The connection between body image and mental health and how my experience with ulcerative colitis has complicated my relationship with the two
Body image and mental health are something we all struggle with. I know I have. And all of my life, even though I had insecurities, I was happy as long as I felt healthy. Fairly simple.
But now I’ve got this complicated relationship with my body and my health. And although I would like to think it’s not affecting me, other people’s reactions to my new body have also complicated my relationship with it.
Body Image and Skininess
Here are some comments I’ve come across since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and going through periods of extreme illness:
Well…you look great!
Oh My God, you’re so skinny! You look great!
You could be a model now.
Oh, I’m sorry that sucks…But hey, at least you’re skinny!
I wish I could lose weight like that.
They have come from family, friends, and acquaintances, each with a different degree of knowledge of what I’m going through.
Most of the time these comments come after asking for an update on my health. I can see them, after hearing what I’ve gone through, frantically searching for something positive to say. And then it happens. They fixate on how I look because it is the most visual indicator of health.
Skinniness as an indicator of health
Unfortunately for a woman, health is also tied to how skinny she is: the skinnier, the more beautiful and healthy a woman must be. Besides comments on my body from people I know, I also notice a lot more full-body scans from complete strangers and I feel like I get hit on more now.
I’m not saying I don’t like it when people tell me I look great. But it does matter who is telling me this and the context the compliment takes place in. Sounds complicated, and it is.
When I make an effort to look nice by putting time into my hair, make-up, and clothes, I appreciate that other people notice. And because my friends and family know what I’ve been going through and the work I’ve been putting into getting back to a healthy and stable state, their compliments mean a lot to me. They don’t make me feel uncomfortable and I know that they are complimenting the whole package: my journey, my energy, my color, my health, and yes, my body.
But then there are the comments and looks from acquaintances and strangers, which create tension in me.
So many people like my new size better so should I too?
Liking my UC skinny body better
I’m not going to lie. I like my 110 legs a lot better than my 128 legs. I look better in clothes now and I don’t have to work nearly as hard to find flattering fits. I like to wear shorts now, whereas before I was all about fit-and-flare skirts and dresses. Shopping for jeans is no longer a 6-hour dramatic endeavor but a quick and painless 30 minutes trip.
I’m 5’4” and the BMI range for women of this height is 110-145. Before I was diagnosed with UC, I was consistently 128-130. Now I am consistently 110-115.
Whenever I’m 110, I’ve been really sick but am slowly on the mend. I’ve gained some weight back but am still fairly ill, recovering and healing from malnourishment, blood loss, inflammation, and constant diarrhea.
I eventually start adding pounds back through exercise and increased calorie intake. Every time I’ve started to gain weight and get more healthy though, I’ve suffered relapses and have gone into flares that upset all the healing I’ve done.
So I don’t really know what my body will look like if I go into permanent remission.
That I sometimes stress out about this worries me. I’ve received so much social acceptance of my new size that I can’t help but want to stay the way I am now.
I worry about having to have three different sized wardrobes
- Very sick 100-105 pound clothes
- Sick to healthy 110-115 pound clothes
- Healthy to pre UC 120-128 pound clothes
I worry about my motivations: am I eating this way and exercising to be healthy or to please a nameless and faceless standard of beauty?
This journey has given me and my whole family a new context for viewing other female bodies too. At dinner, my sister said, “I look at some of the actresses on T.V. and I think, ‘They’re Megan’s size (or smaller) and they’re not sick.”
What does this mean? What do they have to do to themselves to be accepted in Hollywood and fit into the prescribed beauty norms? Possibly some of them are naturally that thin. But I can’t believe all of them are and I can’t help but wonder what abuses they put their bodies through.
And that is the problem. There is no transparency. Girls and women are bombarded with images of skinny women constantly with no contextual reference. This causes them to believe that their bodies are wrong somehow and that they are the ones that are unnatural.
When people look at me they may think this state I’m in is completely natural and not the result of a number of health issues. They buy into the finished product. In some ways, I think we see and treat bodies as final packages, “consuming” them without considering how and why they are the way they are.
This is why I decided to write about my body image issues. I wanted to reveal my insecurities and be transparent about my struggle with my body and my perception of it.
I’m just starting to come out of recovery mode from flares Two and Three and am doing so much better. I’m still on Prednisone but am being weaned off of it. My blood work looks great and although my 6MP levels are not at therapeutic levels, there is no build-up of toxins so everything is looking awesome.
My small walks and runs have turned into 2 to 4-mile runs! I’m so excited about this and I love what the daily routine has done to my confidence and perception of myself. It has greatly helped with my mental health and body image issues. Now when people compliment me, I’m less inclined to have feelings of insecurity and confusion.
Before I started exercising, I equated “You look great” with “Wow, being ill really suits you.” Now I associate compliments with my fitness journey, not with being ill or how skinny I am.
I’m not strictly SCD anymore and am still unsure what my next steps diet wise will be. I still mostly eat SCD and when I don’t, I keep the portion sizes very small. This seems to satisfy my body’s needs the best at the moment.
In other news, I finally finished my thesis!!!
And I have decided that this means I can now turn my attention to this blog again. Starting on Tuesday, May 5th I will start posting recipes and food pictures again!!! I’m so excited to get back into creating recipes and food photography. I hope I haven’t forgotten how to use my camera!
My Whole UC Story
You can read my ulcerative colitis story in order or you can browse all my ulcerative colitis and health-related posts here:
- My UC Story: where and when my ulcerative colitis symptoms first started
- Part I – The Beginning of My UC Story: what my symptoms were and the struggles I had getting health care
- Part II – UC Diagnosis and Adjustment: how I was diagnosed and how I struggled to adjust to living with ulcerative colitis (including diet experiments, and getting frustrated with doctors not listening to me)
- Part III – UC and Severe Back Pain: my ongoing struggle with severe back pain + getting a new GI doctor that listened to me and who sent me to a rheumatologist
- Part IV – Sacroiliitis Diagnosis and UC Remission: getting diagnosed with sacroiliitis, getting on Remicade, and finally going into remission (with both my UC and joint disease)
- Part V – The Second UC Flare: my slowly deteriorating health, worsening symptoms, colonoscopy, and my first ER visit
- Part VI – First Hospitalization: my first hospitalization from my second ulcerative colitis flare and my experience with bowel rest and edema (swelling from fluid).
- Part VII – Being on Prednisone for My Second UC Flare Recovery: being on Prednisone for the first time and the various effects it had on my mind and body + adding mercaptopurine (6MP) and allopurinol to my daily routine
- Part VIII – Third UC Flare and Second ER Visit: my third UC Flare experience, symptoms, ER visit, and tests and procedures (CT scan, proctoscopy, etc.)
- Part IX – Recovering From Two Consecutive Flares: being released from the ER and the struggles of recovering from two consecutive UC flares (three months apart)
- UC Planning Realities: Trying to Write and Defend a Thesis: the difficulties in making long-term plans with UC and trying to meet thesis deadlines while in a flare
- Post UC Flare Routine: my post UC flare routine that helped me manage my physical and emotional symptoms
- Body Image and Mental Health with UC: Stop telling me I look great: the connection between body image and mental health and how my experience with ulcerative colitis has complicated my relationship with the two
- Making Travel Plans with UC: the difficulties in making travel plans with UC
- The Nightmare of Ulcerative Colitis: I compare a reoccurring childhood nightmare I had to the nightmare of ulcerative colitis
- Part X – Fourth UC Flare: My fourth UC flare experience, symptoms, hospitalization, tests, procedures, next treatment steps, and recovery
- Hanging Out in Limbo: waiting for experts to weigh in on my situation is like hanging out in limbo – I have no new treatment plan and I don’t know what the future holds
- Part XI – How Losing My Colon is a Transformation and Not a Loss: I’m losing my colon soon. But read about how this is a transformation and not a loss and how I made the decision to remove my colon
- You’ve Just Crossed Over into the Prednisone: Being on prednisone is a lot like being in the Twilight Zone. Things aren’t always what they seem, it can be hard to navigate and understand your surroundings, and often times you feel like you might never come back. Or the even scarier thought: that you might not ever want to come back.
- Recovery Reads: a list of some of my favorite books to read while recovering from UC flares, hospitalizations, and surgeries
- Pre-Surgery Jitters: my pre-surgery jitters in the days leading up to my j-pouch surgery on May 20, 2016, and how I distracted and pampered myself
- Part XII – J-Pouch Surgery: what my j-pouch surgery (proctocolectomy with ileal pouch-anal anastomosis) was like, including prep, surgery, and recovery
- J-Pouch Surgery Recovery: j-pouch surgery recovery is a full-time job with lots of road bumps along the way including bladder problems, dehydration, exhaustion, healing stitches and scars, pain and emotions, and adjusting to life with a stoma and ostomy bag
- Stoma Life: what my stoma life, the three months I lived with an ostomy bag, was like, including the physical and mental adjustments I went through, procedures, and what travel was like
- Part XIII – Pancreatitis: my struggle with pancreatitis including symptoms, tests, my ER and hospital stay, pain management, post-discharge recovery, and pre-op prep
- Part XIV – Ileostomy Takedown Surgery: how my ileostomy takedown surgery went, including prep, the surgery, hospital recovery, and complications
- Recovering from Pain and Standing in the Sun
- Surgery Recovery and Diet Problems: Physical and diet difficulties from post-surgery recovery and complications from pancreatitis, post-operative ileus, and pouchitis
- Everything is Shiny and New
- Hitting the Wall and The Privilege of Scars and Wrinkles
- Experiencing Loss and The Power and Comfort of Creativity
- Hauntings, Superstitions, and Giving Back: Reflecting on Being Hospital Free for 2 Years