September 16, 2013 / Praxis
An art exhibition at a church attempts to bridge the gap between the academy and community in a North Carolina university town.
March 30, 2017
The phrase Bonfire of the Vanities, while well-known as the title of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, originally referred to an actual bonfire that was set on February 7, 1497, in Florence, Italy. The fire was lit by religious fanatics for the purpose of burning objects that a priest had deemed occasions of sin. The objects included art, cosmetics, and books.
I am a condemned soul.
I can imagine one of these fires in my own backyard, flames reaching into the night with my favorite books and art as kindling. Fifteenth-century Christians would have found my idea of the perfect birthday gift—a day at the ubiquitously phallic Museum of Modern Art—to be the very definition of an occasion of sin. But my true vice, the thing that would give the fire muscle and heat, has always been more of the Maybelline sort. I go for eyeliner and lipstick and anything that might make my aging body reflect—however poorly—those women in magazines with full lips and legs better measured by meters than feet.
With Florentine flames as far from my mind as the east is from the west, I recently wandered into a Target and, against my better judgment, decided a few outfits were worth the trouble of trying on. My first mistake was pulling them off the rack two sizes too small. I tend toward these types of miscalculations, possessed by a younger version of myself, as though I’m still that girl who climbed the high dive at the public pool without the least bit of self-consciousness and then mustered enough wherewithal to jump, however awkwardly, into the deep end, swimsuit riding up my butt and all. I swam face down with snorkel and mask, lay on my red-white-and-blue bicentennial towel smeared with enough suntan oil to start a car, and then ran around the deck to the deep end and dove for quarters with friends.
But I’m not that ten-year-old, and the mirrors at Target have been nabbed from a carnival fun house—I’m sure of it. They reflected a spectacularly distorted comedy of myself, and as I shoved one leg into a pair of jeans I thought of the J.Crew catalog I had thumbed through that morning—why do catalogs always refer to pants in the singular? I imagined trying on clothes in one of the attractively lighted J.Crew stores and asking the helpful customer service associate to please get me a size 10 pant instead of an 8 pant. I’m looking for a khaki pant.
Under the florescent lights, I continued to yank my leg into the jeans. On the rack they’d looked like a nice cross between skinny jeans and mom jeans, but no, they weren’t, most definitely not. I peeled them off, didn’t bother with the two dresses I still hadn’t tried on, exited the dressing room, passed my red Target cart with the leatherette belt I took twenty minutes to pick out, and ran out of the store. I might have had a few tears in my eyes, but whatever.
I can’t seem to quell the vanity thing. It’s always there, staring me down like a photo of Angelina Jolie at a checkout counter. And it’s not the size of my clothes so much as the way my white legs have shifted direction, like the way antique glass in an old home ever so slowly slopes and gives in to the waves of time.
I remember as a young girl seeing my grandmother lounging next to a pool in a swimsuit. She loved to swim and appeared comfortable in her time-weathered body, which had folds and sags that I had never seen before. I don’t imagine I’ll be as confident as her as I continue to age. Even now, I decline my critical vitamin D needs, refusing to visit any sun-kissed place that requires swimwear. Even a Land’s End suit doesn’t cut it, as hard as they’ve tried. And don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the wide straps and “thinning” colors. Thank you, Land’s End. Really. You tried, and that’s the least you could do.
I am a vain, vain woman.
Estrogen has been called the fountain of youth, yet every day I take a cancer pill that depletes my body of estrogen. Forget menopause, my treatment sucks dry every nook and cranny where I imagine cappuccino size dregs of the scared hormone hiding. The fountain of youth has dried up, and I’m scared. But what scares me isn’t the cancer returning; it’s the appearance of my face. I might become ugly.
In fact, I have found myself—and this is very hard to admit—in front of the bathroom mirror, thumbs at my temples, pulling my skin smooth, imagining what I might look like if the reconstruction surgeon who performed my mastectomy did a little extra something-something while I was under the knife to correct thing number one and thing number two. Right now my breasts have the unfortunate look of an older Pontiac with those closing-flap headlights they used to make, one flap stuck half way up in a sorry wink.
I’ve always wanted to be one of those super confident women who grow their hair long and gray, who compost and tend their vegetable garden and then go inside and write a few poems before lunch. A confident woman would not be obsessed with her physical features; she could care less about cosmetics. A confident woman would dive for the novels and art before they burned.
But alas, I am a vain, vain woman. Forget the rest, I’d jump in the flames to grab whatever precious vial passed as a cosmetic in 1497. In 1497 I would have been burned at the stake.
The sin of vanity seems to have withstood the test of time, even in my own life. I thought these things were taken care of. In college, at the tender age of nineteen, I changed the course of my life and began focusing on the things that I believed really mattered like, say, eternal life and love and my father in heaven who will one day introduce me to real beauty. Everything looked pretty cool on the surface—all that estrogen and Sun In and those awesome Levi’s 501 jeans. However, even then, a great mass of insecurity and self-doubt was submerged within me.
A year ago I found out I had breast cancer. After a mammogram, and then another mammogram, I was led in my pink gown to a small room with no windows and, I swear, no less than twelve tissue boxes. I sat there, beginning to feel like something was definitely up, until a nurse came in and sat down across from me.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
I said, “Apparently not,” and thus began my tumble into the world of pink things and breast cancer.
There was a two-week period after my diagnosis in which the forty or so years that I assumed I had left to live (I come from good genetic stock so ninety seemed about right) all of a sudden became three or four. My life—or more precisely, my death—felt five inches from my face, and all I could do was call out to the Lord for more years, plead that he would save me and that my cancer wouldn’t kill me. And God said yes. After a double mastectomy and many reconstructive surgeries, as well as medicine that I swear was concocted from bat urine and swamp sludge, my nodes are clear, my tests continue to show zero cancer, and my oncologist tells me my prognosis is excellent.
But trip wires averted, when I look in the mirror now—even with the reconstructive surgeries—my chest is a gnarly mess. It’s just plain ugly.
So here I am again. I understand that my worth is found in Christ and not in physical beauty, but believe it or not I can still go there; I can still feel insecure and turn to vain things rather than Christ. I can focus on myself and how I look, or how bad I look with my cancer-marred body, which in turn can make me feel self-critical and insecure, just as I used to feel proud when I felt pretty.
But God’s aware of my insecurity, and he’s right here, and I’m his child, and what child, especially to her father, is not beautiful?
It’s a matter of paying attention, I think. Of not doing the idol thing. When I pay attention to what God communicates in Scripture about how much he loves and cares for me, I’m reminded that he is the one who makes me beautiful. He’s continually at work sanctifying and purifying me. Christ in me is a beautiful thing. 1 Peter 5:6–7 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you” (ESV). This verse could have been written especially for me. When I’m trying on an ill-fitting pair of jeans, anxious about all kinds of worldly nonsense, it reminds me to be humble. I’m already in the habit of casting my anxieties about cancer on God, but this verse reminds me to cast my anxieties about the silly things on God too, to give him all my grief about physical beauty. God cares for me. When I reflect on his love, I don’t feel a need to default to the physical beauty that the world values. My pretty, tan body on the high dive so many years ago recedes farther and farther into the past as I look forward to Christ exalting me at the proper time and unveiling my true beauty.
Cancer is one way God has graciously (yes, graciously) helped me see myself as beautiful, to see his vision for love, grace, and peace refracted in me. God didn’t cause my cancer, but he allowed it, knowing that he would use it for greater purposes.
Without estrogen, I’m not as pretty as I was before the cancer. There’s a lot of hair in the drain when I take a shower, and the wrinkles are coming fast and furious. I struggle with this, especially in a time when beautiful women seem to be around every corner with their ten thousand teeth and airbrushed (let’s just assume) torsos. It can sometimes feel like those moments in the Gospels when Jesus—almost oddly—says “I tell you the truth” over and over, like he knows beforehand we’ll keep forgetting something important he told us years ago and seek beauty from a Target mirror instead of from him.
2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.” I will one day be beautiful and it will have nothing to do with the tightness or youthfulness of my physical face. It will have everything to do with my reflection of him, my God, my Father, my Savior. All praise to the great healer of my soul and my body. I am his bride, and he will have the most beautiful bride.
So I’m glad, in the end, for my estrogen-less body and all that comes with it. There is a way, it turns out, to toss my Maybelline eyeliner in the fire with the books and art and to actually be thankful. It’s a wonder to me that much of my beauty in heaven depends on my fading physical beauty. The less attractive I become in the world, the more attractive I become in his eyes, because in cutting off my estrogen he is cutting off my idol. He is pruning me, and even though I might have to wait a bit, it’s worth it because I’ll be so freaking pretty.
Katherine James has an MFA from Columbia University where she taught fiction and received the Felipe P. De Alba merit fellowship. She has work published in the anthology In the Arms of Words (2005), St. Katherine Review, and other journals. Excerpts from her novel, Can You See Anything Now, which was a semifinalist for the Doris Bakwin Prize, are in the anthology Between Midnight and Dawn, and one of her short stories was a finalist for a Narrative Spring Prize. A novel, as well as a memoir account of opiate addictions and overdoses in her community, is forthcoming from Paraclete Press.