I have lived with a curved and deformed body for most of my life. I hate the word deformed; hearing that word as an adolescent shaped my view of my body. Deformed has many meanings, most of which are negative. Synonyms include grotesque, mangled, and damaged. Imagine hearing that word as an adolescent. Many of us with scoliosis, and other deformities, carry this word with us throughout our lives, always feeling different and ashamed of our bodies. Body positivity movements focus mainly on size diversity and acceptance with some emphasis on disability.
Recovery Process Has Challenges
I am recovered from alcoholism, depression, and an eating disorder for many years now. I was also used to living in a body with a hump on my back, uneven waist, hips, and shoulders. At 43, I received a life altering surgery, actually three surgeries, to correct severe degenerative disc disease and scoliosis.
It has been a difficult recovery process with many challenges. One challenge I did not anticipate was body image. My size and weight have not changed. However, my body shape has changed and I now have three large scars combined to more than two feet on my stomach, ribs, and back. I felt like an alien in my body. My hips, waist, and ribs shifted and my scars are uncomfortable, sore, and hard to miss.
As a swimmer, it was important for me to get back into the water. With a now longer torso, my swimsuits no longer fit. After trying to swim in a one-piece swimsuit, the suit irritated my stomach and rib scar so I decided to try a two-piece workout swimsuit. At times, I worried about stares at my scars as well as my awkward movements.
At about three months post op, I started to experience severe mood swings and depression. As a therapist and eating disorder professional, I understand body image and how it affects our self-image. I also understand that it is something that I can work through and that my mental body image will take time to catch up to my actual body image.
My perception of my body is not distorted; I am actually looking at a different body in the mirror. I was used to the humps and bumps and uneven body and it was a part of who I was. My new body no longer has those twists and turns and has been replaced with my limitations and scars.
PTSD Common Among Spinal Fusion Patients
I learned that PTSD and depression are very common among spinal fusion patients. I talked to my doctor and found a therapist that works with patients with medical issues and the trauma experienced with complex spinal fusions. At our first session, I went over my history and the things that I wanted to work on.
One of the things I mentioned was my body image change. She stated that I had the perfect athletic body and that I looked great. I should have said something at that time but I was surprised at what she said and did not have an immediate response. When we compliment someone on their body, when they have a body image struggle, we invalidate their experience.
At our second session, we talked about my progress in my recovery and life. I mentioned being nervous to go to a group open water practice and everyone seeing my scars in my two-piece swimsuit. She told me that I looked like an Athleta model and that I had a great body.
Again, that is an absolutely inappropriate comment and invalidated my thoughts about my new body. I needed validation of my experience and to process this new body. After our session, I began to reflect on her comments and how inappropriate they were. I wonder how many clients she has invalidated with similar comments.
While being compared to a model may sound nice, it was deflating. I then realized that I don’t need the validation of another as I am capable of validating myself. However, many are not able to validate themselves and it is the responsibility of a therapist to keep boundaries, and be appropriate, empathetic, and validating.
This is the email that I sent when cancelling my follow up appointments:
I appreciate your time however have cancelled my remaining appointments. I thought I should let you know why.
As a therapist working with eating disorders and body image, I am acutely aware of inappropriate comments about someone’s body. When I mentioned my new body and scars, you made comments that were inappropriate and not helpful. At our first session, you said that I looked like a fitness model and at yesterday’s session, you said that I looked like an Athleta model.
While my body image is not skewed, I am still processing its changes and being compared to a model is actually not helpful and invalidating of my experience. I know that I am not grotesque and I also know that I don’t look like a model. However, I was in need of processing my new body and not having comments about my appearance. Many times comments about appearance, whether they are positive or negative, are not helpful at all.
I wanted to let you know this so you can be aware of comments you make to your patients in the future. You never know what someone’s experience of their body is and you can do damage by invalidating someone’s changes in ability and appearance.
As a clinician – doctor, psychiatrist, nurse, therapist, dietician or another healer, making a comment about someone’s body is not helpful and can be harmful. We have a great responsibility as healers and need to be mindful of what we say and what we bring into the room with us.