Health & Wellness

Improving Body Image

By Traci Seidman, Ph.D.
In all my years of clinical practice, I’ve met few people who didn’t have some problem with their body image. The media insists on bombarding us with the ever-elusive, model-perfect figure. Women with MS experience all of these conflicts as well. But with a disease like MS, many of us have extra hurdles, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps your diagnosis has caused you to realize that there are other things in life more important than body image, such as good health. On the other hand, you may be more aware of your self-image than ever before. Many women with MS entertain fantasies of themselves in wheelchairs, of being a ‘sick’ person. This type of mental imagery is destructive to your self-esteem and your psyche. Focusing on these issues can cause extreme depression. What we think about ourselves is indelibly linked to the way we feel about ourselves.
After being diagnosed with MS, it is common to feel less whole or flawed. If you take a look at the facts, you’ll see that 75-80 percent of us will not become disabled permanently by MS. Those are pretty good odds. Still, you probably wonder how others see you.
Do you believe you are going to be a burden? Do you fear that others will pity you? The answer to how others will see you lies in the way you see yourself. The people around you tend to reflect back your own perceptions about yourself. If you put yourself out there as damaged goods, that is what people will see. If you put yourself out there as an ordinary person coping with an extraordinary circumstance, then people are likely to see you as a pretty extraordinary person.
Lifestyle changes following diagnosis are common. Because of alterations in your exercise regime, becoming more sedentary, experiencing depression, or as a result of steroid treatment, you may begin to notice some weight gain. Diet is very much connected to how we think and feel about ourselves. Many of us have poor eating habits. Healthy eating really does affect the way you look and feel. Work towards improving your diet. Begin with small changes, such as adding a piece of fruit to your regular breakfast or drinking a glass of cranberry juice instead of that second cup of coffee. There are also more specific dietary guidelines sometimes suggested for people with MS. See if any of them are appropriate for you.
Exercise in whatever way you can. Get on the treadmill with a cooling vest and a bottle of ice water. Go swimming. Practice yoga. Buy a “sit and be fit” exercise video. You don’t need a vigorous workout to reap the rewards of fitness. Exercising releases endorphins in the brain that immediately generate a “lift” in attitude. Whether you lose a few pounds or none at all, exercise is a proven antidote to low self-esteem and helps to improve negative body image.
Maybe you eat well, exercise when you can, and still have extra weight. Did you know that in the real world, the average woman is a size 14? This notion of unattainable beauty according to media images is a long-standing dilemma in our culture. It takes conscious effort to fight the deluge of unrealistic media images, to restructure your thinking toward realistic goals. Strive to put things in perspective. Count your blessings and focus on accepting yourself as you are. The best thing that you can do is to take control of where you are right now. Do what you can and then accept it. Remember that your body is your temple. Treat it well. But it is also just a carrying case for your soul. The real you, inside your body, is what is most important.
Developing a limp or requiring a cane or wheelchair, these things can make you feel stigmatized or unattractive. You may feel that everyone notices your disability, especially if you are young. Many people, even strangers, feel the need to ask why. Coming up with a clever quip or being vague and nonchalant are both acceptable ways of dealing with this curiosity. Give only the details you feel comfortable in giving. Don’t view yourself as having less worth because your gait is off or you use a cane. Valid judgements about you are not based on anything as superficial as your appearance. The people worth knowing may show initial concern. As for those who judge, you need to seriously question whether there is any value at all to their opinions.
MS does not define who you are. Give your mind a makeover and see your body image improve as a result. It is not how you look or what you can accomplish that is important. It is who you are as a human being. We are all beautiful and blessed in so many unique ways. What matters most is what is in our hearts. If you have love to give, there will be a heart to receive it. Start with your own heart. Love the part of you that truly defines who you are.

(Last reviewed 7/2009)