I Was Diagnosed With Skin Cancer. All I Cared About Was My Looks

The dermatologist called with the results of my biopsy. I was not expecting her to say: "You have skin cancer."

She explained that the spot under my left eye would have to be surgically removed. I was shocked and hung up the phone in tears. I continued to feel depressed and stressed for weeks.

Yet, my emotional response to this news had nothing to do with skin cancer per se. I was not worried about how quickly it might grow or whether it would metastasize. I was not worried about the effectiveness of the treatment or whether the carcinoma would likely return.

I was concerned about what my face would look like after surgery.

Rebekah Burroway
Rebekah is a sociology professor at Stony Brook University. She was diagnosed with skin cancer. Rebekah Burroway

I obsessed over how big or noticeable the scar would be. I felt incredibly self-conscious about my appearance, even more so than when I was an awkward, acne-prone teenager. My reaction to the news that I had skin cancer revolved entirely around vanity.

Perhaps this is not surprising given the proliferation and glorification of unrealistic beauty standards in American society. I am a sociology professor, so I understand that beauty ideals are socially constructed.

Such ideals are produced and agreed upon collectively through human interaction, and they change according to cultural and historical context. There is nothing natural or biological about poreless, ageless skin that looks airbrushed in its perfection.

Humans have pores and wrinkles. Tiny sebaceous glands, angiomas, pimples, blackheads, and all sorts of imperfections surface over time. Hairs poke out in places you don't want them. That is natural.

Flawless skin, impeccably arched eyebrows, contoured cheeks, impossibly long eyelashes, and a perfect, Barbie-pink pout, however, are not.

Yet, in a culture that prizes beauty over brains and youth over wisdom, my insecurities get the best of me. I fall for those targeted cosmetic marketing schemes every time. I spend more money than I care to admit on products full of "skin-loving ingredients" that promise to eliminate all of the flaws that I worry about but that nobody else even notices.

I read about skincare and beauty products voraciously, devoting an inordinate amount of time to beauty blogs and product websites, not to mention the hours I spend using serums and treatments, removing hair, obsessing over my skin with a magnifying mirror, and applying makeup to enhance the things I like and cover up the things I don't.

Imagine the impact of devoting that money and time to other things.

 Stock image
Stock image of a woman looking in a mirror. Rebekah Burroway told Newsweek about how her skin cancer diagnosis sparked fears about her appearance. Getty Images

Last month, I spent $125 on wrinkle cream that will likely last a few months. That's about half of Burundi's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita for a year and one third of Afghanistan's.

Across the world, an estimated 648 million people live in extreme poverty, which means that they subsist on less than $2.15 a day. I just spent almost two months of their income on a skincare product to help me maintain a youthful glow.

Of course, this is just for one product, and I'm also not alone. According to a recent survey, American women in the sample report that they spend an average of $877 a year on improving their appearance. One woman's beauty budget could cover the cost of sending five children to school in Uganda for a year.

Globally, retail sales of beauty products amount to about $460 billion. Meanwhile, it would take $37 billion a year until 2030 to sustainably eliminate world hunger. This means that for the next seven years, just 8 percent of global beauty spending could end extreme starvation and acute malnutrition. That is the price of beauty.

Cross-cultural data from 93 countries suggests that women spend an average of 4 hours a day on beauty enhancements. Once again, that is the price of beauty. In contrast, American women spend only about 37 minutes a day socializing, 28 minutes in educational activities, and 13 minutes helping non-household members.

What if we invested more time in building and sustaining friendships, bettering ourselves through education, and providing assistance to those in the community who need it?

What if I put more time into the kind of selfcare that feeds my soul and makes me a better person, rather than the kind of beauty routine that feeds my vanity and makes me more conceited?

What if just a portion of those hours spent on beauty enhancements were instead spent on volunteering at a local animal shelter, food pantry, suicide hotline, or homeless service agency? The money and time that I spend on my beauty routine could truly be transformative, and I don't mean for my face.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to present your best self to the world. There's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of self-esteem or taking pride in your appearance. Makeup can be a fun source of self-expression and empowerment.

But, as a society, we've let our obsession with beauty go too far. It's not fun or empowering to feel as if you must cover up discolorations and blemishes, bumps and scars, fine lines and wrinkles. Those are the beautiful imperfections that make us human. There's nothing fun or empowering about the relentless reach for beauty standards that are simply unreachable.

If we exercised just a bit of moderation in this pursuit of perfection, we could spend a fraction of that money and time on making the world a little brighter for everyone.

Two weeks ago, I had a Mohs procedure on my upper cheek, right under my left eye. I am lucky to have good health insurance and access to a great surgeon who was confident that he removed all of the cancer.

That's a fantastic outcome, of course. But when I took the bandage off and looked at myself in the mirror for the first time after surgery, I cried. No, actually, I sobbed.

The incision was much larger than I expected. Once again, vanity took over as I agonized over my marred complexion. The stitches come out tomorrow, and I've had some time to wrestle with my new appearance. Life happens, and scars are natural. The scar will fade, or perhaps it won't. But either way, I won't let anything dull my sparkle.

The beauty of social constructs is that they can change. But it's up to us to change them.

Rebekah Burroway is a sociology professor at Stony Brook University. Her classes and research focus on gender, inequality, women's empowerment, health and well-being.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Rebekah Burroway

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