The Mighty Logo

How to 'Photoshop' Your Self-Image When You Have a Disability

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Do you remember when we had to have our photos developed before viewing the images? The days when selfies weren’t even a thing and group shots didn’t involve a million retakes? Back then, we had no way of knowing if our arms looked flabby or if our leg braces were showing in photos until we picked up the physical prints.

Today we can not only instantly view our images, but we can also correct any and all perceived imperfections of them in seconds. With just a few taps and a free download, we can airbrush away wrinkles, tighten saggy jawlines and even remove inches from our hips and thighs. Don’t want that scar to show in your profile picture? Voila, gone!

While some of these tools can be fun to use (I’m kinda obsessed with making graphics for Trend-Able‘s social media pages) the focus on perfecting one’s selfie makes it much more challenging for those of us with disabilities to learn to accept our imperfections and feel confident in our own skin.

I have recently received several emails from people following Trend-Able’s social media pages who express feelings of shame and embarrassment about having various disabilities. They’ve told me stories about being afraid to go places and do things they “used to do” because of their fears of being judged. This got me thinking, at 2 a.m. of course!

What if instead of using these airbrush and photo editing tools to erase our perceived flaws in order fool others into thinking we’re hotter or thinner than we really are, we use these same tools to permanently alter our thinking, build confidence and create a more positive self-image? Good idea, right?

If you’re with me (or just curious if the metaphor will work), and want to Photoshop a more confident and happier you, try using the following six-step guide:

Step 1: Uninstall Old Software.

The first step is to delete all of the old stories that limit your thinking and keep you from being the best version of yourself. These old stories are like playground bullies in your head, taunting you with negativity and telling you no one likes you and that you aren’t good enough to play.

When I first got divorced and found myself back in the dating world at age 40, it was scary to say the least. My disease had progressed since I was last single in my 20s. Back then, I was not wearing bi-lateral leg braces and my fingers could manipulate buttons and grip loose change.

Because of my fears of the unknown, I created a negative story in my head that “no one good would ever want me because of my disabilities.” In order to find love again, I had to erase the negative thinking and old stories that were getting me stuck. When I met my now husband, I had created a new story which was, “the right person will love me for me, and not care about my physical limitations.” Obviously it worked, as I scored big time. My husband is kind, generous, handsome, over 6′ tall, with a full head of original hair — a rare commodity in the Jewish and over 40 dating pool.

Step 2: Assess the Image Objectively.

People with high self esteem know who they are. They play up their strengths and accept the less than ideal parts of themselves that cannot be changed. Just as I will never be a 6-foot long-legged supermodel, I’m also unlikely to ever run (or walk) a marathon, or become a math wiz. Our self-assessments should be based on the people we are today, not on older, “pre-disability” versions of ourselves who once could _______.

When evaluating your overall image, try to think about how others would describe you. What would a friend say are your best attributes? What skills come naturally to you and not to your friend? What things are you not so good at? Try looking at yourself objectively, both your good and not so good attributes.

Step 3: Decide on the Focal Point and Highlight the Shit Out of It.

After looking at the big picture and knowing yourself, you can then decide which attributes you want to be the focus. Do you receive compliments about your sparkly eyes or genuine smile? Are you a great singer or talented writer? Which of your inherent qualities and attributes are you most proud of? Once you decide on the features you like about yourself and feel proud to display, put everything else in the background.

We may not be able to control our disabilities, but we can control our personal style. The clothing and accessories we put on our bodies communicate who we are and have a huge impact on how others see us and most importantly, on how we see ourselves. Just because I wear leg braces and have sucky hands does not mean I have to wear clunky looking grandma shoes and elastic waisted pants. Your disabilities do not have to define you.

Try choosing only clothing and shoes you love and feel confident in. Play up your best assets with great fitting fabrics, color, and fun accessories that show your personality. Simple changes like parting your hair a different way or buying a new shade of lipstick, can be simple confidence boosters. If you want to learn how to use highlighter like a Kardashian or do your makeup better, you can sign up for a free makeover at Sephora and Ulta.

If doing your hair is an issue due to fatigue or limited arm strength, look for salons offering $20 weekday blowouts, or try using tools like a hands free blowdryer stand or heated straightening hair brush. The point is that when it is physically possible, get up, get dressed and get out. You will feel more confident if you make the effort to sparkle and and put yourself in the front and center of the image.

Step 4: Use Natural Lighting and Transparency.

You don’t need special effects or fancy filters. Your image looks best without distractions or fake enhancements. For the record, a little Botox and chemical peels need not be considered enhancements. True authenticity is about knowing who you are and what you stand for.

Real people can laugh at themselves and accept compliments without self-deprecation. They do not need to add silly stickers or emojis as gifts or bribes to gain acceptance from others. Authentic people know their value and always show up as themselves.

Once you know who you are and what you stand for, it’s time to show the real you in the image. Authenticity takes bravery. Some people with disabilities hide who they are from others because they worry about being thought of as weak and rejected. They are afraid of being vulnerable and coming off as “needy.” But in my experience, the opposite is true. People respect and want to be around people who are real.

If you aren’t quite there yet, the good news is that authenticity can be practiced and learned. Try sharing your unedited feelings and stories with the people you like and trust. Smile as often as possible and make genuine eye contact with everyone you encounter. The more real and open you appear, the more attractive and relatable you become.

Step 5: Crop Out Comparison and Negativity.

If you followed the previous four steps, you are almost ready to hit publish. But before doing so, make sure to crop out any leftover negativity and comparison. There will always be people who are prettier, cooler, thinner, funnier, less disabled, smarter, more talented, more successful, nicer and so on than you. Once you accept this, move on. Everyone has stuff.

Life is not all rainbows and unicorns when you have a disability. It is not always easy to think positively when you have chronic pain or struggle to complete the most basic of tasks. You can’t just flip a switch and turn lemons into lemonade when even the act of squeezing the lemon requires assistance.

Positive thinking isn’t easy, but I believe making every effort you can to focus on the things you have and things you can do will prevent you from becoming an angry person no one wants to be around.

If you’ve completed the previous steps, I believe you already have the tools you need to push through the negative thinking and reset your image. When I feel myself spiraling into negativity land, I tell myself, “Lainie, calm your shit down. You have done hard things before; it will be OK.” And guess what? After a five-minute temper tantrum, a few deep breaths and a glass of rose, it usually is.

Step 6: Download Updates Frequently.

We are all works in progress. Just when you think you’ve got it figured and feel confident with the overall image, life will change in an instant and photobomb the entire picture. The final step is to live the best life you can today. Let your image be what it is and don’t waste any energy on how it would have been or could be.

Having a physical disability has probably already changed your life and will continue to do so. In order to be the best versions of ourselves, we have to take risks and work through the kinks every new update brings. With greater self-confidence and a positive self-image comes the ability to design around challenges, adapt and evolve.

Remember, your image is one of a kind and not on the cloud. Don’t forget to hit save and back up your hard work!

Getty image by Santypan.

Originally published: November 4, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home