Healthy Body Image and Disability
Talking about disability, self-esteem and body image is very difficult for all of us at times. People look at me and see a woman with one leg and in a wheelchair, not to mention that I’m also plus-sized. They also, more often lately, because I choose to project what’s good with me, to see a vibrant redhead with a bright smile, who likes to dress for success (yes, on a budget), sharing my sense of humor and love for life. As a result, more people like being around me and their positive attitude works wonders on me as well.
Thankfully, there are more realistic and positive portrayals of disabilities in books, movies, TV and cartoons. Characters with disabilities are becoming more and more a part of the human community landscape in the media, but we have to push for more. There are dragons in wheelchairs on morning cartoons, characters on crutches, soap opera characters with facial deformities, commercials portraying customers on walkers and using assistance animals and canes, actors openly dealing with mental illnesses, fibromyalgia, diabetes, etc. But beyond those helpful, imaginary and famous images, let’s look at what we can do right where we are -- living with our own disability challenges to help us see ourselves as more whole, able, likeable, talented, and attractive.
If you are overweight or even too thin, don’t get hung up on those numbers.
Weight doesn’t tell you much. Is it muscle, bone, or fat? Did you know muscle weighs more than fat does? Weight isn’t the best indicator of health or fitness. Look at your eating habits, exercise, rehabilitation and physical therapy patterns. These and other lifestyle choices are more important than anything. I may not be able to walk or jog and I’m not a size two, but I can swim to stay healthy. I can lift small weights, do laps in my wheelchair, and lift myself up and down in my chair to keep my arms strong. Weight and the ability to walk don’t define who you are as a person, but strength of character, being the healthiest you can be – these things rev up your energy, appearance and attitude, drawing people to you.
It’s your attitude, how you meet, greet and treat others using what you have that matters. Show people what you have to offer, not what you don’t have and they’ll notice what you have working for you beyond any challenges you’re working around. That also applies to people while job hunting. Present your abilities. Don’t get so hung up on your disabilities, whether or not the employer notices, or if you’ll be discriminated against, etc. An interview is your time to shine, not draw attention to your deficits. Worrying about something can sometimes shift your thoughts and actions toward the very thing you don’t want to happen. Practice in a mirror or with a friend to present the best you. Make eye contact, smile, and engage your interviewer or anyone new you meet.
Realize that you cannot change your body type with a simple genie’s blink. Work with what you’ve got. If you live with dwarfism, a neuromuscular condition that atrophies your limbs, or are missing a limb entirely, learn to love and respect your body for what’s there. Even with a slumped posture or not-so-straight legs, you can hold your head high, stand tall and look people in the eye. You may spasm or stutter when you talk, but the passion and focus you put into your words will be heard and seen more clearly than any stutter or jerky movement.
Invest time and money in yourself, and then share it forward. Spend your extra money on flattering well-fitting clothes within your budget for a job interview or school. I’m a bargain hunter, so don’t think you have to shop major designers to look good. There are thrift stores and estate sales with great pieces for you to choose from. Invest in adaptive fitness equipment (some insurance will pay for it), or a haircut that flatters your face. Get a massage from a friend studying massage therapy and it won’t be so hard on your budget. Feeling good doesn’t have to be expensive. You can look and feel like a million bucks even if you don’t have more than a few pennies to bounce around. Eating better, while still indulging occasionally, lasts longer than any diet. See your doctor or a dietitian to help you find an eating plan that meets your needs and still fits cravings.
Try personalizing and decorating your adaptive equipment. It’s yours, a part of your body in many ways and people notice it like they notice a nice car or nice outfit. You don’t have to roll around Mercedes-style to have a clean, shiny wheelchair with personalized covers on your wheels, customized upholstery or some other embellishment. Your clothes and equipment are part of you, so express your personality. My custom wheelchair wheel covers feature my purple business logo. I figure, if people are going to be eyeing me I might as well flash my website and a pretty butterfly logo at them to educate and amuse them. I’m often noticed more for the purple and custom wheel covers than I am for having a plus-sized, one-legged body on wheels. And that makes me smile wider inside and out, which makes me more approachable.
As a lady amputee, I will sometimes fold my slacks leg up at the end of my stump and put a sparkly pin on it, or sometimes even a handy business card pocket! People compliment the pin and move on, or say how clever the placement of my business card pocket is. Or, we engage in a healthy conversation about my disability that makes us both comfortable to share about it. People have questions and that comes with the territory. No one should be afraid to learn something new. You might learn something new in how you answer, too, or give them advice for a loved one and make a new friend going through something similar.
Stop comparing yourself to others. No two people, even with the same disability are alike. I have spina bifida from birth, one of the most common disabilities at birth. There are similarities between me and others with spina bifida, but we are also as different as snowflakes. I’m not terribly active in wheelchair sports, but I love watching it, so I have a few friends who are involved as athletes and I have made a great fan for them. I’d rather be of help and a friend to someone with a similar challenge than spend time inside my own head worrying and comparing each other in an unhealthy, hurtful and negative way.
Move in whatever way you can and enjoy your body. Go walking, rolling in your chair, zipping on your scooter or gallivanting on your cane and crutches at the park or around the block. Go swimming or learn to swim, hand cycle with your biking friends, and have fun wheelchair dancing with others who love ballroom dancing or going to dance clubs. Do yoga from your wheelchair, from bed, seated on the couch or do bed rest-style aerobics. Everything can be adapted or worked to your abilities. And there are organizations, groups, videos and classes to help. Joining some classes in your area will get you out to meet other people. Join clubs and advocacy groups to improve life for yourself and others. Join or start your own Meetup.com group around something that interests you. You will find other friends interested as well.
You’re the only you there is. Love starts with you before you can find it in others, and then share it forward. Believe in yourself. What you believe about you, others will agree with, too, so make it positive.
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