Body image is not just a reflection. It is the intimate relationship we have with the visualization of our physical selves as we are present in our lives.
My graduate design thesis focused on body image and eating disorders, and how as designers we have a social responsibility when it comes to the perpetuation of aesthetic ideals and messaging in the world today. I know this topic like you wouldn’t believe. I know the statistics. I’ve lived them and overcome them. I also have a strong and intelligent daughter who, at age 6 was bullied by classmates who repeatedly called her fat. I have what I would consider a very healthy anger, a motivation to create social change, and a strong sense of self esteem that I see echoed in my daughter’s fiery eyes.
I have a love/hate relationship with my body and it has nothing to do with beauty. I have an autoimmune disease. Some days I feel like Wonder Woman and all is right with the world. Others, I feel trapped in a world defined by my limitations. Forget my goals and life aspirations, sometimes I get angry that I can’t hold a pen properly or that my legs have decided not to work. I have to constantly redefine and re-adapt my daily concepts – motherhood, achievement, responsibility…purpose. But I can rationalize this all. I can intellectualize it. I can also distract from it. I have support – I immerse myself in relentless therapy and push myself like you wouldn’t believe. But I have no control over my condition. None. And that lack of control, coupled with chronic pain – which seems to leave all logic destroyed in its wake – haunts me with daily distortion.
Here are 25 ways that chronic illness and pain can play mind games with you, every single time you see your reflection.
- Far too often I look in the mirror and see my illness, my pain, and my limitations instead of myself as a whole.
- Pain and anxiety about my limitations due to pain, trigger a kind of body dysmorphia – when I’m flaring I can’t process empirical and objective visual information about my body proportions or dimensions.
- Crohn’s Disease has resulted in my having severe anxiety and control issues about what I put into my body because I’m absolutely terrified of GI pain and complications.
- When my symptoms recede, I vow to ‘go even further’ with my diet because ‘if it’s working now, I might be able to feel even better if I elminate / introduce ______.’
- When I flare, I vow to ‘do better’ with my diet because I must not be working hard enough.
- There is always a food and/or supplement related health experiment going on in my life. It is freaking exhausting.
- I have major morality associations with food: I know it’s irrational, but on some level I actually believe I’m a bad person if I eat something that’s not greenlit by my Crohns and connective tissue disease anti-inflammatory diet.
- Irony: this anxiety itself can also lead to irrational food choices, and can – of itself – trigger stress-related flares.
- I sometimes have to self talk and coach myself for hours because of food decisions I have made or am contemplating.
- There are days that I live in terror of the next meal.
- There are days that I have not left the house because of these issues.
- I practice mindfulness, breathing exercises, and therapy so I can deal with my chronic illness, and all the secondary invisible illnesses that seem to come with it.
- At my healthiest (including through all of my pregnancies) I have been concerned that I am somehow both too skinny and overweight.
- At my lowest weight I have thought I am both too skinny and overweight.
- I have mild OCD that gets triggered by my flares. When I feel ‘out of control’ because of my health, my checking compulsion and fixation on numbers goes haywire. Because of this I can not use a Fitbit, look at calories or nutritional values, and have worked my way down to only weighing myself once a week from multiple times a day.
- I have spent more time than you will ever know convincing myself that I don’t have to check.
- I have spent more time than you will ever know arguing with myself that I do.
- I have learned that when people are going to mock and criticize you or your issues, they’ll do it no matter what you look like.
- I spend 90% of my time looking like the bottom picture: I was lying on a heating pad. I had been crying for 2 hours because my arthralgia and stiffness were so bad, and my hip had popped out again. My joints were swollen and I shamefully hid my hands. I felt defeated. The man I love said ‘Hi, Hot Stuff’, and I flinched.
- I spend 90% of my time wishing I could be the top picture again: I was happy and my pain and health were manageable. I had just eaten an ice cream cone and my ‘gastro-panic’ didn’t set in. I saw the stretch marks on my hip and felt beautiful. I saw my scars and felt like a fighter. I felt my thighs press into each other and was present. The man I love said ‘Hi Hot Stuff’ and I saw a man who loves a woman no matter what. I wish I could live in that feeling forever. I wish I could look like that feeling forever.
- Every minute of every day I fight to see beyond the reflection of my pain, because I do love myself. And I also do believe that nutrition and diet will play a huge role in my remission.
- At least once a day I force myself to stand in front of a mirror and say: “I am beautiful. I am whole. I am alive. I am amazing.”
- I hate feeling vulnerable and exposed after I talk about mental health and body image; but I hate the media bombardment of detrimental aesthetic values and our perpetuated disordered eating norm even more.
- On bad days my shame eclipses everything, I hate the sound of my voice, the trite script of both my issues and my advocacy, and I am convinced no one could possibly love me as I am.
- On good days, blissfully, I’m not thinking about much at all.
Every year in Canada, February 1-7 is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, but the conversation about positive body image is year-round.
If you think you, or someone you love has an eating disorder, or may be struggling with depression, anxiety, or self esteem, please reach out. Talk to your doctor, or visit the National Eating Disorder Information Centre for more information. If you are finding it difficult to cope with a chronic illness and/or chronic pain, there are are programs, on-line support groups, and conversations available to you at all times. Please talk to your family doctor or specialists, and then keep talking. I promise, you are not alone.