When I was in highschool, my friends worried about the usual - does my rear end look good in these jeans, do I need to lose weight, that guy/girl would like me if only my skin looked better, I’ll never be normal. I worried about wearing splints on my wrists, my swollen toes looking like little sausages when I wore sandals and knowing that my Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) and what it did to my body meant I’d never be normal.
A positive body image is so important to your self-esteem, and hard enough to find when you’re a teenager. But how do you get there if you share your body with a chronic illness like JIA?
Being a teenager is about testing boundaries, questioning the way things are. Start asking questions about what is considered beautiful, what does normal look like. The definition of normal and beautiful varies. It changes from culture to culture and it has changed throughout history. Spend some time finding out about what was beautiful 50 or 200 years ago or what is thought to be beautiful in a country on the other side of the earth. Then start taking a look at how beauty is created now, in our country. The beautiful models and movie stars aren’t even good enough - when Jessica Alba was photographed for an ad, the pictures were photoshopped so she looked thinner and more glamorous.
Then ask yourself if the standard of beauty and normal is reasonable if even Jessica Alba doesn’t measure up? Maybe that means there’s room for a much broader idea of what is beautiful and once you know that, the idea of normal changes, too. If “normal” people can be beautiful, why can’t you?
Find a Trademark
In high school, teens experiment with self-identity, exploring how to define who you are and how to express that. Some teens are into sports, some are all about music, some dress in black, embracing being goth, others choose the hip-hop look. Next time you’re in school, try noticing what people’s clothes say about who they are. Everyone has a trademark, a way to set themselves apart.
What’s your trademark? Do you have one? Is there a way you can express yourself through e.g., the clothes you wear that can tell other people who you are, aside from your JIA? When I was in high school, I put stickers on the back of my wheelchair - some were political, others were funny sayings (My Other Car Is a Rolls-Royce), etc. If you wear splints or sometimes use a cane, can you decorate them so instead of screaming splint and cane, they say something else? You can use stickers or decals from your favorite band or singer, sports team, books or paint them yourself.
Focus on Can, Not on Can’t
I often use an audio program called Mindfulness for Beginners to help me cope and meditate and there’s a great quote in it: “there’s more right with you than there is wrong with you.” Just think about that for a minute. Even though you have a chronic illness, even though you may have difficulty moving, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you. It’s all about slowly switching the way you look at yourself and your life from focusing on what you cannot do, to what you can do.
What can you do? What are you good at? Can you sing or write? Do you have a talent for cooking or being funny? If you have a camera, try playing around with photography. If you know someone who knit, ask them to teach you - you don’t need to have a lot of movement in your wrists and fingers to do it. Creating something that’s useful or beautiful makes you feel good about yourself (and sometimes make excellent, inexpensive presents). Finding your talent - or something you enjoy doing, even if you aren’t very good at it - can give you better self-esteem and help you create the person you want to be.
Find Others Like You
If all your friends are healthy, you may end up feeling isolated because there’s a big part of you they don’t understand. Try finding others your age who have JIA or another type of chronic illness on this site, Facebook, Yahoo Groups or the Arthritis Foundation’s Young Adult forum. Sharing your experiences and feelings, as well as tips on how to cope can be a lifeline - it can give you a place where you feel normal, where others truly understand why you’re sometimes sad or angry and it can be a place where you can laugh about being sick.
Do you have any other tips on how to build your self-esteem? Please leave it in a comment.
You can read more of Lene’s writing on The Seated View.
Lene Andersen is the Community Leader for HealthCentral’s RA Community. Lene (pronounced Lena) is an award-winning writer, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. She’s written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Follow Lene on Twitter @TheSeatedView and on Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.