Body positivity when living with multiple chronic illnesses.
I’m going to start off by saying that body positivity doesn’t come easy. Not that I think it comes easy to anyone, but it’s really easy to hate your body when it doesn’t do what you want it to do on a near-constant basis. It’s also really easy to gain a negative mental image of yourself when you don’t see anything that represents you in current media in a way that isn’t ‘inspiration porn’. Instead of being a source of joy, and pleasure my body is usually a source of pain and discomfort. That part sucks. So, over the years I’ve had to learn a new way to look at my body, a new way to love it … or at least love parts of it.
Snap-on those rubber gloves – let’s get medical.
One of my main bugbears about body positivity, when you’re disabled, is the medical profession. Now, I love modern medicine, and the NHS – I wouldn’t be where I am today without it, however, the medical profession does not help body image. Doctors, nurses, and specialists always look so clinically at the idea of weight, particularly when you’re overweight – “if you just lost weight it might help”, is a phrase I’ve heard far too often. Heck, a nurse once asked me if I was “even trying to do anything about [my] weight” after calculating my BMI. The clinical detachment and the fact that BMI is so lauded as the gold standard for doctors (also, hello boobs and BMI are not happy friends) becomes a problem in itself. In my experience, when they see a number, not within the ‘normal’ range, they seem to get almost excited with their ability to shrug on their white coat and lecture you about something you’re all too aware of. Instead of pausing to consider the patient’s feelings about their own weight, they charge ahead recommending diet, and exercise that more often than not a disabled patient with dietary restrictions is not able to do.
My relationship with my body is fraught with medical intervention – whether that’s through medications, surgery, or physiotherapy, so I am all too aware of what doctor’s think of my weight and appearance. For the past 10 or so years, all doctors have told me was that I had to lose weight, society told me I needed to lose weight, and even some of the people I hung around with at the time told me I had to lose weight. But, the practicality of doing that when gyms and exercise programs are aimed at, and designed primarily for, able-bodied people isn’t easy. All negative reinforcement did was further the narrative that there’s something wrong with me – something my body reminds me of daily.
Disabled people are one of the biggest minorities because we cross-gender, ethnicity, and class. Why then has society decided to not include us in the body-positive narrative? Forget us from sports campaigns? Think a body scan during meditation to find our areas of ‘tension’ will help – we’re always aware of areas of tension because more often than not they are areas of pain. When you don’t see yourself represented you start to wonder why society doesn’t want to look at you, or even acknowledge your existence.
So, how do I combat the body positivity ‘norms’?
Yoga, meditation, a support system, and listening to my body. Yoga, albeit very modified yoga, poses – you won’t see me practicing yoga or any pose that takes less than 10 seconds to move in to, help me to concentrate on my breathing, and consequently my pain management. If I can breathe through yoga stretches when all I want to do is collapse to the floor, I can breathe through my physiotherapy exercises, and pain flares … to a point, there’s sometimes only so much breathing you can so before you’re past your pain limit.
Meditation helps me to listen to my body, and become aware of where my thoughts are headed, which can help me avoid the negative spiral I sometimes get myself. But what doesn’t help is seeing badly marketed body positivity campaigns that aren’t inclusive. ‘Just do it’ might work for some people, but when I’m lying on the couch exhausted down to my bones, the only thing I’m doing is watching Netflix, and chilling with a heat pack. Therapy helps me to realise that sometimes separating myself from my pain is good, whilst sometimes I need to tackle it head-on, and face issues I don’t want to face. And, my partner is always on hand to provide a compliment or two.
So, whilst body positivity doesn’t come naturally to me, I can say I’m on a path towards it. But, it isn’t easy. It’s taken a lot of hard work to make up my own disability positive body narrative in my head to be even moderately happy with my body. Physically, I have stretch marks, swollen feet, and scars I have to treat, mentally I have years of conditioning of having ‘the perfect body’ to undo. Medically I’m working on being no longer scared of telling doctors the phrase “if you just lost weight it might help” ultimately harms more than it helps. But even then, if society doesn’t change its own perceptions and biases to include disabled people, then I’m fighting an uphill battle I’m never going to win.