‘Love your body and it will love you back’ is the message pioneered by the body acceptance movement, but how do you learn to love a body that won’t love you back, no matter what you do?
The rise of body acceptance delivers a sorely needed antidote to a body image crisis wreaking havoc on the mental health of society, with a movement encouraging us to cultivate a loving relationship with our bodies. But for people affected by chronic illness, mantras of ‘embracing the skin you’re in’ can dismiss the reality of living with a long-term health condition – creating yet another inaccessible space for bodies that depart from an unattainable ideal.
When you live with a chronic illness, the narrative of loving your body can serve as a reminder that sometimes your body can be an obstacle. Sometimes, it can be the very thing that prevents you from getting where you want to be. It steals your time and energy, and creates an unwelcome imposition you have to navigate your whole life around. Loving your body doesn’t come so easily when it feels like your body won’t love you back, no matter what you do.
Body dissatisfaction affects everyone, but the relationship between chronic health conditions and negative body image is a critical issue, too often overlooked. A meta-analysis of more than 300 studies published in the journal Body Image found body dissatisfaction to be more prevalent among young people with chronic illnesses than in their ‘healthy’ peers. The amalgamation of physical symptoms, mobility restrictions, aggressive treatments, side-effects, surgery, and scars means that people with chronic illnesses often feel out of control in their bodies, leading to feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression.
Yet body image counselling is rarely incorporated into chronic illness treatment programmes, and there is relatively little information available to assist those with long-term health conditions experiencing negative feelings towards their bodies. People with chronic illnesses aren’t receiving the mental health support needed to help come to terms with a body in turmoil.
For those trying to navigate self-compassion and acceptance amidst the turbulence of relapses and flare-ups, unconditional body love can feel like an impossible pursuit. Loving your body won’t overcome its restrictions. Loving your body won’t conquer the spiralling worries of financial strain, diminished independence, and the stigma forced on bodies that don’t conform to ideals.
So, how do you cultivate a positive relationship with a body you are constantly fighting against, a body that doesn’t always cooperate? How do you learn to love something that treats you like an enemy?
It’s OK to mourn
Whatever you feel towards your body – denial, anger, resentment, sadness, alienation – know that it’s OK. It’s OK to mourn the body you used to have, or yearn for one less unpredictable. It’s OK to feel a sense of loss or betrayal. Grief for health is completely normal and valid when you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Just because you feel anguished by your body at times, doesn’t mean that you’ve failed.
Body acceptance also means acknowledging its reality, and yes, sometimes it can be painful and frustrating. Rather than seeing these feelings as negative and acting against positive body image, reflect on them with compassion. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK.
Learn your limits
When you feel at odds with your body, the impulse to work harder and push on until you triumph is overwhelming. We live in a culture that promotes a ‘no pain no gain’ approach to life, teaching us that the only way to succeed is to grit our teeth and persevere, even when our minds and bodies are begging us to slow down.
We don’t have to love our bodies to improve our body image. We can simply learn to accept them as they are
I’ve never met a person with a chronic illness who wasn’t determined as hell, but the one thing we’re often not so great at is learning our limits. However, the more you try to push through and wage a war on your chronic illness, the more conflict you create between yourself and your body. It’s important to know when to slow down and give yourself a break. Sometimes, this is the most powerful thing you can do for your mental and physical health.
It may be a cliché, but the old saying still rings truer than ever: comparison is the thief of joy. With social media acting as a hub for public expressions of body-love, it’s hard not to tap into others’ journeys. Though seeing body confidence through the lens of another might provide an empowering example for some, it can also catch us in a dangerous comparison trap, especially when certain activities are off-bounds with a chronic illness.
Comparison serves no good. It’s a fragile basis for self-esteem. Remember, you’re on a different journey, with a different body, and different experiences to make peace with. This doesn’t mean you can’t take steps towards improving your body image. It will just look and feel a little different. So, stay focused on your own progress, mute guidance that makes you feel like you aren’t doing enough, and leave the voice of comparison behind.
Redefine what health means to you
Our society puts so much emphasis on one version of health – a version that’s in its physical prime, that’s energetic and attractive by the superficial standards. But no body is static. Bodies age, change, and there’s no evading their ephemeral essence. At some point in all our lives, we won’t always have peak health. But why should this mean we’re definitively ‘unhealthy?’
Rather than seeing health as an elusive state of optimum wellbeing, think of it as an action, the ways we take care of ourselves. Engaging in activities that support your physical, mental or social health, like taking medication as instructed, resting when needed, saying no when commitments get overwhelming, are all healthy, and whether or not you embody some arbitrary picture of health should not diminish the importance of what you do to look after yourself.
Strive for neutrality
Though relentless unconditional body love is a wonderful idea in theory, let’s be honest, it’s not realistic to expect to love our bodies all the time. Chronic illness is frustrating, unpredictable and terrifying. Just when you’ve found stability, a flare-up can make you feel like you’re back at square one.
For a lot of people, body neutrality feels more attainable. Relinquishing expectations of amity, and accepting ‘this is the body I have; it’s not perfect, but it’s not so bad either’ is less of a reach. We don’t have to love our bodies to improve our body image. We can simply learn to accept them as they are, and recognise that our worth is not defined by our bodies, nor our capacity to love them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t love your body with a chronic illness, but it gives us room to build a more flexible relationship with our bodies that works for us