Snita Ahir-Knight looks at how to promote a culture of acceptance for those who are not so much worried about how their body looks as how it functions

I suspect we all have times when we don’t like how our body looks. Maybe it’s when we notice our clothes fit a bit tighter or feel a bit looser. When our skin erupts with pimples. Or when our hairline starts to recede.

Many people said in a recent study they felt anxious or depressed because of concerns about their body image.

When people have thoughts, feelings or perceptions of concern about how their body looks, the finger often gets pointed at celebrities, photoshopped images and the other usual media suspects. So we may take action, like complain to the media.

Now, I am all for seeing a diverse range of shapes, colours, ages and genders in magazines – for many good reasons. Big tick from me. But is there something else we should be thinking about?

How do we promote a culture of acceptance for those who are not so much worried about how their body looks as how it functions?

You know, the person who enters the later stage of their life and starts to struggle with their personal care. The person involved in a car accident who has to regain full movement of their legs again. The menopausal woman who is unable to sleep due to night sweats. Or the person living with a chronic disease or two or three – some people seem to attract them.

Let’s consider this last person a bit more. Lots of people with chronic diseases – inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a couple – have a poor body image.

Perhaps because having a chronic disease may impact the outside appearance of the body – someone with inflammatory bowel disease may have skin problems and someone with rheumatoid arthritis may have noticeable lumps near their joints. But also perhaps because these diseases cause pain or discomfort. And perhaps because they cause limitations – inflammatory bowel disease may limit someone’s ability to go to work and arthritis may limit someone’s ability to dress themselves.

How is someone expected to love their body when it causes pain and lets them down?

I don’t have a nicely packaged solution. But I do have a possible way forward, so here are three thoughts.

1. Take control of what you can. I will always have type 1 diabetes and hypothyroidism. My pancreas and thyroid are not functioning as they should. And that is that. But I can take control of how I manage the diseases with help from the healthcare I access. I have easy access to the medication I need – unlike some. I also have autonomous management over my chronic diseases – I was given the option to be taught how to self-adjust my insulin, which I took up. So I’ll always have chronic diseases but I take control of what I can.

2. Aim for acceptance of your body. I accept my body. I don’t have a positive – rainbows and kittens – view of my body. But an acceptance. But there are times – few and far between now – I look at having chronic diseases with black-tinted glasses. During these times, I allow myself to feel frustrated, angry, sad, anxious or whatever. So being compassionate to myself means realising I am human – it is okay to cry, sulk and complain. And being compassionate to myself means recognising when I need support.

3. Find compassion for your support crew. Hearing comments like “it could be worse” or “you should be grateful” from my crew gets me down. I feel judged – I have failed to be positive. I feel misunderstood – I am alone. So I communicate with them about what I need. But their responses don’t always hit the spot – they are, after all, beautifully flawed humans. Like me. So my compassion extends to them. I remain one of their greatest fans as they do their best.

Taking control, aiming for acceptance and finding compassion takes courage. Trusting yourself, allowing the emotions to flow and telling others what you need are steps of courage.

There are other steps of courage too. Such as Ellen Watson and Beth McDaniel, social media stars, wearing diabetic blood scanners with pride, New Zealand politician Golriz Ghahraman deciding to open up about having a chronic disease, racing driver Ben Wallace showing what is achievable with the support of others, and Lena Dunham, of TV series Girls stardom, frankly sharing how having chronic diseases makes her feel about her body.

And there are many more steps of courage – seeking support, advocating for better healthcare and challenging ignorant views.

So if you have a chronic disease, or if you are in the later stage of life, injured, changing or whatever, what step of courage will you take today to show acceptance of your body?

Dr Snita Ahir-Knight has a PhD in philosophy from Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington and is a social worker and child and adolescent therapist.

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