Disability and body image

One of the issues which has come up in my research about disability and sexuality is self esteem and body image.

The factors that make up our self esteem are complex. But, very often, appearance is part of it, or rather how we feel about our appearance. We live in a very visual society, surrounded by images of what are considered perfect bodies. And generally this excludes disability. We, as people with a disability, are imperfect. We do not fit the mould.

Our bodies may explicitly declare our disabilities or our aids may. Or our body language. Or the way we communicate.  Even “invisible” disabilities can contribute to our appearance and our sense of self esteem and feelings about our bodies.

Advertising and culture, where perfection is formed and perpetuated

Katrina Lawlor discusses the negative impact of advertising on the self esteem of minority groups, such as disabled people:

“Advertising has been described as the most powerful communication system in the world (Schroeder, 1999). It is a pervasiveness form of communication, it is everywhere and is not something we always choose to read and watch. That is, it’s an inescapable form of communication. However, advertising is powerful, not only in its reach, but in its ability to communicate an ideology of its choice. This ideology is said to be a skewed image of society. It essentially promotes instructions on how to live and how to look. These images are idealized, that is, an ideal lifestyle and ideal body image are promoted. Power is also manifested in advertising’s ability to exclude certain groups from its discourse, and in the case of mainstream advertising, disabled people are one such group. A hierarchy of bodies does exist in society (Hughes, 1999) and in advertising, with the disabled body firmly at the bottom of the ladder. “

This has been echoed by other researchers who confirm that how minority groups are portrayed in, or excluded from, advertising impacts how the group is seen by wider society.  And as minority groups are themselves part of society, how the see themselves.

In addition to advertising, culture, social institutions, policies and lack of physical access all reinforce the idea that disabled people don’t belong in this world, that we shouldn’t expect to participate.

The ideal body

Advertising and culture thrives off stereotypes. They are a quick and easy way of communicating a message – you see golden skinned, blonde, slim, tall woman and think beauty or sex appeal.  You see a topless, tanned, muscular man and think strength. You see a person in a wheelchair and think… pity, disgust, guilt…?

Women are expected to be thin, tall, traditionally attractive, sexy yet virginal, motherly yet youthfully attractive.  Feminine and submissive.  Decorative and without opinions.  Men are expected to be muscular, strong, independent, athletic, dominant.

Disability often means that people are seen as none sexual, sickly, feeble, weak, dependent, inferior and always unattractive.  This can free us from the pressure to achieve the perfect female or male body… or it can make this venture much more difficult.  Women are often considered spoilt if they are beautiful and disabled… “oh she’s beautiful, it’s such a pity she’s in a wheelchair…”.

The narrative that those of us with disabilities should be asexual and shouldn’t be in romantic relationships can strip us of a sense of desirability.  This is important because so often we are judged, or judge ourselves, on who wants us.



Weight is an important part of the advertising ideal, women are required to be thinner than is generally healthily achievable, men are required to be muscular.  Weighing more than is deemed acceptable brings with it ideas of glutton, laziness, moral weakness and lack of control.  This is something which affects most people in society at some stage.  It’s such a strong message that we internalise it and repeat it to ourselves.

When it comes to disability, people can be limited in terms of the control they have over weight.  Medication often leads to weight gain, as does limited movement or limited ability to exercise. And the prevalent message we get, everyday, is that this is our personal failing.  Not only do we carry the burden of being disabled, again, considered a personal failing, we’re weighed down with the inability to meet beauty expectations.

Weight loss might also be a part of your experience and there comes a point where this isn’t ok and society will judge you for that as well…

Putting on the costume

It’s not enough that we’re judged on how we are shaped and how our body fits together, society also tells women over and over again that we should be working on our costume. Whether it’s painting our face every morning or the clothes we chose to wear, we are bombarded with messages that tell us we need to improve on our naked bodies.

Being able to spend hours doing hair and makeup isn’t a choice everyone has. I can’t brush my own hair so my carers do it for me, to different degrees of quality. And we certainly don’t have time to do anything else to it. I actually wouldn’t choose to do anything with my hair or wear makeup. I haven’t in a long time, predating my inability however many people do, because it’s what society requires and expects of us.

And then there’s clothes… If you’ve got spinal curvature, are shorter than most people, spend the majority of time in a wheelchair, you’re not going to be able to wear clothes the same way as the “ideal” consumer.  In my case, clothes are carefully chosen so they are easy for someone to dress me.  I can’t wear tights, shorts or trousers cos then I can’t go to the toilet on my own.  I have to make sure sleeves go over my wrist splints.  And on it goes.  My shoes are all slowly being replaced because my feet plus splints are two sizes bigger than my feet.  This means I am having to leave behind my beloved doc martens and embrace ballet pumps.  It’s not a huge thing compared to other challenges but identity is wrapped up in the style you choose.

And then there’s the aids – wheelchairs, sticks, braces etc – which are often medical looking, think splints which are that beige colour which is the colour of no ones skin…  All emphasising that you are disabled, that you’re different, that you’re far removed from the idea of beauty and acceptability.

Public property

If you look different, you probably find yourself being stared at when you’re out in public. This can really start to unhinge any sense of self esteem you might have– you’re constantly under the microscope and constantly being judged as not living up to standards.

Being disabled and being out in public can make you feel like you’re public property. From people feeling entitled to ask what’s wrong with you to moving your wheelchair to patting you on the head…


And your body can feel like it’s betraying you – I used to get so angry at my body because I couldn’t do what I wanted because of pain. My body was failing me. Now, my body feels like it’s the property of other people. Other people wash it, dress it, undress it, feed it… My privacy and my physical space is regularly “invaded” by carers, drs, physios etc. All add to the feeling of loss of ownership of ones body.  Increased need for assistance has been shown to correlate with negative feelings about the body, as has the severity.

Your body can be the very site of a medical battle. It becomes a medical concept. Not a lived in, loved part of you. It’s the site of possible pain, intrusive intervention, humiliation and the ongoing, repetative conversations about what’s wrong with your body:

“Your body can be the course of a lot of pain, embarrassment, trouble, guilt, expense, and for some people, isolation with long periods of hospitalization and separation from the people that they love.”

Bogle and Shaul, 1981 as quoted in The Sexual Politics of Disability by Tom Shakespeare, Kath Gillespie-Sells and Dominic Davies.

Further to this, experiencing a lack of bodily control can impact on your body image and your sense of control over your body image.

Then there’s the conditions which directly impact on body image such as eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder etc.

How can we deal with this?

Some people react to this by trying to minimise their differences, trying to pass as abled. Other people find it liberating to be set free from society’s expectations, not having the pressure to strive towards standards which are unreachable for most people let alone those of us who have disabilities.

I’ve love to hear from other people about how they feel about their body image and how you’ve overcome any struggles with it.

3 thoughts on “Disability and body image”

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