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Learning to Accept My Body as a Disabled Person in Eating Disorder Recovery

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As a disabled person and a disability justice activist in eating disorder recovery, I have at times felt alienated from eating disorder recovery and body positivity spaces. I have struggled with my body image throughout my life, and as a result, I have sought out treatment programs, support groups, social media accounts, and books that promote body appreciation and respect. Although these resources have been helpful to me in many ways, I also feel they can sometimes have shortcomings when it comes to supporting recovery among disabled folks.

I have found that at times, conversations around body appreciation focus on being grateful for the things one’s body can do. In treatment, I have been encouraged to shift my mindset from focusing on what my body looks like to how my body functions. Therapists and dieticians have asked my fellow clients and me to express gratitude for our ability to walk, run, climb stairs, pick up our kids and pets, etc. We have also been asked to express gratitude for the functioning of our reproductive and digestive systems, as well as our ability to concentrate and perform daily household tasks. Physical strength and bodily functioning are often framed as the rewards of adequate dietary intake and reasons to recover.

However, as a disabled person, these are not all tasks I am always able to do. Due to other mental health conditions and migraines, I am not always able to get out of bed, walk, run, concentrate or perform daily household tasks. I have a suspected endometriosis diagnosis which means my reproductive system may not function regardless of how I eat. Many of my disabled friends and colleagues will not possess the physical strength of being able to climb stairs regardless of whether they recover from any disordered eating habits.

As a disability justice activist, part of my values system involves rejecting the idea that we as individuals are more or less valuable based on what we can do, how well our bodies function, or how strong we are. I will never forget participating in a body appreciation group in treatment, in which numerous clients expressed gratitude for not being in a wheelchair, for being able to stand long enough to take a shower and cook meals for themselves, and for being able to use the bathroom themselves. As someone whose work involves promoting acceptance and even sometimes celebration of disabilities that may require wheelchair use and assistance with self-care tasks, this group felt incredibly alienating and hurtful.

As a disabled person and a disability justice activist, it does not appeal to me to appreciate my body or express gratitude for my body based on the ways in which it is not like the bodies of my fellow disabled friends and colleagues. It does not resonate with me to be grateful for only the parts of me that meet societal standards of able-bodiedness and strength.

Outside of treatment, I have gotten a chance to explore alternative perspectives on embodiment and body-mind relationships that have been much more helpful to me in learning to appreciate my body and finding the motivation to recover from disordered eating. One perspective that has been extremely valuable is Embodied Cognition, or the idea that our physical body is inseparable from our cognition, emotions, personality, and ways of interacting with the world and in relationships with those around us. How hot or cold we feel, whether we are experiencing physical pain, how much sleep we have gotten, and yes, how hungry we are, can all have an influence on our mood, emotional state, actions and thought patterns. Similarly, our physical bodily processes can be affected by stress levels and social/cultural attitudes.

Rather than being grateful or ungrateful for the things my body can or can’t do, I have begun to focus on the fact that the person I think of as “me” cannot exist without my body, and more specifically without an adequately nourished body. When I’m in a period of restriction and in a smaller body, I notice myself feeling much more irritable and lashing out more at those around me, and focusing much more on food than on my friendships and relationships. With more body fat, I feel like a different person — like someone who can be more present with my friends and family, and who feels more compassion and empathy rather than constant irritability. I have learned that I do not have to move my body or possess a high degree of physical strength in order to appreciate it. My body does not have to function the way a non-disabled person’s body functions in order for me to be grateful for it. I can feel grateful for my body for merely being an essential part of my existence.

Whereas in treatment, I have been repeatedly told that I am not my body, and encouraged to separate myself from my body, what has proved much more helpful to me is reconceptualizing myself as my body. My increased body fat literally increases my presence, compassion, and empathy — it is a part of my personality, a part of my self and my relationships with others.

I do not need to move or climb stairs or exert physical strength in order to use my body or be embodied. From my perspective, it is impossible to not be embodied. I am using my body every single moment of every single day, regardless of whether I am sitting on the couch watching TV with my husband or taking a walk around my neighborhood. We deserve to love our bodies not because of what they can do or how well they can function, but because they are an inseparable part of our existence.

As a disability pride activist, I believe in the need to celebrate the inherent worth of every person, regardless of functioning, productivity, or health. Honoring our bodies, and not punishing ourselves for not complying with the thin ideal, is a major part of this. I hope for future conversations in which body appreciation is encouraged as part of self-appreciation as a whole rather than seen as something separate.

Getty image by Victor Tongdee.

Originally published: September 29, 2020
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