When you think of the feelings you have toward your body, especially connected to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), is pride one of them?
For most, the answer is no. Living with the changes RA imposes on your life is a challenge at the best of times and one of the hardest aspects is how it can change your body. Uncontrolled RA not only makes you feel awful, but it can also create visible signs of its presence. Swelling in joints, nodules, crooked fingers, stiff movements — they are all a reflection of the condition. Maybe you add equipment, such as splints and canes, none of which are designed to look remotely smart.
You may ask me how to feel good— never mind proud — about yourself and your body when it looks and feels so different from the “you from before.”
Allow me a small sidetrack.
It never occurred to me to hide my hands. They have borne the marks of severe uncontrolled RA since I was 10 years old. Some of my finger joints bend in ways that are a bit startling, others (most) don’t bend at all.
It doesn’t stop there. My right foot turns inward, my left knee is fused straight, the scoliosis in my lumbar region means I only have a waist on one side, and the steroids that saved my life when I was 12 left me looking much like an Eastern European gymnast from the 1980s, except without the agility.
I have had a lot of negative emotions toward this body of mine over the past 50 years of coexisting with RA, but somehow shame was never on the list.
Yes, shame — the antonym of pride.
Form and function
I am a word geek and it has served me well in terms of embracing this body with which I share my life. Because if you push a little, linguistically speaking, and ask yourself if not proud, then what? There you find the word shame and that’s a really big concept to apply to yourself.
I’ve met people who felt so awful about their RA hands that they would hide them under tables and in pockets. Women who would look at their hands and deem them unworthy of adornment, leaving rings or nail polish closed up in drawers for years.
Resistance and pride
We are bombarded with so many messages about physical perfection that very few of us feel comfortable in our bodies. But if you also see the signs of illness writ large, how can we but listen to those messages and judge ourselves harshly?
And that’s where pride comes in.
Celebrating your body is a revolutionary idea. You have a chronic illness; how could you ever celebrate the part of you that carries that disease? I’ll tell you how and why.
Because your body is the definition of strength, carrying you through each day in the face of fatigue and pain.
Because it joins with you in fighting back against the autoimmune disease.
Because it is part of who you are.
And because those messages about physical perfection are hogwash. Perfection is boring. It is in the lack of perfection that we find true beauty and character.
Everyone has flaws, physical and otherwise. And everyone has the opportunity to shine, if only we would let ourselves.
Be unashamed. And to co-opt a phrase from the LGBT movement: Be loud and be proud. Celebrate with pride your RA body and allow the world to see your strength and your beauty.