Why Telling Me I 'Don't Look Sick' Is a Double-Edged Sword

Every person living with a seemingly invisible illness has lived this scenario. Maybe you’re speaking to a distant family member when it happens. Perhaps you run into a former classmate or friend from work. It could be the sweet lady who sits in front of you in church. Regardless, we’ve all been in those situations where someone says, “You don’t look sick.” It’s a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, this person thinks they’re paying you a compliment. On the other, it only adds to the invalidation we often feel.

So, let me make it clear to all those who aren’t living with chronic illness. I think I can safely speak on behalf of all those with invisible illnesses when I say – please, for the love of all that is good and kind and understanding in this world, stop saying we don’t look sick. It just isn’t conveying the nicety that you’re trying to insinuate.

For instance, if I “look healthy,” there’s been some serious effort that has gone into that façade. I begin preparing to go into public hours before I go. I know there will be people who try to diagnose my current situation based on how I look that day. I save myself effort and aggravation if I try to look like everyone else. This has nothing to do with make up or wardrobe choice – it has everything to do with waking up in time for my medicine to start working before I go in public. It is about me achieving a manageable blood pressure and often using enough heat or ice to make my joints feel functional.

Let me try to explain. I look mostly healthy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m exceedingly aware of all the ways illness keeps me from measuring up to society’s standard of health. However, I look like every other 30-something for the most part. This means when I see doctors I often feel like I don’t meet the bar for what is “sick enough” for them. I typically feel that my smile, laugh or even pleasant disposition inhibits me from getting the care I need. Quality of life is not easily quantified, so I often feel like it is being determined at face value rather than by my actual experience. It’s frustrating. So, when you tell me I “don’t look sick,” you’re listing another problem that keeps me from receiving care- rather than giving me a compliment. I completely understand that isn’t your goal; however, I would be lying if I pretended that I perceive that phrase as some sort of compliment.

If I dig into that phrase a little deeper, I’m able to understand why it strikes me as hurtful so quickly. When we say that someone does not look sick, we are essentially telling that person he or she has no obvious disability. This means as my illness progresses, and I inevitably begin using a walker or wheelchair, I will start meeting society’s standard of looking sick. I won’t necessarily be any sicker than I am right now. However, as my mobility changes, I will meet the definition others expect me to fit to be “sick enough.”

Please, understand that I am not one to nitpick over semantics. If you say something to me with the best of intentions, I will do my best to perceive it as you intended. I am not trying to make anyone hyper-aware of their language. However, in this world where I believe all decent people are called to learn how to constantly be better and to make their language as inoffensive as possible, I want to challenge you to say something different. In all reality, it’s not necessary to comment on how anyone looks anyway. Try asking someone how things are going – and genuinely wait for a response. Maybe tell someone that you are glad to see them – rather than invalidating their illness, you are letting that person know you value your time with them. I feel like all of us are above commenting on someone’s physical appearance.

Oh yeah, and if you make a mistake and accidentally tell someone they “don’t look sick,” no worries. All you must do is add some empathy. Follow up with, “But I understand that you really don’t feel well.” See? That’s all it takes. I promise – I will always appreciate your empathy and understanding.

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