Anthea's Story: Disability, body image, and motherhood
My name is Anthea and I am a mother, wife, and psychology student with a physical disability. I would like to share my story surrounding my experiences with motherhood, body image and disability in the hopes that it will encourage others to reflect upon their transition to motherhood with greater appreciation and love for their bodies. To reframe the preconceptions surrounding motherhood and disability and encourage others with disability to see the potential, ability, and beauty that their bodies hold.
When I was sixteen, I become very unwell and almost died. At one point I was unable to
breathe independently, speak, eat, drink, or move, except for my fingers and toes. My recovery was long and difficult, I spent large periods of time in hospitals having surgeries and undergoing rehabilitation. I have still have not fully recovered and use a walking aide or wheelchair depending on what activities I am doing.
I struggled with negative body image for many years since my initial illness, I have many scars from the surgeries and some areas of my body are misshapen.
During my illness I swelled a lot in a short period of time, my body was so bloated I felt extremely uncomfortable not just physically but emotionally. I was being fed through a tube but every day it seemed like I swelled more and more my body felt extremely out of control. When my hair started falling out, I was heartbroken, when I looked in a mirror for the first time over a month I was horrified. I didn’t recognise the person in front of me. My body was swollen from illness and my face was swollen from the steroids and other medication, my previously blond eyebrows and body hair turned black and I had a monobrow, my hair was extremely thin and patchy. I remember just feeling like I couldn’t possibly be uglier and that how I looked on the outside was a reflection of who I was on the inside, worthless and defective. I couldn’t easily tell anyone how I felt as I was unable to speak and I was too ashamed and tired and sick to write it down. I felt disconnected from my body and its value, I felt I was just a hospital number and my body, my emotions or desires didn’t really matter.
Once the swelling went down, I began losing weight. I was on a medication that although was saving my life, caused me to vomit multiple times a day. This weight loss was not positive for me and from a physical standpoint it got to the point where my vision was beginning to be affected. Over time with a change in medication and eating more calorically dense food my weight stabilised, which helped me to feel slightly better about my body.
A few years later I lost a lot of weight again due to being ill and lost my hair again, this was again devastating to me, as superficial it may seem, my hair had always been my ‘crowning glory’. This lack of control over my health and its effects on my external appearance continued to negatively impact my body image, for a long time I viewed my body as defective, unattractive, unable, and often felt betrayed by my body.
When I was younger and out in public, I also struggled with how I felt people were perceiving me, I had people point and stare at me. If they spoke to me they spoke very loudly and clearly as if I would not understand what they were saying and if I had a friend or family member with me they would talk to them as if on my behalf. These experiences also contributed to my feelings of ‘other’. I felt pressure to dress and present myself in an attractive way as I felt under such scrutiny. Since moving to a larger town and further education surrounding disability coming into the mainstream consciousness, I thankfully rarely have negative experiences like that anymore. If I do receive stares I just smile and continue on, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
Over the years as I accepted my reality; my body image improved quite a lot. My scars became symbols of my strength and my ability to overcome life’s challenges I would not change them, particularly my tracheotomy scar as it reminds me to appreciate the small things in life, such as being able to drink water.
The greatest shift to my body image came with motherhood. Carrying and nourishing my daughter throughout pregnancy gave me a deeper appreciation for my body, it’s strength, ability and beauty. Breastfeeding compounded these feelings of gratitude, acceptance and love I hold for myself. Motherhood has shown me that mentally and physically I have an unwavering strength for my child. It taught me to love and appreciate my body and focus upon what I can do, not what I can’t.
Current research suggests that focusing on our body’s functionality may positively increase our body image and thus positively impact our mental health (Alleva et al., 2018; Webb, Wood-Barcalow, & Tylka, 2015). This is something I have found to be true for myself and I would encourage others to start thinking about what their bodies are capable of.
Some practical suggestions of what to do to focus on our body’s functionality could be:
- Creating a list of five things that you body is capable of that you are thankful for. You may want to stick this list to the mirror or keep it in your bag, to remind yourself to appreciate your body’s ability.
- Doing a physical activity, you are capable of and enjoy, I personally love Pilates classes and go weekly.
From BCM: What the research says
There actually isn't any research that has explored the body image experiences of mothers with a disability.
The research on disability and body Image indicates that:
- for women who develop a physical condition that is disabling or disfiguring in adolescence, perceptions of body image can be more negative when compared to those who were born with disability or disfigurement from birth or in developed in adulthood (Ben-Tovim & Walker, 1995).
-disability did have a negative impact on their body image, however over time this was reduced as acceptance and adjustment led to improvements in body image improved (Taleporos & McCabe, 2002).
The research on disability and mothering suggests that:
- there is a very small amount of research in this area, but this study found that motherhood can have a large shift on the self-perception, self-ability and self confidence of women with a disability (Lawler et al., 2015).
Anthea is a Bachelor of Psychology student at the University of QLD, and is on placement at the Body Confident Collective at the time of writing this blog piece.
Alleva, J. M.,* Diedrichs, P. C., Halliwell, E., Martijn, C., Stuijfzand, B. G., Treneman-Evans, G., & Rumsey, N. (2018). A randomised-controlled trial investigating potential underlying mechanisms of a functionality-based approach to improving women’s body image Body Image, 25, 85-96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.02.009
Ben-Tovim, D. I., & Walker, M. (1995). Body image, disfigurement and disability. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 39(3), 283-291. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(94)00143-s
Lawler, D., Begley, C., & Lalor, J. (2015). (Re)constructing myself: The process of transition to motherhood for women with a disability. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 71(7), 1672-1683. https://doi.org/10.1111/jan.12635
Taleporos, G., & McCabe, M. P. (2002). Body image and physical disability—personal perspectives. Social Science & Medicine, 54(6), 971-980. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0277-9536(01)00069-7.
Webb, J. B., Wood-Barcalow, N. L., & Tylka, T. L. (2015). Assessing positive body image: Contemporary approaches and future directions. Body Image, 14, 130-145. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.03.010