This summer I unveiled the 2018 Model J.
This summer, far from self-perceived beach body ready, with my walker in tow, I wore a bikini to the beach and asked my husband to take a photo. I was proud of the 2018 Model J. You might say it doesn’t run very well, but I beg to differ. It’s not quite the same as my previous models, but it gets me around with extra wheels, is mostly reliable, and has good bones. It’s not as high tech as some others that I’ve seen around, and it can’t go off-roading, but it can handle all the miles I need it to go.
Looking back over the past 15 years, my 2004 model was strong, sleek and fast. Wow, she was a beauty. My 2007 model was a pageant queen but was constantly breaking down. My 2009 model was energetic and towed an 8 lb. baby. My 2013 model didn’t have as much torque and needed a slightly bigger hitch as I towed an almost 11 lb. baby. Starting around, oh, 2015 I wasn’t so much into the sports versions anymore and got myself the safe family model. This year, well, this year I’ve got the real stable version with a whole lot of wheels. You might call it the anti-tip model. Regardless of the year, I always try to choose colorful, fun and lively. That’s always been kind of a requirement.
Body image and chronic illness are like two giant cymbals that make your ears hurt when they crash together. Both come with complications. Both can feel very isolating. And both can drag you down, especially when you feel heavily influenced by something like social media. The gorgeousness and perfection is intimidating. Oh right, filters. Well, I’m not going to filter this discussion. I’d like to have a real conversation about body image, at least how it has affected me.
I’m writing this article from my perspective, my experience and how I feel. It is very hard to embrace any change at all, and nurturing our changing bodies can be one of the most neglected when we’re juggling symptoms, medication, treatment plans, doctor visits, and forced lifestyle changes. As my mobility declined and I transitioned from cane to walker to scooter I began losing parts of myself. Running. High heels. Two hallmarks of my being. Then came adjustments to my wardrobe. Putting on tights was like a contortionist act. Sliding my feet into tall boots was wrestling with limp limbs. Maxi dresses were out. Can’t pick up your legs while managing layers of flowy fabric everywhere. My personal style began to feel endangered and so I guarded it closely, and as it turns out, it was no big deal. What was a big deal was that I largely avoided mirrors and since I never went into the mall or a store any more I was no longer going through the motions of trying on clothes in the dressing rooms and inspecting myself from every which angle surrounded by mirrors. I was no longer wooed by the pretty mannequins tempting me with all the glamour. Mall visits were replaced by online shopping. The UPS guy was coming, a little too often maybe, and delivering my purchases from stores where I knew my style and I knew my size and that was that. I was no longer standing often enough to really inspect how the clothes hugged my body. I mean, I knew I had lost some weight. Muscle depletion, what a joy.
Yet earlier this year I found myself in front of a full length mirror trying on some outfit looks for an upcoming trip. The clothes weren’t working and I was frustrated. Yes they fit, but they didn’t fit right. My legs had thinned out with muscle depletion and my belly felt rounder because I don’t know, middle age or a weak core or both? There I stood in front of this mirror and really looked at myself. Naked. Gripping my walker I really, really looked. I slowly turned from side to side. Awkwardly twisted myself to check out my butt. Turned forward again and studied some more. And it was then that I really noticed what the last three years of impaired mobility had done to my body. I was saddened because I didn’t recognize myself and a deep disdain crept in for what I saw standing there. I felt…defeated.
I didn’t see in the mirror what I saw in my mind which was a strong, athletic girl. The same girl who hoisted flagstone up and down a hilly driveway without a thought. The same girl who picked up her feet the next morning for a 5 mile run. The same girl who stomped every ounce of fear out of herself at 31 years old to compete on stage in a beauty pageant. A strong, once athletic girl. A has been. And that’s when I put a mental hand up and stopped thinking the girl who used to…I know exactly who that girl was. I know what she has been through. And I know exactly who I am now. I will be damned if I had to modify the love I have for my body. A love that I spent most of young adulthood trying to achieve. I know you’ve been there too. Sick or not.
See, the skinny muscle-depleted rounded belly hunchy girl gripping her walker, staring back at me in the mirror is a whole lot more than the reflection. More than the image. Those few years ago when I had finally grown to appreciate my body, even after my diagnosis, was not even a quarter of my battle. I realized those few years ago that something more was missing. I needed to love my whole self. I had spent many, many years trying to love myself based on what other people thought of me. That was a losing battle I had come to recognize at the same time my mobility was declining. Trying to discover that missing inner peace but getting more sick were those same metaphorical cymbals clashing with ear stinging sound. So in those same few years, where I spent less time staring in the mirror and working on my whole self, and managing all that is the chronic illness named MS, I kind of forgot about how my body looked and how I felt about it. I forgot to notice it even though my body is what I was working on through the endless research and implementation of a gazillion wellness efforts. I wanted to walk again, period. Yet that too was a losing battle and I had to unravel my beliefs about my sole focus on fixing the outside.
For well over three years now I have worked to instill a daily habit of personal development. Through the books, the podcasts, the social media communities of like-minded people with like-struggles, the ending is always the same. You are responsible for your happiness. Happiness already thrives inside of you and it is your responsibility to reach in and grab hold of it. Not anyone or anything, just you. So as it relates to body image, when I really looked in that mirror and saw my face respond with disappointment at how seemingly broken down my body had become, I answered in gratitude. When my mental hand went up and I stopped thinking the girl who used to…I started saying out loud I am the girl who.
I am the girl who rides her stationary bike almost every morning to keep those legs strong. I am the girl who loves to cook. I am the girl who loves to play with her children. I am the girl who seeks adventure. I am the girl who creates art. I am the girl who is curious about everything. I am the girl who loves dressed up date nights with her husband. I am the girl who will never give up. Ever. And this is only one tiny fraction of all that I am.
This made me smile.
None of this is easy. It is daily work. Daily reminders. Daily choices, modifications, frustrations. I still deal with a chronic illness and accessibility challenges and reliance on others for help that feels burdensome. The beauty lies in the grace you offer yourself and that is where expressing gratitude in the face of pain and fear has changed the game. It means going easy on myself when an impulse of perfection arises. Perfectly flat abs, yogi flexibility, more muscular legs. I try hard to rest in the progress of maintaining my strength over the outcome of how I look. Flawlessness would be a wonderful side benefit however with a chronic illness you’re driven into survival mode. What does flawlessness even mean? Does it exist?
The clashing cymbals bang loudly in debate over a weak core vs. flat abs, spastic muscles vs. flexibility, neural pathway damage, disrupted brain signalling and weak hip flexors vs. muscular legs or muscular anything. Except my arms. Those bad boys are shapely just as a result of the work they do to keep me upright using my walker or bracing for a fall. At the end of the day I am proud that I still made the effort to get on my bike, set aside extra time for stretching, and try modified core exercises that do nothing more than keep me functioning at the level required to enjoy my life. Accepting this new type of body image is a struggle, yet worthy journey. Do I care about what I look like? Absolutely. The key difference is that I am gentler on myself with no expectation of a specific outcome as long as I continue the journey forward with the best intentions for myself.
There are words used to describe our bodies how others see us like tall, short. Voluptuous, thin. Curvy, waif. Apple, pear, boyish. Straight, athletic, muscular, chubby. Soft, frail. Hard, lean. They are just words, and they don’t have to be your words. Negative self talk is just that, negative. It imprints a negative image of ourselves onto ourselves. You have the power to describe yourself. You get to decide how you’re going to embrace every beautiful thing about yourself. You are beautiful. And you are beautiful every day. I am beautiful every day, whether I ever look in the mirror again or not. Which actually isn’t possible because, mascara. And…blow drying hair. What can I say, self love and means self care. Anyway, I know the efforts I make to improve myself and my wellness routine is for me and me only. Because when I love my whole self, I am able to spread that love to others.
You are perfect and whole as you are. And that is all that should matter to you. Every wrinkle, dimple, curve, scar tells a story. Own your story. Own your beauty. You. Are. Beautiful.
And it has nothing to do with the mirror.
The 2018 Model J has shed insecurities and embraces her new design. She is classic, with clean lines. Her body wears the badges of many of life’s most beautiful moments and hardest challenges. The scratch and dents are just a little evidence of her clunky (er, clumsy) style.