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5 Secrets to Loving Your Body With a Chronic Illness

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When you read magazines or hear TED Talks about self-love or body image, the tips may sound easy, ranging from “Look in the mirror and say you’re beautiful” to “Exercise for the endorphins and a reminder of all you can do.” When you have a chronic illness, however, learning how to love your body can be more complicated.


I know from personal experience. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 11, and celiac disease at age 17. I’ve been 10 pounds heavier and 10 pounds lighter than what I weigh right now. Even harder than the physical changes, though, are the mental ones. How do you love a body that often causes you extreme pain? A body that will bloat without a single logical cause?

I’m still learning those answers. However, here are five secrets to loving a body with a chronic illness that I’ve discovered so far.

woman standing outside and making a heart shape with her hands, with text that says '5 secrets to loving your body with a chronic illness'

1. Stop comparing your body to “normal” counterparts. 

Honestly, as a female college student, this is one of the hardest tips for me to follow. Every day as I walk across my college campus, I see girls who seemingly have the “normal” body I often crave. They can rock crop tops without worrying about looking five months pregnant. They have the curves I lost from my celiac diagnosis.

However, the more friends I’ve made, the more I’ve realized that even seemingly “perfect” bodies can have their issues. One friend revealed that she is missing toes on her right foot, and always wears closed-toed shoes to cover up her “flaw.” Another friend – the girl who appears to “have it all” in terms of beauty, brains and a doting boyfriend – has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and is often in extreme pain.

All of this goes to say that comparing your body to other people’s won’t only make you feel worse, but it is also a false sense of comparison. Just like people don’t know I have fibromyalgia or celiac disease by looking at me, I don’t know what struggles they’re going through. Self-love is an intensely personal process; as such, you should ditch comparing your exterior to anyone else’s!

2. Come up with funny names for your flare-ups or symptoms. 

Am I the only one who turns to humor when I’m having a hard day? At least from my conversations with other chronic illness warriors, the answer is no! I was talking to a friend with severe IBS, complaining about waking up like a bloated whale. Her response? “We all have our fluffy days. When I wake up like that, I say Miss Puff has come to visit!”

Now, anytime my intestines aren’t behaving, I credit Miss Puff. It’s a way of reminding myself that I shouldn’t take life – or my appearance or celiac side effects – too seriously.

Maybe you say your body is “under construction” on days when you have a jackhammer migraine. Or if you’re prepping for your colonoscopy (been there, done that), you can say you’re on a “celebrity detox.” The nickname is up to you. Just find some way to remind yourself to laugh and see your struggles with humor and love, even in the most frustrating of times.

3. Find a confidant who understands – or at least tries to. 

It’s impossible to deny that, sometimes, living with a chronic illness sucks. It can mean having to cancel fun plans with friends, avoiding certain foods or restaurants or even feeling like a zombie all day. When I’m having a rough day, nothing helps more than having a venting partner who understands (and therefore won’t say inappropriate comments, like “I wish I had celiac disease so I could be skinny like you“). These partners can keep you from feeling alone, remind you how awesome you (and your body) really are and help you vent…and move on!

If you’re lucky, you may have someone with similar medical challenges who lives nearby. In my case, I was fortunate enough to find a college roommate with fibromyalgia. When it was raining, we complained about our joints…together! Even if you live in a small town where no one else understands, you can find a “spoonie” friend online. You can explore chat rooms for your illness, join Facebook groups or even blog about your illness (like I do!) and connect with other bloggers.

Research has found that people with strong social networks are less vulnerable to ill health and premature death, and cope better with various life stressors. So, the next time you need a helping hand, find an empathetic ear instead.

4. Find activities you can enjoy even during a flare-up. 

For many people with chronic illnesses, the most frustrating part is feeling like your life is controlled or limited by your disease. As a result, it’s important to find activities you can enjoy no matter how you’re feeling. For instance, when I’m feeling good, I love exercising, blogging and exploring my college town with friends. If I accidentally consume gluten, though, I feel like a brain-fogged zombie for a few weeks – and during that time, I enjoy watching Netflix with friends, reading books and taking short walks outside instead.

Being happy with a chronic illness often requires compromising – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy your backup plan. If you’re hit by bad migraines, your “flare-up activity” may involve quietly listening to your favorite podcast as you rest in bed. Or, if you have fibromyalgia and your joints are screaming from the weather, an easy hot yoga class could clear your mind while stretching your body.

Sure, you may not always be able to do everything you want with a chronic illness. With celiac disease, I’ll never be able to eat a “normal” gluten-filled pizza again. However, you can still find ways to kick butt at – and love – life. And when you’re loving what your body can do – even at its lowest functioning – you’re one step closer to loving your body itself.

'she made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. she walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.' - ariana dancu

5. Realize that your chronic illness is a part of you, for better or for worse.

My last tip is perhaps the most challenging: acceptance. If you’ve recently been diagnosed, it may take more time for you to accept that a chronic illness is now a big part of your life. The longer you live with it, though, the more “normal” your illness can feel. And, more importantly, the more positives you can discover.

For instance, I can’t eat gluten – but my celiac diagnosis gave me a new love for cooking (my own, safe gluten-free food). I can’t lift super heavy weights without possibly tweaking a muscle – but the 24/7 pain caused by fibromyalgia has taught me strength and determination. (Not to mention, it’s given me a decently high pain tolerance!)

Now it’s your turn to fill in the blank: My [chronic illness] has fostered [*insert positive traits here*]. It may take you time to figure out what benefits you’ve received, but they exist. I promise. And the more positives you find, the easier it’ll be to love your body for all it has given you…instead of hate it for anything it’s taken away.

Body image is complicated enough when you don’t have a chronic illness. However, loving a body that doesn’t seem to love you back isn’t only possible – it’s also necessary. In my case, I’ve discovered that my stomach acts up more when I’m stressed, so if I stress out over an intestinal freak out, I’m only perpetuating the cycle.

Pay attention to your own flares and see if you can notice any similar patterns. But, even if you don’t, improving your self-love with a chronic illness should still be on the top of your to-do list. You may not have control over your chronic illness, but you can control how you view your illness and your body.

Who knows? Maybe using these five tips and choosing to love your body – despite its flaws – is the first step to your body loving you back.

This post originally appeared on Casey the College Celiac.

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Originally published: July 5, 2017
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