Beauty is most often cast as fun, frivolous, and vain. And though in the larger picture, things like mascara, blush, and lipstick indeed seem lighthearted — it is the business of appearances, after all — there’s also something remarkably potent about beauty. While the conversation has been dominated (and rightly so) by the changing representations of beauty, we rarely hear about the therapeutic and, yes, sometimes life-changing effect it can have. All this week, we'll be bringing you such inspiring tales of remarkable women who have used the power of beauty to cope, empower, heal, and survive. You’ll find their stories are far from superficial. Today, meet Dena Stern, a young woman with breast cancer who used her disease to explore personal style and beauty and cope with her diagnosis.
Based in San Francisco, Stern, now 32, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, and it completely turned her world upside-down. Since then, she’s started her own blog, which deals with cancer and chronicles her beauty and fashion transformation in one seamless swoop. While she’s far from fully recovered — Stern still undergoes regular rounds of medication and chemotherapy — she has found methods of coping and enjoying the more beautiful things in life. Here's her story in her own words: My mom is a hairdresser, so I grew up reading beauty magazines. I used to mess with my hair a lot. My hair has been every length, colour, and texture you can imagine. And I was always pretty good with makeup. In college, I would do hair and makeup for the sorority formals. I made extra money that way. Before I got sick, I definitely took a lot of things for granted. I always had pretty great skin, but chemo destroys your immune system and your collagen; I got acne for the first time in my life at 29. I actually started chemo a year before that in December of 2012. It was awful in the way you hear about it. My hair fell out; I actually couldn’t wear a wig because of potential scalp infection. My boyfriend, and now husband, had loved my long hair. I have this very vivid memory: He told me before to please do not ever cut my long hair. Flash forward and I’m as bald as a baby. I was crying every single day about losing my hair and feeling like I was just so hideous. Also, we had only been living together for a month when I was diagnosed. There were people who were like, "Steve, why are you staying with her?" He had this ex-girlfriend who reached out to him and said, "I think what you’re doing is so great. And you know, I’m single now and here’s my number."
I realized then I had a lot more control over the situation than I thought I did. So I decided that I actually am beautiful.
One day, I broke down and told Steve: "I feel like you are looking at me with disgust." He said, "No, I think you look hot, I’m upset about how upset you are. But honestly, you look like Amber Rose and it’s hot. And if you could stop crying about it all the time, it wouldn’t bother me." I realised then I had a lot more control over the situation than I thought I did. So I decided that I actually am beautiful. I would put on this red lipstick and all these big statement necklaces with stunner sunglasses and a tight tank top and I looked legitimately hot. I would invest in and play around with all these amazing skin-care products. That really made me realise for the first time in my life just how much control I had. But then I learned there are different kinds of chemo. In January 2013, I started a cycle of a new treatment. I was actually feeling better from the treatment, but then one day I was washing my face and I looked down and saw these tiny hairs. My eyelashes and eyebrows had fallen out. I had already gone through the process of being bald. Being bald can be seen as a style choice, but the eyebrows and eyelashes were different. If you don’t have them, it can make you look really sick; there is nothing more disheartening than looking in the mirror and seeing a sick person. I was down — really down. But that’s when I thought: I am not doing this again. I went to Sephora and got this eyebrow kit with stencils from Anastasia Beverly Hills, and I drew on my eyebrows and then did this big thick cat-eye. Then I went out to meet friends. To this day, my friends don’t know my eyelashes and eyebrows fell out, because I had this kit and I was able to just power through it. Beauty gave me this tool that when these things happened, instead of falling apart, I found a way to keep going. It allowed me to create the version of myself that I wanted to see in the mirror.