Women with Physical Disabilities & Body Image

How is body image defined?

The medical definition of the term "body image" is defined by Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions as "a person's concept of his or her physical appearance. The mental representation, which may be realistic or unrealistic, is constructed from self-observation, the reactions of others, and a complex interaction of attitudes, emotions, memories, fantasies, and experiences, both conscious and unconscious."

A number of women with physical disabilities struggle with issues around having a positive body image. In a document titled "National Study of Women with Physical Disabilities: Final Report" conducted by the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities, it was stated that, "physical disability can affect body image, and women with physical disabilities hold more negative body image perceptions than other women." A number of women with physcial disabilities may experience feelings of physical inadequacy if they compare themselves to whatever is considered to be the dominant image of beauty shown in the media during a particular time period.

A woman using her wheelchair taking her dog for a walk

There can be no objective judgment of beauty

I am writing this article as a woman who has Cerebral Palsy and mainly uses a power wheelchair to travel around. I remember as a young girl (and even still today at times) feeling so inadequate looking at images of women in the media that didn't look like me. Our perception of self can be influenced by so many outside forces. And I know women and men and those who identify outside of gender norms (both disabled and non-disabled) can also feel inadequate when looking at some media images of different bodies. But it is important to remember that every body is unique and beautiful.

There is a proverb that says, "beauty cannot be judged objectively, for what one person finds beautiful or admirable may not appeal to another." I know what it feels like to think that you may need to apologize to society for being in a disabled body; to want everyone to think that you are totally strong and totally put together. But the truth is we are all human, and human have flaws. Our flaws are what give us our humanity and the strength from which to learn and evolve. It is important to embrace our differences, both as individuals and in society as a whole. As people with disabilities, that can be particularly hard to do because we are often taught that we need to 'fix' ourselves through surgeries and other means. And particularly as disabled women, we may not fit into the societal standard of beauty. But what I am saying is that it is important to define your own personal sense of self-esteem around your body image and your concept of self.

Some form of disability has been around since antiquity

Realizing that some form of disability has been around since ancient times may help you do this. Susanne Bruyere, Director of the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability & professor of Disability Studies at Cornell University has written:

"Disability is a natural part of the human experience across the globe, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference or orientation. Disability is an experience that permeates the human condition and is integral to the human experience. But people with disabilities are often seen as 'different from' the norm of what it means to be human, and as a result are marginalized in their societies."

This was from a 2017 article, which also features a companion podcast, titled "Disability and the Human Experience." I find that her words resonate with me and are helpful in reminding me that disability is a valuable part of humanity's history on this planet.

Keith Armstrong, a researcher out of the United Kingdom, has discussed what is perhaps the first evidence of a wheeled walking aid, found in Egypt. It is depicted as a sculpture in the British Museum. You can see a picture of it on slide 12 of this "SlideShare" presentation. It appears to depict a child using a walker and it is said to originate from the first or second century C.E. So, it is important to remember that disabled bodies have always existed alongside non-disabled bodies and that we are part of the human experience, just like the stars have always been a part of the night sky.

The media often depicts unrealistic and narrow images of beauty – but it's changing

Women with and without disabilities are often influenced by images and messages of beauty from outside the home. Francine Odette, M.S.W. once wrote:

"Women with disabilities living in this society are not exempt from the influence of messages that attempt to dictate what is desirable and what is undesirable in a woman. These messages are often internalized, and they have an impact on how we see ourselves. The further we view ourselves from the popular standard of beauty, the more likely our self-image will suffer. We may experience a greater need to gain control over our bodies, either by our own efforts of restrictive eating and exercising, or the intrusive procedures performed by those deemed to be the "experts" – the medical professionals. We form images of ourselves early in infancy and these are confirmed or altered by the response, or evaluations, made by others."

These words help express that body image is not formed a 'vacuum' – but is rather influenced by many different facets of daily living over time. Remember: nothing in life is stagnant, including points of view. Even how we see ourselves from day to day may shift.

There are a number of models, who are disabled, who have appeared in the media in recent years as perceptions of beauty have expanded. Just a few that come to my mind are Jillian Mercado, Aaron Philip, and Alexandra Kutas. In the 80s, when I was growing up, I didn't have representations of models with disabilities to look to. It's so important to be able to look towards the media, particularly as a marginalized member of society, and see people that look like you reflected back at you. I think that can help boost one's self-esteem, and having a boosted self-esteem can also help to boost body image perception within yourself.

Actress Geri Jewell is one o the few actresses with a disability who has been well known in the media since the 1980s. And, being that she has Cerebral Palsy like me, I always looked up to her as an example of what could be possible for me in my future. She is most famous for playing "Cousin Geri" on a sitcom called "Facts of Life." She was funny and it made me so happy to see her on screen in my grade school days. I hold those memories of seeing her on television as meaningful to me as other real-life memories.

In a 1999 interview on the E! television network, Geri knew that her colleages and fans cared a great deal for her. But image-obsessed Hollywood wasn't as kind. In that interview she proceeded to say, "I was like a 'special' celebrity. Most people didn't know how to accept me because Hollywood is a very perfect place. I think some people had a very hard time with that." The show aired from 1979 to 1986. Laurence Marcus, a television buff from the UK said, "Writers found it hard to create situations for Jewell [in the show], and her last appearance on Facts was in 1984."

After 1984, Jewell acted in other parts and her work has continued on both the comedy and acting circuits, and she also does motivational speaking. She was quoted as saying, "People who don't get out of their comfort zone don't grow. I don't believe in failure; I believe there are setbacks that are put into our path to teach us something and move us in a different direction." Jewell remains an example to other people with disabilities that achieving one's dreams and goals is possible, even in times when society was less evolved around issues of disability than they are today. Without a doubt, Jewell succeeded in accomplishing her goals.

What you can do to help foster positive body image

In conclusion, the following are some things you can do to help foster a positive body image.

In particular, new research (from a 2019 article published in the journal Body Image) has demonstrated "[a] hypothesis...that women who learn to focus on their body's functionality versus appearance may experience improved body image outcomes." The article continues, "A new concept, 'functional-aethetic body image,' emerged describing women's perceptions about the appearance of their body when engaged in functions or activities."

To function in terms of the body (body functionality) "...is an aspect of body image that refers to everything that the body can do." It encompasses body functions related to physical capacities (e.g., stamina), health and internal processes (e.g., digestion), as well as senses (e.g., sight), creative endeavours (e.g., dancing), self-care (e.g., showering), and communication with others (e.g., via body language). Body functionality can also be seen as the "body as process" or "what my body is capable of." This research shows that it is important to focus on all of what your body can do instead of just what you think your body looks like.

I think it's also important to surround yourself with people who do not put you down. Who treat you with respect and who appreciate what make you different instead of perhaps forcing you into a 'mold' that doesn't fit who you really are. Learn to embrace what makes you unique.

Another important thing to remember is to participate in fun activities to get yourself out of overthinking about body-image issues. For example, maybe you like sports, or painting, or cooking. Find something that really resonates with you and do it. Even if you can't go outside, you can participate with people you trust in online games, movie nights, etc. Always try to engage with the wider world around you, however you can.

Lastly, if you feel really down about yourself, always reach out for help. Talk to your friends, family, or a trusted professional. Always write down or otherwise communicate your feelings – even if that takes time (start slowly!) – but get the feelings out. How you look is a small part of who you are. Whoever you are, remember you are valued and loved and you have something to contribute to this world.

About the Author

Julie Maury

My name is Julie Maury. I have Cerebral Palsy and mostly use a power wheelchair to get around. I have a bachelor's degree in English Writing and a master's degree in Disability Studies. I am a qualified qualitative researcher and I enjoy cooking and learning about alternative health modalities as my hobbies.

Most of the stories here on LiveQuickie.com were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 12/15/2020 12:00:00 AM

Vicki Combs
I like the angle you will be using for your comments. As a from-birth disabled lesbian, it didn't take me long to decide the "fashionable" look wasn't going to work for me. I did still want to look good, especially when I was in my professional capacity. None of that really matters now since I am retired and overweight and have nothing to show off. Keeping my wheelchair functional but still standing out is now my focus until I lose more weight! Anyway, I'm rambling. Good luck with the blog. I look forward to seeing what you write.
12/19/2020 5:57:16 PM

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