The 'Positive' Message About Body Image That Hurts Me as a Person With a Disability

I had a conversation recently with a friend about body image. It went something like this:

Friend: “It’s not about how you look. It’s what you can do.”

Me: “Yep.”

Friend: “Physical appearance has nothing to do with ability. It’s not about how skinny you are, it’s about what you can do physically.”

Me: “Yep.”

I didn’t really want to say “yep.” I was absolutely cringing on the inside. On the surface, the statement my friend was making had credit – weight and physical ability are not the same thing. Just because a person is overweight, it doesn’t mean they are any less capable then the next person.

While I’m not overweight, my body has limited abilities due to rheumatoid arthritis and complex regional pain syndrome. Implying that physical ability is more important than outward appearance may have merit, but not if you are living with a physical disability. I can more easily change my appearance then I can my physical functioning.

This message – that ability is more important than looks – is such a double-edged sword. It frequently comes up in the media and advertising, and it is supposed to be inspiring and supportive. Yet I can’t help but feel it further marginalizes those of us living with a physical disability. Implying that ability is the most important aspect of body image only reinforces to me that I should feel bad about my body because it doesn’t work as “healthy” bodies do.

This type of message does not make me feel empowered. It makes me feel more limited.

I realized later that I missed an opportunity to explain this to my friend. His “inspirational” words were actually hurtful to me, although I know they were not intended that way. When faced with a similar conversation in the future, here’s how I would respond:

“Appearance is one aspect of body image. Ability is another. Neither of these defines a person and neither makes them better or worse than anyone else.”

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