Barbara Stensland, author of “Stumbling in Flats” muses on her journey with body image and self-acceptance.
Before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2012, my body did almost everything I wanted. It took me around the world, survived a severe car crash, gave birth to a surprisingly large baby and generally behaved itself. Sure, I never took part in one of those army fitness training programmes – I knew my limits, but I didn't need to. I used to declare I was never ill.
That boast would come back to haunt me.
In short, by the time the first symptoms of MS began, my body image was fine. Sure, I thought I could do with losing the "baby weight" (11 years on), but I was always on the move and didn't give it too much thought. I was tall, strong and happy with how I looked.
Then everything changed
One day, I suddenly started to feel tired. Not just tired, but exhausted beyond all reason. I was 37, and I jokingly put it down to being closer to 40 than 30, but the intensity of it niggled in the back of my mind. Then came a whopping great relapse, where my body folded in upon itself, leaving me unable to walk or talk properly.
Before I could catch my breath, I was poked, prodded and peered at in the hospital. My brain was put through a scanner, and my spine was pierced painfully by the biggest needle I'd ever seen. I was interrogated about every aspect of my body.
By the time the answer finally came – MS – I was a wreck, physically and mentally. An autoimmune illness? Where my cherished body actually fought against itself? The thought was terrifying. Why was it doing this? Did my body really not like me at all?
Viewing my body through the lens of MS
My body image plummeted, and I spiralled into a vortex of fear and pain. My hands stopped working properly, I couldn't focus; my concentration was shot to pieces. I tripped up everywhere, and my balance all but disappeared. Deciding what to wear every day was a Herculean challenge, so I started dressing in anything easy, with as few buttons or zips as possible. I had to give up heels and began to schlep around in flat shoes.
If that wasn't disheartening enough, the medication I was prescribed for neuropathic pain meant I put on weight rapidly – so fast I could barely keep up. A few years later, I had the same reaction to thyroid medication. Add in all the junk food I turned to for solace, and I was unrecognisable. I began to avoid mirrors and my friends. Pain and fear kept me indoors as much as possible.
I outgrew my wardrobe bit by bit and silently waved goodbye to my favourite clothes, my gorgeous shoes. From striding tall and confident, I began to study pavements for trip-hazards, not looking up for fear of falling. My world shrank. I hated what my body had inflicted upon me. We began to part ways, as I no longer felt my outward appearance reflected my inner. My body had become a hideous stranger, a grotesque manifestation of all the damage MS was doing.
I clung to my old clothes, tormenting myself by trying to squeeze into them through tears of frustration and self-loathing. I sucked my stomach in as much as possible. I even started to apologise to people for being fat. I figured if I got rid of the elephant (LOL?) in the room first, it would be easier all around.
I became the jolly fat person.
Eventually, things slowly started to change. I cleaned up my diet bit by bit. I didn't lose weight, but I felt stronger for it. I gave most of my old clothes away and bought new ones. I invested in make-up, beautiful flat shoes, chic accessories (the fat woman's best friend!).
I even started giving voice to my illness and became an ardent campaigner for disability rights.
The people I spoke to didn't care about my weight. They wanted to hear what I had to say.
Today, I acknowledge I'll probably never regain my pre-MS frame, but I've learned to love my body again. Despite everything MS threw at it, I'm still here, still working and studying. Some days I'm amazed at my body's sheer determination to get me through. In essence, we have made peace.
Every time my body gets me out the door and into work, I thank it. Every time I welcome my son back from university with a full fridge and a huge hug, I'm grateful.
My body is amazing. A bit like me. I'll forever be in awe of all my body, and by extent I, can overcome.
NPS-IE-NP-00348 December 2021