The Unique Body Image Challenges Related to Disablity

The word disability is generally used as a catchall term for a physical or mental condition that may limit a person's mobility, senses, or the ability to engage in certain activities. Though the term disability also carries important legal implications, the focus of this discussion is less medical or political as it is social. While in many ways the United States has made great strides to ensure rights like equal access to health care, employment, housing, and education for those living with disabilities, we still have our challenges, particularly with the pervasive stigma and the perceptions of disability.

Disabled woman in wheelchair looking in store window
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Cultural Perceptions of Disability

Disability is still met with the perpetual challenge of being perceived as "different" or, at worst, inferior to able-bodied peers. These negative perceptions and stigma invade almost every aspect of our cultural values from the admired traits we associate with the performance of traditional masculinity and femininity to beliefs about what is beautiful.

In many cultures, people with disabilities are often thought of as being sickly, feeble, and fragile. With those generally inaccurate perceptions of disability also come more harmful notions. People with disabilities may not be considered masculine or feminine enough; they may not be considered sexually attractive or beautiful; they may be considered as objects rather than agents. These unique and almost invisible social challenges that people with disabilities face have a profoundly negative impact on self-worth, self-esteem, and body image.

Body Image and Disability

More and more research has confirmed the unique challenges people with disabilities face with regard to self-esteem and body image. At the broadest level, studies have found that physical disability, in particular, has a negative influence on people's psychological experience, attitudes, and feelings about their own bodies. While the experience does vary from individual to individual, common patterns that fall along certain demographics like gender do exist.

Masculinity, Femininity, and Disability

The perceived values of masculinity and femininity still carry heavy cultural weight even in today's changing and diverse world, which poses special challenges for people with disabilities. In a culture where traditional masculinity is associated with traits like dominance, strength, and independence, men with physical disabilities may find it difficult to fit the mold. Women with disabilities, on the other hand, may not fit the narrow definition of the ideal female body or what is considered beautiful.

While nonconformity to these flawed ideas is certainly not a challenge restricted to people with disabilities, the extent to which many people with disabilities internalize the negative body image that stems from it is a real psychological and emotional issue that not enough people are talking about.

The Link Between Body Acceptance and Changing Attitudes

As is the case with able-bodied people, not all people with disabilities suffer from body image concerns. Perhaps equally as important to recognize is that people with disabilities are not solely victims of our society's flaws. In fact, many actively combat stigma and negative perceptions both externally in the world and internally within themselves.

Today, attitudes are changing, but slowly. With more media coverage and exposure to disability through coverage of injured soldiers or television shows that work to portray disability accurately, Americans of all backgrounds have had more opportunities to wrestle with their perception of disability. Often, the exposure, whether direct or indirect, can be enough to begin to dispel harmful ideas that they may carry about the disabled. This exposure hopefully leads to more and more opportunities to have those notions and their roots in our culture challenged. When those notions are challenged, everyone — including people with and without disabilities — are given the tools to accept their bodies and realize higher and healthier self-esteem.

You Have the Power to Change Your Experience

It is not unusual for a person who is disabled to experience depression or feelings of inadequacy as a result of their experience. It isn’t healthy, however, to suffer from those feelings all of the time.

Depression can affect your sleep, diet, work, relationships, and overall health. It can impact your quality of life. If you feel that you’re spending too much time worrying about your body, it may be time to consider asking for help. Though issues like body image and psychological well-being are not generally a focus or priority in our healthcare system, they should be.

Help can be sought through many channels, such as confiding in a trusted friend or family member, speaking with your physician, or by calling a local counseling center. You don’t have to suffer in silence. By speaking up and seeking help, you not only prioritize your well-being, but you help shed light on an under-reported issue that deserves consideration.

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  • Taleporos, George, and Marita P. Mccabe. "Body Image and Physical Disability—Personal Perspectives." Social Science & Medicine 54.6 (2002): 971-80.
  • Taub, Diane E., Patricia L. Fanflik, and Penelope A. Mclorg. "Body Image among Women with Physical Disabilities: Internalization of Norms and Reactions to Nonconformity."Sociological Focus 36.2 (2003): 159-76.

By Charlotte Gerber
Charlotte Gerber is a disability writer and advocate. She has made a career of educating the public about various diseases and disabilities.