August 02, 2022
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Collage design by Ryan Hamsher; Photo contributed by Ardra Shephard
Welcome to Ask Ardra Anything, an advice column about life with multiple sclerosis from blogger Ardra Shephard. Ardra has lived with MS for two decades and is the creator of the award-winning blog Tripping on Air and the hashtag #babeswithmobilityaids. Got a question for Ardra? Reach out on Instagram @ms_trippingonair.
Chrissy asks: I have a head full of shoulder-length wavy hair. But holy sh!t it’s so hard to style now! I can no longer curl it, straighten it, or blow dry it upside down. Do I give in to MS and go pixie? Or fight to save it and cuss every time I “do” my hair?
You wouldn’t know it from my Instagram, but most days I’m rocking my favorite track pants and a top knot. The only thing on my face is moisturizer (if I remember), or yesterday’s makeup if I went out the night before. I put no pressure on myself to look perfect all the time, especially when hot water and slippery surfaces have convinced me that every shower takes 15 minutes off my life.
When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I understood that fatigue was a potential symptom. What I didn’t realize was just how broad and debilitating fatigue’s reach can be.
Thanks to Uhthoff’s phenomenon, even a slight rise in body temperature can slow nerve conduction in areas already damaged by MS. That explains why, for people like Chrissy and me, showers and blow dryers feel designed to do us in.
But other basic beauty tasks can be taxing too. My legs are so heavy and noncompliant that it takes me almost 6 minutes and just as many swear words to pull on a pair of compression socks. And, yeah, I know it’s a stretch to consider compression socks part of a beauty routine.
But when I do make the effort, and my hair smells clean, my outfit of the day is on point, and my eyeliner looks more smoky than slept-in, there’s no denying that there’s an extra spring in my step — metaphorically, at least. When I feel like I look good, my mood improves, I sing more, and I scowl less. I feel better.
Part of the MS learning curve is appreciating that it doesn’t always make sense to do things the way I used to. Energy-saving hacks to my beauty routine give me the option to up my style game on days when it’s worth it to me to do so. If Chrissy can find places to cut corners and conserve energy, she may not have to compromise her shoulder-length hair.
Here are my top style tips for when MS saps your energy:
It’s hard to feel cute if you don’t feel clean. Heat can exacerbate existing MS symptoms, but cold showers can trigger spasticity in some people. Bathing requires some Goldilocks-level self-awareness of what your personal temperature thresholds are.
I invested in a wooden shower bench (in defiance of anything too medical-looking), which allows me to sit when I need to, so I can conserve energy while staying safe from falling.
If, like me, you need a nap after taking a shower, consider showering before bed instead of first thing in the morning.
If blow-drying your hair gets you hot around the collar, but air-drying isn’t an option, consider wearing a cooling scarf or vest while you do your ‘do. Another option is this 2-in-1 lightweight brush and hair dryer, which can be helpful if your arms are weak or fatigue quickly.
Add a blow-dry package at a local salon to your birthday wish list. Or make an appointment at a hair styling school, which may offer discount rates on services.
I don’t know why professional blowouts last days longer than when I do my own hair, but I always splurge on one before I travel to give myself a bit of hair-washing wiggle room after a long flight.
Two words: dry shampoo.
Dry shampoo, which typically comes in a powder or aerosol spray can, reduces greasiness without water or a blow dryer. Dry shampoo doesn’t exactly clean your hair, but it does make your hair look cleaner, and some days, that’s good enough for me!
Decision fatigue affects everyone, but even relatively uncomplicated decisions can be more taxing when you have MS.
Standing and staring blankly into my closet requires balance and concentration that I don’t always have to spare. My favorite app to help with such decisions is Stylebook. It lets me catalog my wardrobe, plan my ’fits, make packing lists, and even track what I’ve already worn, so I don’t repeat looks to the same crowd.
Once I put together an outfit on my phone, I gather everything the day before, so that I won’t spend precious spoons searching for misplaced earrings or discovering that the shirt I wanted is still at the cleaners.
You can minimize decision-making even further by regularly reducing clutter. Start by cleaning out your makeup bag. You don’t need the 15-year-old eyeshadow that you periodically pick up and then decide it’s not a good day to wear fuschia on your lids.
Keep your closet up to date. It was a sad day when I donated my last pair of heels, but what was even sadder was seeing those stilettos every day and “choosing” not to wear them.
Adaptive tools can streamline your makeup routine when arm strength or fatigue are factors.
Eyeliner, for example, requires accuracy and a steady hand. Guide Beauty’s universally designed eyeliner applicator is easy to grip, the precision-tip applicator follows the shape of the eye, and the finger rest and rounded edge help steady and guide your application, making cat-eyes and wing-tips easier for everyone.
Similarly, if you have upper arm weakness, difficulty grasping brushes, or limited fine motor control, try a motorized makeup blender to apply foundation, concealer, blush, or powder.
I used to get dressed and do my makeup immediately before I had to leave. By the time I got in an Uber, I’d be worn out, frustrated, and cranky. Now I make sure to give myself an hour to put my feet up and chill between the time I’m dressed and ready and when I actually need to leave.
Accessories can be an easy way to make you feel put together.
In 2019 I went to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London — a dream come true for me — on a bad MS day. I wore a shapeless, black knit dress that was basically pajamas because I literally didn’t feel like I could handle buttons, zippers, or anything with a belt. I wrapped myself in a pink feather boa and suddenly I was Best Dressed. We were even upgraded to a box seat. I was told the box was more accessible than the seat I’d booked, but I like to think my glamorous look had something to do with it.
How we present ourselves to the world is an expression of our personal identity. The occasional glow-up can be a bit of self-care that lets you feel like your most fabulous you.
Find creative ways to minimize your energy output, knowing that whatever version of you is available on any given day is good enough.
With a bit of planning and some clever hacks, feeling cute doesn’t have to be another casualty of MS. I’m confident Chrissy will look great in a pixie, a messy bun, or a flurry of wild waves.
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