My diagnosis changed the trajectory of my whole life and the way I viewed my body.
What is a chronic illness?
Chronic illness is broadly defined as a health condition that lasts longer than a year, and for some people, it’s permanent. It is treated by ongoing medication and can hinder your daily life. Having a chronic condition can limit the way a person lives their life with certain activities becoming difficult, in particular sports and any physical activity.
When it comes to chronic illnesses, while the condition is internal and impacts our bodies physically such as fatigue, disorientation, and chronic pain, the mental and emotional impact is usually overlooked in favour of the physical. We’re seeing our bodies through new eyes after our diagnosis and we begin to be more conscious of our bodies; they are beginning to change due to the symptoms and after-effects of the condition, so now we’re more aware of our body's image more than ever. And it’s exhausting.
As a child growing into my early tweens, I had always been regarded as conventionally ‘skinny’. There were times I was even told I was too skinny. But, luckily, I wasn’t aware yet of the pressures young girls face regarding their body image. The emphasis on my ‘skinniness’ was a compliment to me because, in my life, being skinny was synonymous with being pretty. So, being conventionally skinny was at the root of my confidence and self-worth, even as a child.
But I was chronically ill. I just didn’t know it yet.
In the last month of primary school, at age 11, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. And that one diagnosis changed the trajectory of my whole life.
The most physically noticeable symptom was severe weight loss. One of my friends had told me after my hospitalisation that, facially, I looked like a skeleton and she found it unnerving to look directly at me whenever we spoke. My mum, once, comfortingly touched my shoulders while we were in the kitchen— ten years later and I will never forget the way she flinched and jerked away from me. The bone of my shoulder blades was so sharp through my skin that it physically startled her to touch me.
My body was deteriorating. And it wasn’t until I was diagnosed and started taking medication that my body began to change… again.
One unexpected change I needed to adapt to was how my diabetes changed the outward appearance of my body.
For the first time in my life, I was consciously aware of my weight. Seeing the numbers on the scales go up and up over the following weeks and months took a toll on my mental health, and looking back, was extremely damaging to how I viewed my self-worth. Every paediatrics appointment, I was weighed, and at times I was told I exceeded the average weight for a girl of my age. This triggered some obsessive behaviour on my part where I constantly weighed myself at home, relentlessly hoping the number on the scale wouldn’t be higher than the last time I checked.
The way my body started to change made me question my value. I craved to go back to the body I had when I was regarded as conventionally ‘skinny’. Even if this did mean I was seriously ill. My obsession with my physical appearance trumped rational thinking.
Ten years later, keeping track of my weight due to my diabetes is a necessary evil. And I call it a necessary evil because monitoring my weight began to become an unhealthy habit, especially during my early teen years. It was required during every health check appointment, but this behaviour extended to my home life. I would try to limit my food intake— which is not healthy for a diabetic since we live by a strict food schedule. I would over-exert myself doing exercise which would result in a hypo.
This wasn't healthy— physically and mentally.
As a 22-year-old, positive affirmations when talking about my body are key to healthy thinking. The one constant affirmation I began to tell myself in my late teens was the reminder that gaining weight meant I was getting healthier. My body was growing and regaining back all of the nutrients, strength, and stability it had lost before my diagnosis. Whenever I miss being ‘skinny’, this is what I always tell myself.
What can we do?
Be aware and conscious of the comments you make about other people's bodies— even if you think you’re complimenting them! Telling someone “I see you’ve lost weight. You look great!” can imply they didn’t look great before when they weighed more, even if that wasn’t your intention. Our words are finicky things. We may mean one thing but it can be interpreted as something entirely different. So, instead of complimenting on how that person looks physically, maybe try complimenting their outfit or makeup instead.
Remember you’re getting older! Your body isn’t going to look like how it did when you were 16. And that’s how it should be. We’re constantly growing and evolving— physically, mentally, and emotionally. Remaining stagnant will only do us more harm than good, and as we age, our bodies naturally change too.
In regards to chronic illness and body image, I think there needs to be an awareness, particularly in the medical field, of how we approach the topic of weight loss and weight gain, and to be very mindful of the type of language we use. Especially in paediatric patients. I was an impressionable child and it took me close to a decade to break out of the unhealthy cycle I was trapped in. Conversations regarding the relationship between chronic illness and body image start with us. For awareness to reach and impact healthcare institutions, we need to share our stories publicly on larger platforms like Mindless Magazine.