Fibromyalgia | Its Impact on Body Image & How to Improve Yours

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Pexels.com

Scale? Check. Tape measure? Check. I’ve got some basic tools for body assessment. Oh, I forgot…I have a full length mirror, too. Check. My eyes, armed with a pair of glasses, seem ready for the task of looking, with extreme subjectivity, at my physical self.

Body image. I’d like to spend time talking about my own today.

Over the past decade, there have been some studies done on body image and women with fibromyalgia. What the research shows is that women with fibromyalgia experience a disturbance in their body image due to how fibromyalgia negatively impacts “self-identity, mental function, activity limitations, healthcare experiences, and quality of life.”

First, however, what is body image? The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines body image as “how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind.” This encompasses 1) what you believe about your appearance, 2) how you feel about your body overall, and 3) how you sense your physical experience of your body within space. The story that accompanies our perception stems from the messages we received in childhood about our body and the bodies of those around us. Body image, whether positive or negative, can change over time due to various factors. Body image isn’t static, it’s a journey that we are all on throughout our lives.

Given my background as an expressive therapist, specialized in the treatment of eating disorders, I have avoided discussing my body image journey. However, in light of the growing awareness and conversation about this topic, I would like to share some aspects of my experience.

The Journey

Prior to my diagnosis, my body image was more on the positive side of the spectrum. I saw my body as quite strong, flexible, and healthy, having spent the years prior devoted to weight training, yoga, and maintaining a fairly decent diet. My weight would have been considered on the higher end of my weight range for my height. However, I was not concerned about this due to my muscle to fat ratio. In essence, I perceived myself as a healthy 20-something-year-old with love for dancing as many days of the week as I could.

When I began feeling ill for the first time in 2006, I felt confused and tried to find answers. My weight began to steadily climb upwards while my body’s abilities began a downward spiral. By 2008, I could barely recognize myself in the mirror. My body was no longer fit and the scale showed a number that I could never have imagined at that time. More importantly, my body couldn’t do what I expected it to be able to do.

For the first time, as adult, I felt ashamed of my body…and at a lost as to what to do.

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The immense daily pain was unreal and unwelcomed. The fatigue, however, was the thing that made life unbearable. In my mind, I thought I could push through the pain. However, if I couldn’t even get up to begin that process, then what was the point? Luckily, my resilience has always been high. I made a plan to take control. Unfortunately, my focus was solely on my weight, not on the impact that my illness was having on my mind. Furthermore, I didn’t considered the consequences that losing weight would have on my intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships.

I became vegan and began walking for an hour every day. Over a period of two years, I lost twice the amount of weight that I had gained. I removed the word strong from self-description and added weak. I felt weak, tired, and in pain. I was, however, not as heavy as before. However, the years spent with the scale as a companion had had a severe impact on my mind. In addition, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. It didn’t help that, at that time, I was also in the midst of some major life changes (separation, resignation, moving abroad, etc.).

I made the one mistake that I knew better not to make: I thought, “I don’t have time right now. I’ll have to figure it out later.”

It took almost a decade, but later finally came.

I prioritized creating my new life in Italy, leaving the old life in Massachusetts behind, and disregarding the reality of my increasingly fragmented self. In essence, I didn’t want to deal…and so I didn’t. The alarm bells began sounding about 5 years later when I found myself living in America once again. My weight had dramatically increased once again due to poor self-management while living in a stressful environment. Still, I decided to take the old approach–focus on the weight gain and not the mind. It was easier to focus on that rather than unravel the chaos of my internal and external world. As such my weight went down then up and then down again, while my body image continued its descent to rock bottom.

When You Hit Rock Bottom: There is Only Up

Just over two years ago, I hit rock bottom in multiple areas of my life (with the exception of work). I became aware that I had been choosing a very toxic, self-sabotaging path. So, I decided to change one thing at a time, including my relationship with my body.

If you do a quick internet search on improving body image, you can find countless articles on what steps to take. From what I can see, most of the advice is on point and doable. They are effective, if you are in the mental space and emotionally regulated enough to do them consistently. Fibromyalgia, however, can leave your mental space feeling limited and your emotions seriously dysregulated. So much of your time is spent managing fatigue or pain or both…and trying to manage the emotions that arise as a result.

Once I made my decision to improve my body image, I started with only one thing in mind:

shifting my focus.

I shifted my focus to what my body can do in the moment (not yesterday or tomorrow, etc.)–just here and now. In addition, I created goals, answering the following question: what do I want my body to do?

I put away the scale. I returned my tape measure to my notions container, put a message of affirmation on my mirror. I realized that I had stopped looking at myself in the mirror. Now, I make it a point to look at myself twice a day in the mirror. This is done with curiosity and without judgement.

I decided to become friends with my body. It’s a pretty cool body that can do many things. I want to learn more about what it can do, what it likes, and what it needs. I have also started getting clothes that fit properly and feel good. I want to understand more about my body’s style preferences.

Most importantly, I am grateful to my body for its strength. Despite the high levels of stress, the ongoing pain, and staggering fatigue, my body keeps going. Thanks, body!

Improvement Tips

Beyond the many lists I have only two tips:

1) become curious about your body, and

2) become your body’s best friend.

We spend a lot of time within our minds instead time within our bodies. We try to use our minds to control our bodies. We may think that we have a problem with discipline, not exercising enough or eating too much. Well, how about just stopping to listen to our bodies? How about letting your body tell you what it needs? Maybe it needs more sleep, massage, acupuncture, stretching, or to go for a nice walk.

You won’t know until you to stop to listen to your body.

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