RA and Your Body Image
Learn how to break free from struggles with negative feelings about your body and physical limitations due to rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s hard to feel good about yourself when your body is betraying you. Before your rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis, you may have felt great about your body. You loved your muscles, curves or leanness; you celebrated your nimble knitting fingers or your meringue-whisking arms. Or maybe you’ve always struggled with body acceptance and tended to focus on self-perceived flaws. Now your RA is forcing you to deal with a different reality.
How RA Can Change Body Image
“Body image is how we think and feel about our bodies, but it’s just one component of our self-concept,” explains Gerald Goodman, PhD, professor emeritus of clinical psychology at UCLA. “Body acceptance fits into a larger framework that influences our self-esteem.”
Research confirms that people with RA experience negative changes to body image. Multiple studies show that women with RA have lower self-esteem, poorer body image and higher levels of body dissatisfaction compared with healthy women.
“RA can affect your outward appearance. Many individuals experience swelling and changes in the shape of fingers, feet and other joints; weight gain or loss; and difficulty walking. These body changes can affect how a person views herself and her body,” says Helen L. Coons, PhD, president and clinical director of Women’s Mental Health Associates, Philadelphia.
You may think that because treatments have come such a long way over the years that worry about body changes might not be so prevalent. However, researchers report that new treatments haven’t had much effect on how women with RA perceive their bodies. Study participants use words such as “crooked joints,” “smallish-looking legs” and “large body” to describe their bodies. In addition, decreased strength, decreased joint flexibility and visible changes to their bodies make them feel embarrassed in public.
Other studies echo these themes. One study found that 30% of the people who had chronic RA reported feeling unattractive. This was similar to the proportion of patients with recently diagnosed RA (34%) who were concerned with their appearance, even though they had few visible body changes.
Consequences of Negative Body Image
Chronic illness can negatively affect your body image and self-concept. In particular, women with physical differences may feel they don’t fit the narrow definitions of beauty displayed in the media. This can lead others – and themselves – to perceive them as inferior, not feminine or not “real” women.
Coons notes that adults who are physically different or challenged may feel unsupported by others, self-conscious in public, become critical of their body and sometimes isolate themselves from others.
If your disease, pain and body frustrations trigger distress, anxiety or depression, you should reach out for help. Find a behavioral health provider to talk to -- a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker with expertise in adults with chronic physical conditions.
How to Nurture a Positive Body Image
- Appreciate yourself as a whole person. Don’t be defined by your illness. You may have limitations to your physical functioning, but don’t impose those limitations on your whole being.
- Focus on and develop your abilities so you can feel good about the things you can do.
- Don’t over-generalize. If there is something you can’t do as a result of your RA, don’t conclude that you are an overall failure.
- Commit to your body in positive ways. Manage your weight; be physically active; get involved in activities that promote a positive attitude.
- Set challenging, yet realistic, goals outside of your body that link to your dreams, values or emotions.
- Distract yourself from focusing too much on your RA – read, watch a movie, enjoy hobbies or do volunteer work.
- Accept the validity of your feelings. If you deny them, you deny yourself.
- Explore body-image issues with people you trust: a partner, friend, counselor or colleague. Surround yourself with individuals who are supportive, respectful and encouraging.
- Advocate for yourself and for people with disabilities. Work to challenge stereotypes and prejudices. Join the Arthritis Foundation Advocacy network.
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