I knew what I was doing.  And damned if I wasn't going to look fabulous while doing it.

To compliment this wardrobe, I added a fairly intense workout routine to secure my insecurities of "fat" and "untoned." Nothing too crazy, just running about 50 miles a week. That in combination with a limited diet kept me slim and sleek, the perfect pairing to my corporate ambitions.

I was proud of this version of me - my efforts did not go unnoticed as colleagues and family would share a compliment or glance at me in appreciation. Heck, I even had a boss tell me, with a suggestive wink, I was looking good, a statement that unfortunately elicited a delighted response from me when instead I should have called him out on his inappropriate behavior.

This armor of mine got me far, and I rode that corporate high for years. I never realized how dependent I was on my physical appearance. I spent as much time cultivating the perfect look as I did on my actual work but in hindsight, I think I knew how unbalanced this was, and ultimately it projected a false image of myself.

All of this came crashing down when I was diagnosed with cancer. At first, I tried to hold onto my daily schedule; I went to work, led client meetings, put on a brave face to match my equally cheery slingbacks. I maintained a healthy, painted face with bright lipstick, a much-needed distraction to hide the fact that I no longer had my hair.

I thought losing my hair would be the worst thing about cancer. I didn't realize that my entire being would take a long lasting hit. It was both my psyche as well as my physical appearance that altered dramatically during those long months of treatment. When cancer came back less than two years later, I knew real changes in my lifestyle would need to happen, and part of that change was letting go of an identity that ruled over me for nearly two decades.

My first change was to leave behind my career. With this decision, I suddenly no longer needed my corporate wardrobe and instead, I looked to replace it with comfort in mind. I knew I needed to let go of the person I once was, and because appearance was the root of my value, I started with my closet. Initially, I embraced this idea - cozy cardigans, soft leggings, cashmere scarves paired with ballet flats. My muse was a delicate Cate Blanchett, classic yet aloof. I shrouded myself in luxury fabrics to ward off the chill in my chemo suite. I still carried a fabulous handbag which stored my medication, my head scarves, and whatever goodies I needed to get through chemo.

What began as an exercise in acceptance and new beginnings turned into an identity crisis nightmare. Parting ways with armor that once profoundly defined me felt catastrophic and confusing. It didn't help that as treatment wore on, my body began to change drastically.

Thanks in part to numerous medications, chemo, and cancer itself, I now have a bloated midsection, round face, and saggy chest. I more closely resemble that of a spider, limbs gangly next to a round middle. While organizing my closet into piles to donate, keep, throw away, I came across a favorite tweed blazer, that no matter how many ways I tried to style it into my new life, it ended up looking like a shell of what I once was. I burst into tears. Clothes no longer look good on me and as a result, I can now add body shaming to my list of cancer side effects.

I didn't count on this transition to be as emotional as it was. It's a change that is still taking place and for whatever reason, I am still struggling with this new identity. You would think, after more than a year of treatment, I would be used to this by now. Early on I was resigned to embrace a more cozy, simplified approach to style. But most days I feel frumpy and, God forbid, old.

Some say clothes make the man - what does that mean for me now?

I rarely cling to motivational quotes, but during this time of significant transition I am drawn to this heartening piece of advice from Haruki Murakami:

"And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through...you won't be the same person who walked in. That what this storm's all about."

I'm not yet through the storm, but I'm working on accepting the person I am becoming.


Kari Mitchell is the co-founder and senior editor for Do It Well, Co. In her spare time, she is also the blogger behind Go Home Cancer, You're Drunk, where she chronicles her life living with stage IV cancer. Kari has been featured on The Common Woman, Whole Life, Full Soul, and The Free Women. She currently lives in Bethesda, MD with her two cats and one husband, who shares her love of a glass of red wine, the New York Times, and a good Netflix binge session. She is on a quest to find the perfect taco and hopes to one day become a crochet ninja. You can find her as @girl.living.life on Instagram