Body Image and Mental Health with UC: Stop telling me I look great

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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?

Consuming Bodies

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.

Recovery Continues

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!!!

my finished thesis
My finished 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:

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