models versus role models

body-image-do-magazine-images-influence-how-you-feel-about-your-body

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that our shallow and perfection-obsessed culture is poisonous for girls and young women. Our society constantly smacks us in the face with ads, images, and stories about how we need to look as beautiful as possible in order to succeed and be happy. And even Hollywood is starting to take notice of how unhelpful this is. More and more celebrities are opening up about their eating disordered pasts and unhealthy relationship with their bodies. Stars like Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato and Katie Couric have come clean about how their poor body image led to dangerous health problems. And the ironic thing is that these women are all thin and conventionally pretty. So if these beautiful people can barely manage to accept their figures, how is someone who is missing a limb supposed to love her body? And what does it say about us as a culture that many of the bodies we envy and wish we had are the results of eating disorders and low self esteem?

15-tips-for-raising-kids-with-a-positive-body-imageAs a young woman born without a left hand, I quickly learned that the way I looked did not exactly conform to the ideal. I was a chubby kid with extremely frizzy hair and glasses a few sizes too big for my face. Looking back, there was nothing inherently wrong with my appearance but, back then, it certainly felt that way. When I was 12, I went on a crash diet and soon became addicted to the feeling of pride that came with moving the bar to a lower weight on the scale. Exercise became my obsession and food became my nightmare. I lost way more weight than was healthy and was diagnosed with an eating disorder promptly upon my first doctor’s checkup of the year. And to be perfectly honest, I still struggle with food and weight and my eating habits on a daily basis….even 9 years later. And trust me, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give if I could stop at least one person from going through the same grief I did.

I don’t want to be a Debbie downer, but I do know that a lot of the readers of this blog are young women with limb differences and parents of little girls with limb differences. And I feel like this is a very important topic to address, especially earlier in life. Self image is important and it doesn’t just have to do with weight. I also struggled for years with the thought that I was ugly and that boys wouldn’t like me for the way I looked. But these are obviously not healthy and not productive thoughts.

39778401487Now as a 21-year-old woman, I’m the most confident I’ve ever been. I’ve learned (albeit the hard way) that self-hatred is not attractive and that guys don’t go for perfection anyway. A guy who really loves you will love you for everything you are and not for the fact that you’re not as skinny as Angelina Jolie. But before that (which I also learned the hard way), you have to love and be comfortable with yourself. That’s harder said than done, of course. But I won’t leave you completely alone on this. Here are 4 things that have helped me feel better about the way I look:

– Tell yourself that you are beautiful. (Or if you’re a parent, tell your daughter that she’s beautiful.) It sounds really corny, but this is essential. You know when they say “fake it ’til you make it”? Go by that rule and say it to yourself until you fully believe it.

– Pamper yourself. There’s nothing like a manicure or a bubble bath to make me feel like I’m worth it. Relaxation is so necessary and so healthy.

– Surround yourself with positive people. If you’ve ever seen Mean Girls (or walked into any high school), you know that body-shaming is often a group activity. Ban your friends from talking about their physical flaws in your presence and make a pact to focus on what’s good in your lives.

paraplegicELLE– Surround yourself with positive images. While it’s impossible to avoid the ubiquitous ads featuring women with seemingly perfect figures and features, remind yourself that beauty is diverse and is not limited to one body type. Check out Elle Magazine’s spread about Paralympic swimming champion Jessica Long, who looks as gorgeous as any standard model in the fashion industry.

I hope these tips help and lead you to realize that a limb difference is just that: different. And “different” is not synonymous with “ugly.” Difference can be beautiful. And as Ryan Haack from Living One-Handed says, “Different is Awesome!”

At the end of the day, this is the best tip I have for you – In order to be happy and have others like you, you need to be younger thinner prettier yourself.

 

Peace,

Caitlin Michelle

 

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invisible

Warning: this post is about to get REALLY personal. But it needed to be written, so here it is.

A few days ago, my friend Alyssa (who has previously written in this blog) posted in her own blog about her fear that publicly revealing her struggle with Rheumatoid Arthritis would invite future employers’ (and any number of people’s) discrimination against her. “I’m tired of hiding who I am,” she wrote. “I’ve accepted who I am, and I just hope that there are enough good people in this world who can accept me too.” I must say, I’ve always admired Alyssa’s honesty and openness when it comes to her writing. Telling the world about her arthritis is certainly brave, but I can’t imagine it would be easy. And while I don’t believe that there should be a hierarchy of disabilities, I do think that invisible disabilities sit at a higher tier in terms of how hard it is to deal with them both physically and emotionally.

If you look at Alyssa and me side by side, you’d be quick to notice my limb difference before you detect the slightest limp in her gait during the worst of flare-ups. Because it’s so visible, I’d been forced to come to terms with my disability long before I was even thinking about pursuing my dream career (or any job, really). To me, my arm proved to be more of a self esteem issue than a functionality one; I never had any real limitations (Granted, I’ve never been able to master the monkey bars. But that’s not exactly a skill I would list in my resume anyway). With my perceived handicap in the spotlight, though, I’ve managed to show that I am capable and that my arm is really no big deal. But when someone has a problem or challenge that’s not readily apparent, said issue becomes a whole lot bigger.

While I stand in pretty good physical shape, I know what it’s like to try to hide something too scary and shameful for other people to know. A couple years ago, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I suffer from occasional panic attacks, and I worry constantly and excessively over things that A) are almost always irrational and B) I can’t control anyway. This anxiety, in addition to bouts of depression and an eating disorder that has followed me around for the past 8 years, reached its worst during my junior year of college. I was taking honors classes, working a part-time job as a writing tutor, and interning at the Oxygen Network when it felt like my world was falling apart. I was so afraid that someone would consider me less than capable because of the panic attacks, which only motivated me to work harder. I finished that year off with straight-A’s and I now work at Oxygen, so I guess you can see how I wouldn’t necessarily consider my anxiety a “disability” (though I take issue with the vague term “disability” for a variety of reasons, but let’s save that for another time). In any case, I’ve never been one to let obstacles become a deterrent to my dreams. And I’m not the only one who has felt this way, being that several celebrities have revealed their own struggles with mental illness in recent months.

Renoir’s Self-Portrait (1910)

Disney star Demi Lovato bravely opened up a while back about her battle with an eating disorder, a cutting problem, and bipolar disorder. In a recent magazine interview, actress Emma Stone admitted to having frequent panic attacks. And Amanda Seyfried has even taken medication for her anxiety during an interview. What these three young women have in common is success. They have each turned their trials into triumphs, and they continue to land great jobs in television and film. Of course, success is not exclusive to those who have overcome mental health issues. Rheumatoid arthritis didn’t stop Lucille Ball from becoming a beloved actress and comedienne, nor did it deter Pierre-Auguste Renoir from painting masterpieces even when he could barely hold his paintbrush.

My point is this: disability, whether obvious or invisible, should not be a source of shame and fear. Rather, your success and accomplishments should be a testament to your strength and adaptability. And those two qualities are pretty impressive in anyone, regardless of specific ability or lack thereof.

 

Peace,

Caitlin Michelle

 

 (All images in this post were found on Google and are not my own.)
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