Recently, I have been thinking about a phrase I use often: “My body has betrayed me.” As a woman, it is challenging enough to love my body. We are constantly bombarded by images of thin super models and actresses that moonlight as models for products as diverse as designer glasses, shaving cream, and chic arm chairs. It was the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, that stated that “[t]he lie of the ideal has so far been the curse on reality” (1967). It is easy to think that as women we should sit on the edge of successful and sexy, and so, it becomes all the more complicated when we come to terms with this “body betrayed.”
If you cope with pain on a daily basis, can you love your body—the nerves that fire constantly, those irritable muscle knots, and arthritic joints? Can you love that? It is a difficult question to answer because we are never pieces of something. The mind can never be separated from the body. Our experiences, for better or worse with injury and illness, complete the picture of who we are and who we evolve into. To be brutally honest, there are times where I have felt like a monster—where I have attached my Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve (TENS) unit to my skin and felt the voltage running through my body, my muscles pulsating and jerking from the stimulation, and the wires tangling as I try to adjust them to get work done. Yet, I can’t help but feel human. The nag of my body reminds me that I am that if nothing else, but beautiful? Is that stretching it? Am I going too far? Can feeling sick and pain be compatible with finding yourself beautiful and loving your body?
Not much has been written about the relationship between chronic pain and body image. Body image can be defined as the feelings we have about our own body, the identification that it is ours, how it exists in relation to the environment, and as an essential component of self-awareness. It can be a representation of us from some moment in time such as a photograph, who we wish we were, want to project to the world, or how we see ourselves either real or unreal. It is something that is fluid and changes with our interactions with others and our personal satisfaction with our “self”. The notion of image as something we put on and take off conjures up the concept of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, madness, of prophecy, and drama who was represented in the theater in which one actor was expected to play many parts. Dionysos was then symbolically the god of masks. Laurie Edwards uses Susan Sontag’s compelling writing as a theme within her own work and life with chronic illness in her book: In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America. Sontag asserts: “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick” (2013). Edwards poignantly remarks how at one moment in time she is in the kingdom of the well as a professor teaching students. Walking a few blocks down from her classroom, she is a patient dwelling in the kingdom of the sick. This is quite interesting to think about because to live with a condition that is chronic means to, at times, wear the mask of the “well.”
The mark that society imprints on body image cannot be understated. The theorist, Elizabeth Grosz (1994) examines in her book, Volatile Bodies, the role of the body as a social object that is impressed, routed, and marked by institutional power exerted by these institutions and the interrelation of the subject to these institutions. One of these institutions is the shape and contour of the typical thin beautiful female body. Body image can be viewed as an institution because it alters behavior by deeming what is considered beautiful, acceptable, and normal within society. There are a few interesting, albeit limited, studies worth noting here. One such study was performed by G. Lorimer Moseley (2008). A group of patients with chronic back pain were asked to draw their body. Unlike patients with an amputation experiencing phantom limb pain who drew their limb as larger than normal, back pain patients drew their vertebrae as smaller than it should be. The author hypothesizes that pain actually biologically disrupts body image in people with pain disorders. In a qualitative study on body images of seven adults with physical disabilities, George Taleporos and Marita P McCabe (2002) found that for each participant, having a physical disability impacted their feelings towards their bodies. The authors observed that a unifying theme among the individuals they interviewed was, at some point in their lives, body image had been a serious struggle and negative feedback from their environment had been internalized. However, positive responses from their significant others mitigated some of these feelings. The authors found that other factors that may re-route an individual’s view of their body from negative to positive include the time since the onset of the disability (the longer the individuals were disabled, the more positive the body image), a larger social support, and the amount of positive reactions the individuals already received. How we view our bodies seems to be tangled in our relationship with our environment, social norms and values about the ideal body, and biological responses to our body.
Is it possible to untie this relationship and forge a new love for our bodies as they exist today? Many philosophers and theorists have called for a new language when it comes to their standpoint and subject. This is a compelling idea and one that allows us to look back and recall what was, and yet recreate and reform our relationship with our bodies. It is an idea that beckons us to speak a language that expands our image as even more beautiful and complex than before. For me, it invokes a statement by the astrophysicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson. He stated that the molecules that compose our bodies and the atoms that make the molecules are traceable to the stars that exploded into the galaxy; and, so, when in pain, I have taken to closing my eyes and envisioning the clear night sky. Yes, it’s hard to believe but that’s our image too.