Disability and body image: fitting in when your body does not

Body image and confidence go hand-in-hand. If you’re content with your body and accept it, then you will beam with confidence, leading others around you to do the same. But in reality, things are not that simple.

Confidence issues can apply to everyone, disabled or not. But there is a very different dilemma that many disabled people endure. It is a natural human instinct to love yourself, but what happens when your body shape or image fails to meet the idea of what is supposed to be ‘liked’, let alone loved. You become trapped in dual of dislike and love – an internal conflict within you that eventually destroys your self confidence, leading to possible isolation even when surrounded by many.

For some young disabled people, it can be difficult to have good body confidence when you have a physical disability, and I as a teenager was one of them. Funnily enough, being under weight for my age and having muscular dystrophy, which prevented me from walking, were not major issues to me. In my eyes the thing that made me different was my scoliosis.

I never realised that I was different to others until it reached an advanced stage. And it wasn’t the actual curve that me dislike myself, but instead the brace I had to wear. That’s when I felt most different and isolated, which made me hate wearing the brace.

After I had a spinal fusion operation I thought things would change, but the operation was not a success and my back got worse. And this happened just as I started at a mainstream secondary school after being a student in a special needs school. To a certain extent, people living with disability at the special needs school were better. But they too can be as judgemental and cruel as anyone else, so having a disability does not provide immunity from such nasty characteristics.

Throughout my time at school I struggled, but I did not allow anyone to notice it or pick up on it. I knew that to survive such environment you must never show your weakness or vulnerability. I often heard other students laugh or mock me, saying in a derogatory tone to each other: “Is that your girlfriend or your mother.” It was always done a lower volume, but I always sensed it, even without hearing them. I pretended not to notice because I knew I could not confront them.

I did not dislike these students, in fact, I laughed in secret at their jokes. I could not blame them entirely as we live in such a ‘perfect body’ obsessed culture. Everywhere I turned, and still do today, the idea that your body has to conform to a set standard deemed as the norm is in your face. It was everywhere: in the media, celebrities and I guess people.

All I ever saw on TV were able bodied people that were regarded as ‘normal’. They were loved and desired. But I don’t once recall seeing a single disabled person that received similar attention and desire.

I had no remedy or a plan to deal with these daily taunts so, as the days passed, I developed a dislike for mirrors. I escaped looking in them and soon discovered that what I couldn’t ‘see’ couldn’t weaken me. I ignored the bullies and strived to be stronger than their superficial attitude. I studied hard, excelled at most subjects and my confidence grew slowly.

This confidence reached its peak when these same students wanted my help with their homework and, after a short while, asked to be my friends. I forgave them and accepted their friendship as their taunting was in a way a defensive mechanism that protected their own vulnerability and worries about their appearance.

No one is perfect and we all have things about our bodies that we are not keen on. But overtime we have learnt that what you don’t like and choose not to ‘see’, others will ignore too. I ignored comments that reached my ears, stopped looking at mirrors and examining my body and concentrated on things that I chose to see, which inevitable forced others to follow suit.

Years later I became stronger and what I endured as a child and teenager equipped me to deal with such people in adulthood. These types of people will always exist. Instead of the taunts I now get stares or little patronising comments, such as; “If only you weren’t like that” or “what do the doctors say.” I have also learnt to forgive such people. They are trapped in a one dimensional world where being different is a frightening concept. I no longer feel that I am trapped in an unwanted body, but I am trapped in a world with people that are rigid and conventional.

I recently went to see The Elephant Man at the theatre and there was a line in it that struck a cord with me: “Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.” I was always told that my head is bigger than my body because it is full of knowledge. Sitting in the theatre and listening to that line made memories I had suppressed come flooding back. I found myself identifying with the idea of the play – seeking acceptance in a superficial world.

My body is mine, whatever it looks like. I will now accept and protect it from others, and I won’t lie when I am in pain or get annoyed at it. My body has given me strength that many with ‘normal’ bodies lack. It’s allowed me to discover and see people for who they really are. Most importantly though, it has provided me with determination to show the world that having a perfect body does not guarantee you the perfect future.

To escape prejudice I invented an imaginary world in my head, to avoid uncomfortable looks I dreamt of progressing in every path I took and to cope with rejection that often occurred because of my appearance I became immune to hurt. For all these things I am thankful to my body because without it I would not be where I am today.

By Raya AlJadir

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