How to Love Yourself, RA and All

Lene Andersen used to view her RA-affected body as something to ignore or even dislike. Then she learned to embrace and even celebrate it.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Can you feel beautiful with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? For a very long time I didn’t think so and it did a number on my body image and self-esteem. So much so that for several decades, I shut down my idea of myself as a physical being, focusing instead on my intelligence and my personality, which I felt were my only interesting or attractive features. I viewed myself as a “brain in a jar,” with my body serving merely as a container. I’m not alone in this dissociation from my physical self. I’ve met women who have stopped wearing rings or nail polish and hide their hands, ashamed of the visible signs of their RA. I’ve talked to many who hate their bodies because of the pain within them. And it makes life with a chronic illness much more difficult. Loving yourself, embracing your body just the way it is, can lend peace to your mind and quite possibly peace to your body, as well.

By now, you know my story: I grew up with RA in the time before treatment and because of it, had to start using a power wheelchair in my teens. RA took my ability to walk and twisted my joints at a crucial developmental stage. My friends were becoming women and I became disabled. I knew no one else like me and saw none like me in magazines, movies, or books. My only defense against a world that at best treated me as invisible and at worst stigmatized me was to ignore my physicality.

Several decades later, we haven’t progressed much. Disability and chronic illness still tend to be invisible or stigmatized and of course it affects how we view ourselves, especially so for women with RA, resulting in lower self-esteem and body image than their healthy peers. One study in Archives of Rheumatology pointed out that a positive body image has a direct influence on your health-related quality of life yet addressing this is usually not part of rheumatology treatment plans.

Which means we have to do it ourselves, but where do you start? The way I see it, you encounter several obstacles to loving yourself when you live with RA. There is acceptance of who you are now—so different from who you were before—feeling good about a body that hurts, and feeling attractive when your culture’s ideal beauty excludes anyone who isn’t tall, skinny, able-bodied, and let’s face it, white. Let’s unpack some of the ways you can fight back against all of that.

Become unapologetically visible. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and that’s beautifully applicable to living with chronic illness. If you’re hiding your hands or dressing to fade into the background, stop. Wear the rings, paint your nails, and dive into fun fashion (tip: vintage and thrift stores are great sources for this).

Several years ago, I tried out bold lipsticks—think blue, bright red, and metallic—and although it took a few days to get used to it, I soon realized it was an instant mood boost. I felt sexy and confident and really good about myself. Your shortcut might be different, so throw yourself into experimenting with fashion, makeup, jewelry, hobbies, singing, writing, speaking. Try it all to see what feels good and you might find a shortcut to feeling beautiful.

Focus on what you can do. So much of our lives is focused on what we can’t do, serving as a daily reminder of what we have lost and eroding self-esteem. Shifting your focus to what you are able to do can be a valuable reminder that you still have ability and worth. Your value doesn’t have to be tied to activity or productivity—your heart and your mind still work beautifully.

Your spouse loves you for who you are, your kids or grandkids for the cuddles and the feeling of safety you give them, and your friends value the way you make them laugh. Everything else is negotiable. If you miss certain activities that help you feel better about yourself, consult an occupational therapist for tools and doodads that could make the task easier for your body. And of course you know my next tip—say it with me!—experiment with other hobbies or ways to contribute.

Show compassion for your body. Years ago, I realized that my body wasn’t my enemy. Rather, it was my partner in the fight against RA—my body was doing its best to persevere and carry me through each day, and it needed my help. I started paying attention to its messages, resting when it asked, negotiating when I couldn’t rest, and treating my body as I would a dear friend. In the process, I realized that it’s about so much more than rest. It’s becoming as healthy I can be, staying on top of my RA treatment, seeking physical pleasure like delicious lotion or clothes that feel lovely against my skin, laughing as much as possible, and snuggling with my beloved, especially on painful days.

Treating my body as my best friend helped me leave the image of the brain in the jar behind, instead becoming a whole person. And I’d bet it would work for you, as well. When your body becomes a source of a variety of sensations, including pleasure, it’s easier to cope with the pain. Showing as much compassion for your body as you would for anyone else is an important step towards valuing yourself. Which is arguably a much more reliable source of self-worth than comparing yourself against movie stars or influencers on social media.

You’ll have noticed that none of my tips directly dealt with acceptance of RA, of who you are, or of letting go of the grief of losing what you thought your life would be. That’s because, like getting effective treatment for RA, accepting it doesn’t just happen; it takes work and getting some help with that work through counseling can be very useful. But it’s also about how you treat yourself, body and mind. Following these tips will help you enjoy—even celebrate—your life and yourself just the way you are, RA and all. And feeling good about yourself may just be the place where acceptance begins. Imagine that.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has 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. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.