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How Body-Shaming Hurts People Who Live With Disabilities

Reading time | 4 mins

Mirrors. They’re always in your face: in your house, shops, offices, restaurants, hotels… everywhere. More often than not, it feels as though you notice mirrors even more when the last thing you want to see is yourself.

Yet for me, one of the harshest, most damning places to find a mirror is in your mind. This type of mirror has the ability to activate feelings of unworthiness, shame, insecurity and depression. Add living with a disability into the mix, and you’re suddenly faced with an additional stream of negativity that is very difficult to navigate.

Letting this constant barrage of negative thoughts continue can be damaging to your mental health, because having a positive body image is an important part of your emotional wellbeing. For that reason, one of my favourite quotes by novelist Anaïs Nin is: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

And this is where the trouble begins.

I’m sure that my body positivity story will reflect many others’ experiences who live with physical or mental conditions. This is why it’s time to sound the alarm bell.

Looking back to childhood  

Yes, I live with a disability – MS came into my life in 2004 and it has never left – but even when I was still ‘healthy’ I struggled with self-image. Like so many others, I was bullied about my appearance through childhood and my teenage years. Eventually it became a defining factor in my life.

I was told I was ugly; too skinny, too tall, clumsy, too flat-chested… It also didn’t help that I had a serious allergy that caused me to break out in hives across every inch of my skin, turning me as red as a lobster. It showed up at least twice a day and the symptoms took ages to subside.

If all of the above wasn’t bad enough, I also had long and unruly hair, buck teeth and wore glasses. Body image issues? Well, I had them down to a tee.

These days, my teeth have been ‘fixed’ and I’ve had a pixie haircut and contact lenses for as long as I can remember. Best of all, I got rid of my allergy issues, so all in all, at least half of my so-called ‘malfunctions’ have disappeared.

Sadly however, there are no contact lenses that can adjust the image you have of yourself with a disability. You can’t correct people’s ignorance with braces. You can’t take medicine to remove all the names people called you from your memory. And you can’t cut the length of the lifespan of your MS condition like you can cut your hair.

MS brought its own problems

I feel like my life compartmentalised itself into life before and after MS. Before MS, I had to deal with the issues above. After MS, I had to face a whole new kettle of fish.

“You started getting fatter after your steroid treatment.”

“Your facial pain makes you really stern-faced.”

“Isn’t it time to wash the Halloween make-up off your face?” (This, referencing the dark circles under my eyes caused by fatigue.)

These comments have been uncalled for and hurtful, but over time I’ve learnt to block out such disrespectful comments where I can.

It has led me thinking though – body-shaming healthy bodies is damaging enough, but it’s much worse when ignorant people ridicule others for physical symptoms beyond their control, whether this is because they use a wheelchair, have speech issues and or limbs that move involuntarily.

These types of body-shaming issues often go unreported, usually because the person living with a disability is either physically unable to communicate what happened, or because they fear they might not be believed. It’s no surprise then that many languish in silence.

Destigmatising disabilities

Physically or psychologically attacking a person with disabilities is not only a stain on the individual who is doing the abuse, but also a stain on society as a whole. Although the UNCRPD (The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) continues to promote and help the protection of people living with disabilities, some are still being attacked for being ‘different’ or for being an ‘annoyance’.

For years, my biggest voluntary advocacy initiative was to see the UNCRPD approved in Ireland - one of the last European countries to do so. Not having the sanction left me wondering about recourse on so many occasions, and I felt ashamed and heartbroken when I heard how far bullying could go. More often than not however, I felt like donning a Lycra superhero costume to keep the fight going.

Because the public targeting and humiliation of people living with disabilities is still rife – even the now President of the United States once did so at a campaign rally. However, in my opinion, people are better than that.

But we need to prove it. As long as society turns a blind eye to this discrimination and abuse people with disabilities face, nothing will change. So please help us to bring those who abuse others to account for their actions.

After all, it could happen to you too. 

UK/MED/19/0151 July 2019