Mental health month has just passed, and the focus was on body image.
This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about pretty much since I joined the online chronic illness community; take a scroll through any online group or forum and you’ll soon see why. A combination of normal societal pressures and a life-changing chronic illness means that concerns about medications causing weight gain, inability to exercise and puffy joints are daily themes.
Sure enough, a quick Google search found studies showing that people with chronic illnesses are especially likely to feel negatively about their bodies.
Of course, arthritis can change how your body actually looks. Many of us experience this in a lot of different ways, from being unable to squeeze our swollen joints into our favourite jeans to feeling self-conscious about the way we move on stiff days. Just like anyone else, we probably all have an ideal of how we’d like our body to look and we tend to resent the parts of ourselves that don’t meet that standard. When the reason for this ‘failure’ is arthritis, something we don’t always have control over, we can start to feel even more frustrated and powerless over our bodies.
But a lot of body image issues aren’t just about what you wish your body looked like, it’s also what you wish your body could do. And for those of us with chronic illnesses, that’s probably quite a lengthy list.
As young people, this often hits us especially hard. Having to quit sports teams, miss activities with friends or ask for help on what should be a simple task (shout out to my housemate, who is also my Official Tin, Jar and Window Opener) can make you feel like you’re trapped in your nan’s body. And not in an entertaining Freaky Friday way, more of a horrendous, confidence-crushing way.
Like a lot of people, my body image as a teenager ranged from quite bad to wish-I-was-invisible-from-the-neck-down bad. Since being In My Twenties this is something I’ve actively worked on. Still, before I started writing notes for this post, I’d never really thought about how my arthritis had affected my own body image. Yet before I knew it, I’d written well over a thousand words on it.
So, after a brief identity crisis and a reassuring scroll through some helpful articles, I started to think about what I’ve actually learned as a 21-year-old with both a) a body and b) arthritis.
1. Other people aren’t paying nearly as much attention as you think. Your weight gain or swollen joints might seem unignorable to you, but 9 out of 10 times other people are far too busy worrying about themselves to give more than a second’s notice. Human selfishness is sometimes a blessing, go figure.
2. Harem pants, long floaty skirts and mom jeans are your friend. The fact that they’re currently also fashionable is a bonus. My friend recently described my style as “like a summer fairy” because I live in skirts and floaty pants that don’t restrict my knees. You are under no obligation to hide yourself, but if you really can’t face a mini skirt you do have other options.
3. Crash diets are not your friend. Rip them up. Stamp on them. Throw them in the sea. Not only do they rarely actually work, they are nearly always damaging to both your physical and mental wellbeing. Your body has enough to deal with without adding malnourishment and/or excessive exercise to the pile, and your brain has enough to deal with without keeping track of the calories in a slice of toast.
4. No clothes are off-limits. Sometimes you just gotta face your fears and wear that skirt/pair of shorts/short-sleeved t-shirt, but easing into it by only wearing it for an hour or two (like this super helpful Arthur’s Place article suggests!) can help. When the sky doesn’t fall and people don’t run away screaming you’ll eventually forget you even have it on.
5. Body confidence is holistic – it’s not just about looks. Generally, I’ve found that the more time I spend figuring out what I actually like and embracing my personality, the easier it is to accept my body as just another part of me. So hang out with yourself, you’ll find you have a lot in common.
6. You have to let go of things you just can’t do. I’ve always been a champion of finding arthritis-friendly ways to stay active and do things, but sometimes you just can’t. And it sucks. A lot. But you have to accept it, let it go and move on. Which leads to…
7. You have to hold on to the things you can do. Never let anyone make you feel like your achievements aren’t big enough. You managed a five-minute run? Amazing. You can make an incredible non-alcoholic cocktail? Legend. You’ve finally done enough yoga to touch your toes? Absolute badass.
8. Surrounding yourself with positivity really does help. Make yourself a playlist of songs that make you feel good about yourself (doesn’t matter if it’s all cheese – mine is too), unfollow toxic social media and surround yourself with people who make you and your body feel accepted. You deserve to have a positive environment. You’re on the right track baby, you were born this way (Lady Gaga, 2011).
9. You can ignore a good 90% of other people’s ‘advice’. From your mate claiming he does 21 hours a week in the gym to your aunt Sharon loudly declaring that she’d ‘never want to be dependent on drugs’, learning to ignore others is an important life skill. Your body (and your life) is unique to you, so unless they’re telling you one of your body parts is literally on fire, it’s probably safe to just ignore body comments and carry on.
I’ll leave you with a line from my favourite Tim Minchin song:
“This is my body, and it’s fine. It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.”
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(Any opinions expressed in Izzie’s blog are not necessarily shared by Arthur’s Place. Nothing that you read in Izzie’s blog constitutes medical advice.)