My Perceptions of Body Image Post-SCI
My name is Georgina Fiorentino, I am 43 years old and I live in a suburb north west of Melbourne with my husband and 2 dogs. I work part-time as an accountant for a transport company in Port Melbourne. On my days off, and on the weekends, I enjoy walking (pushing chair) around the streets in my neighbourhood, but even more so by a park or the beach. I try to go to the gym too, but usually the shopping centres win my visits for some reason! Most of all I enjoy spending good quality time with my family and friends.
I sustained my spinal cord injury (SCI) back in November 2003, following a blood clot at level T7, which caused my incomplete paraplegia. At the time I was working as an accounting manager for the same company I work for now. My employer was very supportive with my return to work, particularly in the first few years, following my injury. Returning to work was very important for my self-esteem. Body image was another aspect of my life that was important, however, my view of it altered following my SCI.
Body image is how you see, think and feel about the way you look, and also how others perceive you. A woman's perception of herself can be highly influenced by society and the media. Since a young age we are exposed to what an ideal, and sometimes unrealistic, woman should look like. We are influenced to look a certain way, e.g. beautiful, thin, and physically attractive.
Before my injury, I had a fairly healthy body image but I was still burdened with a few things that I wanted to fix or change, e.g. big thighs, large ears, and a thick waist. It is common for women to not be completely happy with the way they look. There is always a feel that something needs to be improved.
"Before my injury, I had a fairly healthy body image but I was still burdened with a few things that I wanted to fix or change.."
"Post-SCI, perceptions of my body image changed, with the knowledge that my new body shape (which included the wheelchair) was even further away from the "ideal"."
Post-SCI, perceptions of my body image changed, with the knowledge that my new body shape (which included the wheelchair) was even further away from the "ideal". I felt as if I was now only half the woman I used to be and became more conscious of the way that I looked. Over the years my legs lost their muscle tone and though they are now quite skinny, it is not the nice skinny look I wanted. To this day I avoid exposing my thin calves and knobby knees, preferring to live 95% of my days in jeans, work trousers or track suit pants. Hiding my leg bag is also a big factor for wearing pants over skirts or dresses. Another thing that happens when you have been in a wheelchair for a long time, and you have an injury level about T7 or higher up, is that you lose some or all of your stomach muscles and any weight gain tends to settle in the mid-area. Not ideal, once again, especially for a woman but it is something that I have accepted over the years, choosing to excuse myself with the fact that there is a 'medical' reason for it.
In order to counter any loss of self-esteem and to maintain a healthy body image, I have learned to look at the things I do have control over and concentrate on improving them. I would say to myself, "how can I make my 'living half' be twice as good?" My once flabby arms are now more toned, not only through pushing my wheelchair but by working on them at the gym. Also, as much as I love junk food, I have made a big effort to eat healthy - most of the time! Having a good diet and exercising regularly has a two-fold effect. Not only does it make me feel great but I am also stronger and leaner, which helps to relieve the stress on the shoulders - especially for transfers. Another thing that I found myself doing was that I was comparing myself to other women of my "kind" - others with a similar SCI. These comparisons were not only natural but were more relevant to me. I found myself learning a lot from them and how I could also be happy once again.
Other things that help me maintain a positive body image include what most women like doing; such as shopping for clothes and make up, to getting my hair and nails done. Looking and feeling feminine helps me feel good about myself. Overall, and since the beginning, I aimed to keep doing the things that I used to do pre-SCI. This included getting my licence so I could drive myself around, maintaining my independence, and socialising with friends. I wanted to forget I was in a wheelchair, and I often did feel I was my old confident self again.
But sometimes someone or something will remind me of the truth. It could be a stare from an unwitting person or just seeing my reflection outside a shop window. But what do people see? Do they see me or the wheelchair? Whatever it may be, I now choose to ignore the looks I get from others. I know that most people are not only wishing me well but are praising my courage, if anything, and not thinking anything derogatory about the way that I look. It has taken a few years but I have accepted my new half paralysed body and so have my family and friends - and that is what is most important to me.