Body image and chronic illness: For many of us, it’s impossible to think of one without being reminded of the other. Here’s why – and what you can do about it.
Why does my body hate me? I’ve asked myself that question. So many times. A journey with chronic illness is as much an emotional one as a physical one. And it’s almost always accompanied by a feeling that our body has betrayed us. Logically, we know that our body doesn’t hate us – but it can feel that way.
After all, many of us were beneficiaries of good health for quite a while. Sidetracked temporarily by a common cold or seasonal virus; briefly slowed down by skinned knees or a sprained ankle.
But those were temporary setbacks, and we knew that.
Until we had a setback that wasn’t temporary.
And just like that, we were faced with the unthinkable: a condition that won’t go away.
The collateral damage of chronic illness
Chronic illness is a condition with collateral damage:
The very real need to modify our lifestyle.
Long-term side effects from medications.
Mounting medical bills.
An undercurrent of anxiety about the uncertainty of what lies ahead – knowing that we have very limited control over it.
I can tell you that the damage to our self image is very real.
My sense of who I am changed when I was diagnosed with cancer. And although I was cured by a stem cell transplant, I still “see” a cancer patient.
I still “see” my body the way it was when I was undergoing chemotherapy: robbed of the head of hair that made me feel feminine, my body thin from chemotherapy – but bloated from prednisone.
The landscape of my body littered with strategically placed tattoos for radiation, and scars from a biopsy and from the removal of the catheters that delivered the cocktail of drugs.
It’s been 15 years. I still see that person: weak, vulnerable, and frightened.
When I was diagnosed with myositis, this damaged view of myself nudged me again.
I am sure that people could see that I moved differently. My muscles were weak, I couldn’t stand up straight, my face was puffy from the medication and it was difficult to talk and to breathe. Even my voice sounded different.
Dear Body, How dare you?!
Illness changes our relationship to the physical part of ourselves – the part of who we are that we depend on for much of how we function.
And it’s the part of ourselves that we see when we look in the mirror, and that others see when they look at us.
Even if our chronic illness is largely invisible to the naked eye, it is abundantly clear to us.
When we look into our own eyes, we can see it: a stifled grief, a twinge of perceived defeat.
And we feel it – because chronic illnesses often impose some sort of limitation on us – whether it be pain, fatigue, brain fog, mobility issues or something else that forces us to alter how we live.
Why chronic illness affects our body image and self-esteem
There are a number of reasons why chronic illness affects our body image:
It often changes how we appear – not just physically, but emotionally, too. We may look different, or have limitations that we didn’t have before. We may appear chronically tired or seem as though as though we’re not as “sharp” as we used to be.
When we look in the mirror and don’t see the person we used to, it can feel as though we’re facing a stranger.
It calls into question who we are.
We realize that we are living in a new state of unpredictability. Pre-illness, we were used to telling our body what to do and depending on it to comply.
It’s much easier to be in a relationship with mutually acceptable expectations, isn’t it?
We don’t have that luxury when we are struggling with a chronic condition.
We begin to question our own worth and capability. After all, how can we co-exist peacefully with and look fondly upon a body that has, from our perspective, completely fallen down on the job?
When we are chronically ill we are often constantly aware of our body. It can be hard to appreciate a body that regularly reminds you that all is not quiet on the western front.
We somehow have to accept that to be present in the moment also means that we have to be present with some degree of chronic discomfort that can vary from day to day on a spectrum from mild to severe.
But, we are not alone. It can help to connect with or to hear the perspectives of others who struggle with their body image because of their chronic illness.
How we can learn to love a body that “hates” us
1. Acknowledge how you feel
Allow yourself to grieve. Your chronic illness is a life-changing event. You can’t address an emotion that you’re not willing to face. You have experienced a loss, and it’s 100% okay to feel whatever way you feel. Talk about it, write about it, join a support group, or consider therapy.
2. Realize that there are things you do have control over
You have control over how you choose to respond to your situation. And those choices include the ability to make some very important decisions:
The most critical decision will be how you will adapt your life in a way that allows you to thrive.
You may need to ask for help, to request an accommodation at work, to adjust your own schedule so that you get enough rest.
You will need to learn to say no.
And you will learn how to prioritize so that you spend your energy in a way that strikes the right balance between what you want to do and what you can do.
3. Take care of your body
It’s not your enemy. It needs you more than ever.
It can be tempting to give in to indulging in whatever may provide immediate comfort: unhealthy food, too much alcohol, too much sleep or too little physical activity.
Don’t make it a habit.
Nurture your body. Eat healthy, nutrient-dense whole foods. Drink plenty of water. Reduce added sugar and processed foods.
Move – in whatever way you can. A brief walk, some gentle stretches, deep breathing exercises.
If you have significant physical limitations, consider physical therapy. There are low impact and energy-preserving exercises that you can do from a chair.
4. Change your view – literally and figuratively
I recently rewatched a fabulous film – Dead Poet’s Society. If you’re not familiar with it, the 1989 film follows the story of an English teacher, played by Robin Williams, who teaches poetry – and the life lessons learned from it.
In one scene, Williams stands on his desk. “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things a different way,” Williams’ character says.
Now is the time to look at your world differently – because it is different.
Step away from some of the long-held assumptions about what your body should look like. Recognize that we live in a a world where every image is seemingly curated – and those final snapshots we see on social media are but one moment in time.
Appreciate what you can about your body. Know that when you look at other people, part of what you see is who they are – not just how they appear.
5. Recognize what makes you feel like your best “you”
We can’t separate our minds from our bodies. And we all know what makes us feel good about who we are.
Think about when you feel you’re at your best.
We all have natural “gifts” and talents. When we use them we feel better about all aspects of who we are.
It’s natural to want to present our best “self” to the world.
Wear what makes you feel good. Enjoy the perfume that you typically save for special occasions. If a manicure or a trip to the salon for some much-needed pampering is in order, indulge.
Personal “grooming” is not just about “preening”. When we take care of our appearance, it’s a reflection of how we are taking care of what’s on the inside, too.
I know these may seem like small, surface things – but together they can help.
Is it easy to change the way we see our body?
Why? Because self-love of body and soul is not a one-time event. It’s a process.
It’s a relationship with our deepest self, and like any relationship, requires commitment, acceptance, nurturing and a desire to deepen and grow.