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Deciding What to Wear on My First Day Back at Work After Getting a Diagnosis

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Imagine the scene: you’ve finally taken the plunge and have a brand new hairstyle. Something significant: perhaps you’ve gone from blonde to brunette (or vice versa); maybe you’ve gone from Rapunzel-esque locks to a cute pixie crop; maybe you’ve channelled your inner-80s-child and gone for a perm (do perms even exist anymore?). Anyway, the fact is, you’ve got this magnificent new hairstyle and, in the salon, it looks amazing! You’re so happy. You’ve waited months, maybe even years for this moment, reading every hair magazine you could lay your hands on, surfing hairstyle forums online, trying every hairdresser you could get an appointment with, and now, it’s all been worth it: you have the hairstyle you’ve always wanted.

Then you get home and reality sets in. It might have been fabulous in the lights of the hair salon, but back home in your bedroom, the shine is already beginning to fade. You decide to get changed and then discover that, actually, this wild new hairstyle doesn’t go with any of your clothes.

Feeling the panic rising, you start to grab outfits from your wardrobe, holding up them up to yourself for a cursory glance in the mirror before discarding them to a heap on the bed. Nothing looks right with this radical new style.

Feeling slightly wary and — let’s be honest — more than a little tearful, you proceed to the jewelry drawer, confident that your very best earrings will make the hairstyle look a little less monstrous and a little more fabulous. You were wrong. The new hairstyle makes your earlobes look an odd shape. The earrings don’t even seem to fit through the holes any more. It’s almost like they don’t want to be associated with your terrible tresses. You grab a necklace and, with shaking fingers, fasten the clasp. The imposter on your head wraps itself around the metal, coming away with a painful tug as you remove the necklace: it looked ridiculous.

Makeup — that must be the answer. Out come the eye shadows — the nice ones you only ever wear for special occasions. In desperation, you even bring up a make-up tutorial on the internet. Surely Mila Kunis’ “smoky eyes” will go with this concoction balanced on your poor unsuspecting head. Oh dear… you look like you’ve been in a fight at the Benefit counter of your local department store.

Perhaps this new hairstyle wasn’t such a good idea after all…

I haven’t had a new hairstyle for several years. What I have had, however, is a diagnosis for a chronic disease and, while the hair-related story above does exaggerate things slightly, I definitely found it hard to know what to wear post-diagnosis, especially for my return to work after only a week off sick. These are some of the genuine and (yes, I know) quite ridiculous thoughts that went through my head as I spent far too much of the day’s energy preparing for my return that afternoon:

If I wear heels (as I have done for all but one day of the time I have worked at this school), will people think that it’s my own fault that I’m so exhausted? Surely anyone would be tired wearing heels all day every day.

Is eyeliner too much? (Again, bearing in mind that I always wear at least a little eyeliner). Do I look like I’m trying too hard?

Should I wear earrings? Will it suggest that I’ve got too much time and energy if I can go to the effort (!) of choosing and putting in earrings?

If I wear a dress, people will know that I’ve shaved my legs. Surely I should be too tired to shave my legs. Maybe I should wear trousers instead.

How cold will it be? Will I need a jacket? Will a jacket look too formal? Will people think I’m trying to make a statement about my temperature if I take a floaty scarf?

How much make up is too much make up? Can you still see the bags under my eyes? Do I want people to still see the bags under my eyes?

Perhaps I should take a small handbag. A large handbag (even if it’s practically empty) suggests that I can carry things. I’ve been telling people that it hurts my chest when I carry things. Those people that I asked to help me carry 60 pupils’ books from my car to the classroom six weeks ago might feel hard done to because I can obviously carry things now.

It is worth saying that my colleagues are a lovely group of professionals and I have no reason whatsoever, beyond my own ridiculous paranoia, to think that any of them would be making any judgements about what I was wearing.

I realize that this diagnosis, as welcome as it was, has really caused me to question myself and other people’s views of me. On the one hand, I don’t want to be seen as ill or disabled; on the other, I need people to understand that — despite appearances — most of the time I do feel ill and can’t tackle work (or life in general) in exactly the same way as I did pre-diagnosis.


I decided on trousers, a top and a floaty scarf (no jacket). There were small earrings and a little eyeliner. The heels were low, the bag moderately sized. I tried to cover up the bags under my eyes but wasn’t quite successful. My colleagues were lovely. As with all new hairstyles, perhaps it’s not what it looks like in the salon that’s important, but how you style it once you’ve come home and given it a good wash and blow dry.

Have you had similarly ridiculous conversations with yourself post-diagnosis? Feel free to comment — it’d be lovely to know that it’s not just me!

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Originally published: October 31, 2016
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