Most of us are obsessed with appearance and body image, which is understandable. After all, attractive people in our society are at an advantage. This is also the same society that often stigmatizes chronic diseases and those suffering from them through pity, disbelief and blame. The focus on outer beauty, the stigma against sick people, and the experience of being chronically ill in and of itself all have a negative impact on body image.
Body Image and Self-Concept
People with chronic illness have a greater risk for negative body image. An astounding 80 percent of American women with and without chronic illness are dissatisfied with their appearance. Men can also suffer from poor body image; at least 10 million men in the United States experience some type of eating disorder in their life, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
The consequences of a person’s perception of his or her body are not just surface level. In fact, body image perception influences general health, wellbeing, and relationships, especially intimate relationships, and can lead to social isolation.
Body image is an important part of self-concept—a collection of beliefs about oneself that includes factors such as social roles, personality traits, and physical description. Self-concept is also influenced by social and cultural attitudes and our experiences with others.
Body Image Struggles With Chronic Illness
We live in a society that values fitness, good health, and physical beauty. For people with chronic illness, these ideals may be psychologically devastating. Physical body changes, such as rapid weight loss or gain, limited or lost mobility or body function, and changes to skin and nails are constant reminders of poor and/or deteriorating health.
Many medications cause appearance-associated side effects as well, including puffy face, skin problems, hair loss, weight gain, and weight loss. Additionally, autoimmune diseases and other rheumatic conditions can cause symptoms that are visible and range from joint deformity to swelling and more. There is also a strong connection between chronic illness and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
How can you prevent getting down on yourself about changes to your body? And how can you improve your self-esteem, even when your body is rebelling against you? Here are some ideas:
1. Listen to Your Body
Your body is like a crafted machine and will signal you when something is wrong. Commit to spending time getting in touch with your body through activities like meditation, deep breathing, or stretching. Stop the attempts to be beautiful that are a detriment to your health, like strict dieting, taking diet pills, or exercising longer than your body can handle. Instead, reflect on your lifestyle and tweak it in ways that can better both your physical and mental health.
2. Focus on Who You Are Now
Too often we look back at the people we used to be before chronic illness and we forget about the people we are currently are. Unless you want to be miserable, stop focusing on all the things you once were able to do or be, and enjoy the person you are now—body flaws and all.
3. Make Healthy Food Choices
It is easy to make unhealthy choices like polishing down a tub of ice cream or eating too much fried chicken, but you will have regrets the following day when your disease symptoms come back in full force. You may know what your trigger foods are, but, oftentimes, those are the comfort foods you reach for. Prioritize your health by coming up with healthy alternatives for the moments when you are tempted. Remember to eat for your health, not just eat. Put real, good food in your body and stay away from processed foods. Love your body and be kind to it and your body will thank you with improved mental and physical health.
4. Practice Positive Self-Talk
An effective way to manage your feelings about body image is to practice positive self-talk. Tell yourself at least one positive thing per day that you like about yourself. You can also try practicing affirmations to help you find peace with negative feelings. Try something like, “I am not perfect but I love and embrace my imperfections,” or “I am beautiful inside and out.” It may seem weird to talk to yourself but the more you do it, the more natural it will feel. Plus, your self-esteem can skyrocket.
5. Nurture Yourself
Real people—men and women—don’t look like the ‘Photoshopped’ models on magazines. But these altered images are one of the main reasons why most of us have a distorted view of beauty. Trying to be like someone who isn’t real creates negative self-talk and makes you forget all the things that make you beautiful. It could be your crystal blue eyes, your fiery red hair, your crazy sense of humor, or your passion for life. Chronic illness limits your time and energy, so focus on nurturing the amazing and beautiful qualities you already have.
Learn to Love Yourself
Many of these habits will get easier the more you practice them. And yes, it is hard to love a body that is continually rebelling against you, but having the tools to deal with negative feelings and thoughts about yourself is a step in the right direction. It is time to stop pitying yourself and learn to love yourself and your body!