There are times when one looks at oneself in the mirror and wishes a different reflection back. I wish I were taller, thinner, fairer, that my hair was thicker, my eyes were bigger. This feeling is common and most of us go through it, especially in our growing years. For persons with disability, this feeling can be further compounded because of the disability. The feeling of being imperfect, the feeling of being broken and at some level not structurally fitting into the "societal definition of beauty," can limit one's confidence and one's belief in body image.
As a child with an orthopedic disability, I was brought up by parents who taught me that I was worth it, that I was awesome the way I was and I remember that I couldn't care less. It was okay if I was different, I took pride in it. But as I hit puberty, I slowly started realizing the difference. I could not participate in sports, I was gaining weight, I was shorter and I definitely did not consider myself beautiful in any way. Any compliment on my looks would be met with amusement. I felt like no one could ever like me in any way. While I was very confident in every other sphere, this image of myself lingered and perhaps still lingers on. It oscillates from caring too much to not caring at all. At one point during my teenage years, I was always on a diet, exercising and starving myself constantly. Then sudden pangs of hunger would kick in and I would give in completely. Then the weight would shoot up and I would be depressed, beating myself up for how this could happen to me. It has only been in the past few years that I have learned to tell myself that it's okay, and I am okay the way I look. I don’t think I am completely over it but it is progress nevertheless. I feel more peaceful today perhaps, definitely more confident. It has definitely been a difficult journey—the journey of accepting yourself with your flaws is never easy. The disability also adds to it in the sense that if one wishes to lose weight, it’s much harder no matter how much one works. And one wonders whether one wants to go through this pain. Who am I making a point to anyways?
The problem with having a negative body image is one ceases to notice the beauty that is there. The negativity, I believe, overtakes the positive. A person with disability may have to constantly tell themselves to look at their positive aspects (as far as looks are concerned), the reinforcement needs to be higher and that can make one feel lost. The way beauty and disability are portrayed in the media further adds to this issue—there are very few actors who are persons with disability, and the concepts of beauty and disability very rarely come together. Further adding the intersectionality of gender—if you are a woman with a disability, given women in general are more exposed to societal standards of an ideal body, this issue gets aggravated further. There is a link to to sexuality as well, given people with disability are largely believed to be asexual beings; their exploration of their own body and that of others could be very limited. This creates the image of the body to be something which only provides functionality, not meant to be enjoyed or lived with.
In case of an acquired disability, one experiences a sudden feeling of loss and that can lead to a big dip in feeling body positive. The period around which a person acquires the disability is therefore critical—one must go through the grieving process completely for it to lead to acceptance and being okay.
Very often, compliments given to persons with disability with respect to their body have a "compensatory" effect. "So what if your hands are not functional, you have a wonderful smile". This can further bring down confidence and make one feel the pain of being disabled.
There are often questions around body image for the visually impaired: do they feel it, do they know it at all. One must understand that body image is not just the visual physical self. Body image is multifaceted: how each of each of the senses feels the image – tactile, audio, kinesthetic among others. It's a combination of these which help us realize our body image.
While it is definitely more difficult for persons with disability to develop a positive body image, it certainly is possible. The key essence lies in the support system that surrounds the individual. Family and friends should reinforce (without the sympathy and patronizing which one often witnesses) that the person is beautiful as they are. Concepts such as sexuality could be mandated for children with disability; often, them not being educated on these subjects unlike able bodied children indicates that the society does not believe that they will have an active sexual life, have a partner and this can further reinforce negative body images. Finally, the onus of taking pride in what one is, ofcourse rests with a person with disability but a few of these things do help. But what concrete steps can one take to move towards a positive body image? Mumbai-based psychologist Shreya Sridharan-Mhatre explains body image issues and gives us some pointers on how to we can start a journey towards body posititivity in this piece.
Madhumitha Venkatrman is a human resources professional, and a diversity and inclusion evangelist.