‘Positive’ body image when you have a birth defect

This will be more of a ‘personal’ blog entry as of course it will mainly involve my own experience with body image and how my experience with it is vastly different to that of a regular person.

For the purposes of this blog post, and to be polite I will refer to my body as ‘atypical’. I’d use other terms but out of respect for other people who may have a deformity, birth defect or physical abnormality I will stick with atypical.

My experience with body image and how I perceive my physical appearance, unlike other people, isn’t solely due to my mental perception of my body. It is also due to a very real and obvious birth defect. My body does look different, and not in a “diverse” way. It is different in the sense that I have a birth abnormality, my body isn’t like others.

My liver and part of my transverse colon remain on the outside of my body, covered with full thickness skin grafts. I have a very obvious abdominal “bump” as well as scoliosis that leaves me with a limp and visible curved spine. Ever since I could understand other people’s words and behaviour, I have battled with negative experiences with people commenting on or even touching my body in a way that left me feeling insulted, upset and scared.

With all these negative experiences involving other people’s reaction to my body in tow, as a child and during adolescence when I heard the words “love your body” or “body positivity” I would recoil in anger with “how could I love MY body?”. How could I love a body that prevented me from keeping a pregnancy, let alone look good? Or love a body that some people obviously took issue with?

As the Butterfly Foundation (https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/understand-eating-disorders/body-image/) states: “Behaviours in which you engage as a result of your body image encompass your behavioural body image. When a person is dissatisfied with the way they look, they may isolate themselves because they feel bad about their appearance or employ destructive behaviours (e.g. excessive exercising, disordered eating) as a means to change appearance.” – it’s no wonder I developed an eating disorder, especially since for me, there has always been a dissatisfaction with my body for how it is, with the added reactions of people within society.

I cannot remember how many nights while still in school that I cried about these experiences, it got to the point I wouldn’t leave the house without some sort of object like either a stuffed animal or a handbag to carry over my tummy bump so that I’d possibly be allowed to go out in public without someone mentioning it.

The Body Positivity Movement allegedly works towards being accepting of your own body and that of others — but you’d be absolutely kidding yourself if you think that “positivity” currently extends to people with birth defects. Bodies such as mine are never apart of the body positivity movement, instead, people like me are really only raised in either abortion arguments, offensive memes, “inspiration porn” or other debates that aren’t necessarily about bringing positivity to our existence, let alone our bodies.

That’s why I want to change people’s outlook on body positivity and direct to what it’s really about – functioning. Body image resources do not include people with physical abnormalities, and quite frankly, these resources are not a one size fits all fix. Why? It’s due to the fact that they really only talk about physical appearance and expect people to be all “yippee” with how their body is just by reading a few lines of “stretch marks are tiger stripes”.

It’s true, I probably never will say I love my body. Ever. However, I do love what it does for ME and what it’s gotten me through. It gets me up in the morning, it’s allowed to me to pursue my educational goals in life and meet wonderful people.

I have to remember my body at age 23 is the same body that got me through abdominal surgery at birth, resuscitation at birth, major spinal surgery at age 2 and half, that got me through pneumonia and in recent times allowed me to complete my law degree.

Since I will never view my abdominal defect in a relatively positive way physically, I will acknowledge that a) this is my lot in life and to take it as it is and b) without my body how it is, I wouldn’t be able to experience life. As unfortunate as it may feel at times having a birth defect, it’s a rather all or nothing way of life, without being how I am today, I wouldn’t be even writing this post — and I’d certainly rather live with my liver on the outside than not be here at all. Most people aren’t afforded such an ultimatum.

My own condensed “lite” version of body positivity, that gets me through each day, is centred on function. I cannot function properly if i’m nutritionally depriving myself – my brain and body cannot. Although my eating disorder definitely involves trying to control my appearance in some way, since I cannot control my birth defect, I lose such control when I lose my function. I want to hopefully be able to live life to the extent that’s possible for me. That is my goal: to function to the best of my ability.

What I can only leave everyone as with is my simple message. Your body exists for you and you only. No one else. It functions purely to keep YOU alive. Your body doesn’t exist to please others or amount to another person’s expectations. It’s appearance is only one facet. Appearance can be negatively impacted due to injury, illness or other conditions at any moment and all you are left with will be trying to function and survive.

It’s main purpose is for survival, so perhaps it’s time to reciprocate the care our bodies subconsciously provide us rather than trying to destroy it for a goal, aesthetic, comfort or result you’ll never achieve and if you do achieve it somewhat, it’ll likely be at a price. I’m not a great predictor but it’ll likely be how your body functions that will be impacted, and if not that, your happiness.

I think everyone should employ this notion that body positivity and body image should be centred around function and appreciating what your body CAN do, not what it can’t do (ie.  expecting your body to fit into sizes of clothing that are too small for your true body type). When we accept our bodies for how they are and what they do for us (whether grudgingly or otherwise) we gradually negate the incessant focus on the unachievable and instead replace unrealistic goals with just getting on with life.