by: Raya AlJadir (@Carelessrayoon)
Body image and confidence go hand in hand because if you are content with your body and accept it then you will beam with confidence which consequently leads others around you to do the same. But in reality things are not that simple and this applies to everyone disabled or not although it is quite possible that people living with disability experience this conflict at higher proportion.
So here is the dilemma that many of us 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. I never realised that I was different to others until my scoliosis reached an advanced stage, funnily enough being under weight for my age and having muscular dystrophy that prevented me from walking were not of major issues to me. In my eyes the thing that made me different was the curve of my back yet I have to admit it did not make me dislike myself except when I had to wear a brace, it is then that I felt different and isolated and 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, just as I started at a mainstream secondary school after being a student in a special needs school where people are more accepting to certain extent. It is worth noting that people living with disability can be as judgmental and cruel as anyone else so having a disability does not provide immunity from such characteristics.
I struggled at school but did not allow anyone to notice it or pick up on it, I knew to survive such environment you must never show your weakness or vulnerability. I often heard other students mock me or they would laugh and say to one another ‘oh that is your mother’ or ‘she is your girlfriend’ in a typical boys banter while the girls would laugh in discreet, saying similar things but at a lower volume yet 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 it doesn’t help that we live in such a ‘perfect body’ obsessed culture. Everywhere I turned body image had to be of a standard that met the conventional norm that was set by media, celebrities and I guess people. All I ever saw on TV were able bodied people that were regarded as ‘normal’ who were loved and desired yet I don’t 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 and as the days passed, I developed a dislike for mirrors and escaped looking at them and that was how I discovered that what I can’t ‘see’ can’t weaken me. I ignored these people 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 student wanted my help with their homework or studies and asked to be my friends after a while. I forgave them and accepted their friendship their taunting was in a way a defensive mechanism that protects their own vulnerability and worries about their appearance. No one is perfect and we all have things within our bodies that we are not keen on but I have learnt that what you can’t see others will ignore too – be it may take some time. 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; I realised they will always exist be it in a different form so instead of the taunts I would get stares or little patronising comments such as ‘if only you weren’t like that’ or ‘what do the doctors say’. I also learnt to forgive such people they are trapped in one dimensional world where being different is frightening concept for them to consider. It is no longer me trapped in an unwanted body but it is being trapped with people that are rigid and conventional.
I recently went to see The Elephant Man at the theatre and there was a line 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 was full of knowledge and I was smart. But sitting at the theatre listening to that line memories came flooding back, some which I had suppressed and 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 accept and protect it from others but I won’t lie when I am in pain I get annoyed at it but slowly I got to appreciate its value. My body has given me strength that many with ‘normal’ bodies lack, allowed me to discover and see people for who they really are but most importantly it provided me with determination to show the world 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.