ou know an idea is gaining traction when big brands start using it in their advertising. Such is the case with the body positivity movement. Just look at marketing campaigns from H&M and Dove, featuring long overdue body positive images and messages.
But how do you feel good about your body when everywhere you turn you’re seeing messages that your body is somehow not good enough or “broken.” What about those of us who are wheelchair bound, or those with an ostomy? What about those of us dealing with crippling pain from a severe injury or a disease like endometriosis?
Can we smile for the camera too?
Body Image Takes a Hit With Chronic Illness
Whether a condition or disease is visible or invisible, it can be tough to maintain a good self-image when you perceive your body as having failed you, or turned on you, as can be the case with autoimmune disease.
When you’re dealing with a chronic illness, you are very well aware that your body is outside the “norm,” whether you’re making your own criticisms or picking up on the subtle signals that other people send when they notice your differences. Add this to the barrage of mainstream images that tell us what beauty is “supposed” to be, and it can be very hard to adopt a loving attitude towards your body.
While your negative feelings about your disease are very real, I am here to tell you that the things those culturally-inspired bad feelings make you believe about your body — and your own self worth — are NOT always true. In fact, they are SELDOM true and almost NEVER the whole picture.
If the question is: “Is the body positivity movement something a person with a chronic disease can join?” then the answer is up to each individual, but it is possible. Let me tell you how I know.
As someone who manages type 1 diabetes, a chronic autoimmune disease, I’ve struggled with this issue first hand.
I wear an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor, so I have reminders of my disease attached to my body 24/7. I joke that it makes me feel like a Cyborg, but soon after getting my pump I was astonished to find out how upset I was about my perceived loss of sex appeal. I had not seen that coming.
The pump creates a bulge in my clothing no matter where I stick it: my pocket, my bra. The adhesive used to connect the infusion set to my skin leaves a sticky residue. Sometimes there are bruises from inserting these devices. I jab myself multiple times a day to draw blood for testing.
Yet my husband regularly says to me, in all seriousness, “Thanks for getting diabetes.”
What the hell is he talking about?
He’s talking about the fact that having a chronic disease made me pay attention to my body in a way that I never would have without it. I am now a health nut. I’m thoughtful about what I eat and how much I exercise, as these have a huge impact on my blood sugar. I also make sure I get enough rest and meditate every morning to keep stress at bay. And I got over all those little things that used to bother me about how diabetes makes me look to others.
Does nurturing your body help you to love it? Or does loving your body help you nurture it?
Honestly, I don’t know. But I suspect you can come at it from either direction and get good results.
When you’re first diagnosed with a serious chronic disease, survival comes first. I started working on my health because I had to — I’m very emotionally attached to my feet and eyesight and I’d like to keep them, thank you very much. The positive results helped me want to keep going. Except for diabetes, but paradoxically maybe because of diabetes, I’m super healthy. And my positive changes rubbed off on my husband and my kids, which is why my husband regularly thanks me for developing a pain-in-the-ass disease through no fault of my own.
Yes, there are days when I’m super pissed at my pancreas. But mostly, I’m thankful for all the things my body is really great at doing: Breathing, circulating blood, hugging, thinking…except for, you know, producing insulin, the list is endless.
It’s highly unlikely that type 1 diabetes will be cured in my lifetime. But that’s not going to stop me from loving my body until the day I die.
10 tips on starting your body positive journey
If you’re struggling to accept your body despite a chronic illness, here are a few things you can think about and try. Each of us is facing different challenges have different personalities, so please don’t take this as a definitive list of things you “should” do. This list is based on someone with chronic illness sharing her experience and offering it up with a loving heart and wish for everyone’s better physical and emotional health.
You’ll have good days and bad days. Don’t beat yourself up on days when you’re not feeling very keen on your body.
Know that your body is not doing this on purpose.
Writer Caroline Reilly wrote in Bitch magazine about her experience with endometriosis and concluded: “I realized my body wasn’t turning on me. It was communicating with me, letting me know something was wrong. It was my best ally all along…The villain is the disease itself, which I am finally able to separate from the body it inhabited.”
Cry it all out.
It’s okay to grieve for the body you had. You need to process what’s happened to you and not stuff your feelings inside. Take the time you need to grieve. No one can tell you how long that process should take.
Put effort into looking and feeling your best.
Energy is sometimes (or always) scarce, but it pays big self-esteem dividends to take care of your appearance. Good hygiene, well-fitting clothes, a good haircut and maybe a mani-pedi can go a long way to feeling good about the way you look.
Take a holistic view.
Consider your entire self — not just your disease or appearance. Think of everything that makes you you and start treasuring the whole package.
Remember, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
(Hat tip to Teddy Roosevelt.)
If you catch yourself feeling like you don’t measure up to some cultural standard, try to recognize that and reroute that thought to something more positive.
Don’t take ableist bullshit.
People who’ve never had a chronic disease do not get it and they will say and do very, very stupid things. If you have the energy, call them out. If you’re just too damn tired to set them straight, that’s fine, but don’t internalize their nonsense. They know not what they do. And let’s hope, for their sake, that they never find out.
Be grateful where you can.
Honor the things your body is doing right and think about any gifts this disease has inadvertently given you: more empathy, bigger perspective, perseverance.
Use your energy wisely.
Having a chronic condition is often exhausting, both physically and mentally (even if that’s not one of your disease’s official symptoms). Since this is the case, promise yourself that you won’t spend the precious mental energy you have on hating your body. Nobody’s got time for that.
Find people who get it.
Start googling support groups for your condition and join a few. Not all of them will cover body positivity specifically, but maybe you could do everyone a favor and get that conversation started.
Pretend you are a baby or a puppy.
Seriously. If you had a sick child or puppy, you’d do everything you could to nurture and care for that being because you’d know they didn’t deserve to sick. You wouldn’t scold them and shame them for how terrible they look. Extend the same compassion to yourself that you’d give to a child or animal.
Need some inspiration to get started?
Check out my other article showcasing several body-positive instagrammers that rock their bodies and their conditions.