Over the past few months I have been incredibly lucky in having a number of opportunities to work with different people and organisations discussing body image. This has been amazing for me, as it’s something I am very passionate about, but have rarely had the occasion to talk about.
So, today I am writing about something (mostly) un-sport related for a change.
My relationship with my body has changed very dramatically over time. Accepting the body you have is sometimes a difficult journey, we all have things we love and things we would love to change when it comes down to it. I used to get jealous of people who had little ‘flaws’ that I thought were an easy fix – losing weight, getting stronger – those kinds of things. I think being in a wheelchair is a fairly significant step from what we generally view as the ‘perfect’ body, and I always saw being 100% happy with my body as unattainable, purely for that reason.
Sometimes though, I believe having one big obstacle is nicer than lots of little ones. If you can accept – and genuinely believe – that your body is everything you need it to be in spite of something like a physical disability, it makes accepting the little ‘flaws’ along the way a whole lot easier.
Over the last few years, the way my body looks has rarely crossed my mind. This has in no way come naturally – it has definitely been a process. I’m trying to make everything about how my body feels. Am I healthy, am I strong, am I fast? The reasons for which I value my body have moved so far from how it physically looks and towards what it is able to do. Learning how much your body is capable of doing can change your view of it in such an extreme way.
For me one of the big factors in switching to a more positive mentality came with becoming really involved in my sport. However this was in no way an immediate change. In 2008, I was also preparing for a fairly extensive surgery to correct a significant curve in my spine. How I felt about my body in the most aesthetic sense revolved purely around this thing that I viewed as a huge imperfection. I think I saw it as something that couldn’t be recovered from – there is no way a body that looks like this can be attractive. I did what I think most everyone who isn’t happy with their body does, and wore clothes that were too big, avoided mirrors, and tried to ignore it as best as I could. Recently I found some of my uniforms from those Beijing Games, and eight years later, they are still so many sizes too big and will never fit me. So while yes – I was getting stronger and faster and my body was doing good things, I still had overall negative feelings about it.
On top of that, I was fourteen and in tenth grade dealing with all the regular things that you deal with going through high school. That’s when all the pressure kicks in to act a certain way, and look a certain way. There was no way I was ever going to fit in to whatever the ‘look’ at the time was. Looking back, however, I think that played a huge part in shaping how I deal with these things now. I have zero desire to fit in with what is in fashion, or what we’re told will ‘look good.’ I know what suits my body, what makes me feel good to wear, and so I do that.
February of the following year I went in for my spinal fusion, which was expected to be a seventeen-hour procedure. I had an incredible surgeon who had decided that it would be worth delaying the surgery until after the 2008 Games, as he was unsure of the extent to which it could affect my body. The race chair position is not a particularly easy one to fold into, and so after having two Titanium rods screwed into my spine, resulting in absolutely no flexion, he wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get back into my sport. As a result of this, we decided that making it to a Paralympic Games was definitely worth the wait if there was a chance of it never happening again.
I was excited going in to the operation, though, thinking about how wonderful it would be to be straighter and more symmetrical. Which was all true! While I still definitely have a curve in my spine, it is infinitely better than it had been. The part that I was definitely not ready for was having to relearn my body. I had spent years doing my best to completely ignore it, and I wasn’t ready for what it would feel like to have to be so aware of it. I learned pretty quickly that I had taken for granted everything my body could do. At the most basic level, my body could bend, I could use my abs, I could do things two-handed and with balance. Waking up and realising all of that was gone was very confronting. The next twelve months I spent getting to know my body again. At first I hated it. Being a little more symmetrical and liking my reflection was in no way worth this. But over those months that completely changed. My body could still do things; in fact, it could do all the things it could always do, just differently. It’s incredible how much your body can adapt.
After learning how to function as a human again in a new body, it was time to relearn how to be an athlete, which was a far bigger challenge than the former. Absolutely everything I knew about athletics was different. I had to start from scratch. My first six months were a complete train wreck and the next twelve were only marginally better. Over time, though, I got stronger, and at some point I realised I was stronger and faster than I had ever been. More importantly, I was no longer in a body I hated. Not because it was more symmetrical, but because I appreciated how far it had taken me and everything that it was capable of doing. The body I had was the body I worked hard to create.
Becoming a stronger athlete has changed how I feel about my body in so many ways. Being able to win medals at Paralympic Games and World Championships is huge, but not necessarily in the crossing the line first or second or third kind of a way, more so in the process. My body and I did this every day in that lead up – for the last ten years. The fact that I can tell my body I need it to do something – this painful training session, climb this hill, lift this weight, hit that wall and then do it again – and that it can do it, is incredible. Over and over again my body and I did this, so when it comes down to it, that final race is just the culmination of years of work, a physical representation of all those walls we pushed through. Medals are nice, but the part that makes me respect and love my body is definitely in the process.
When you are an athlete it becomes so much more than how your body looks. I don’t work every day so that I can look in the mirror and love the way I look. I definitely don’t work every day for my body to look better for anyone else’s sake. I work every day to push my body to its absolute limit, to see how much further it can go. In my case, how much faster it can go. And that doesn’t have a particular look – it has a feel.
Negative body image affects so many women because we are continuously confronted by these kinds of situations. Our bodies are under constant scrutiny. The commentary over the Rio Olympics is a perfect example of the huge divide between treatment of men and women over their physical appearance. You have a group of incredibly elite athletes, men and women, and yet the women’s side of sports sparks entire debates about whether ‘female athletes should wear makeup or not’ and ‘do the prettier girls get more sponsors?’ It’s so offensive that a woman can spend her entire life working to make it to an Olympic or Paralympic Games and then be reduced to that by some commentator who has absolutely no place to discuss her appearance. Their job is to commentate sport, not whether she looks nicer with makeup on.
There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ body, and constantly being told it exists is damaging. We’re swayed to dislike our bodies at every turn. I know we are always told ‘even the model doesn’t look like the photograph’ but in our minds, that is what we think we are meant to look like. Even when we have days where we genuinely like our bodies, it’s so precarious. The fact that we have ‘days’ where we like our bodies as opposed to years, is an awful thought on its own.
Being made to feel anything other than love for something that we can literally never be apart from is ridiculous. And yet we are encouraged daily, through different mediums, to want to change – to have a curvier body, a fitter body, a taller body. The ‘perfect’ body doesn’t exist, and yet we spend so much time trying to achieve it, as opposed to what our perfect body is. Your own perfect body isn’t one specific thing. It will change and evolve with you. My body right now is perfect for what I want it to be. It’s strong and fast and can achieve incredible things. In six months or a year when it is stronger and faster, it will be perfect then too. If I’m injured and forced to take time off and I lose all my strength, it is still perfect because it is capable of being all those things and getting back to being those things. It’s normal to want to change your body, whether for it to become stronger, or skinnier, or bigger. If you hate your body every step of the way until you get there, however, you’re spending far too much of your life not loving something incredibly essential to you that is always going to be a part of you.
To someone who is struggling with negative body image, your body is capable of so many wonderful things. At no point in time was your body designed for the visual consumption of any other person, your body is not here for someone in passing who gives you a cursory glance to approve of it.
Personally, if I could talk to my younger self now about her body, I would tell her straight up that it is never going to fit the aesthetic of a ‘perfect’ body and that is okay. Your body’s purpose is not to be visually pleasing, so why do you care if it ticks those boxes or not? I would tell my younger self that you will never be symmetrical, you will not have a number of the things that other people take for granted, but you also won’t care. Your body is going to be so strong, you are going to get to travel the world, you are going to represent Australia, you are going to win medals, you will be a world champion because your little asymmetrical, wonderfully imperfect body will be strong enough.
I feel like that is all anybody needs to know. Your body is enough. You are enough.