When your body is physically altered by amputation, part of healing is reforming your self-image. You have to get to know your new body and how you identify with it. Societal standards of beauty and stereotypes of people with physical differences can interfere with that process, and take away from your confidence. These are big themes to deal with when you’re already coping with a huge shift in your life. We’ve created this resource to help bring some clarity on these topics, through specific aspects of body image, like coping with a new physicality, depictions of those with disabilities, health, beauty, gender and sexuality. Each of these has its own section, and we’ve made it possible to either read this page from top to bottom, or use the below menu to jump to sections you want to read. This is intended to give personal insights from my perspective as an amputee, in alignment with contemporary disability studies perspectives.
I’ll never forget the first time I stood out of my wheelchair after amputation and felt the lightness of my left side; or the times where friends and family would sit on the end of the bed where my leg used to be and I’d jolt, expecting them to sit on my foot. It’s okay to mourn the loss of your leg and to recognize how scary a new chapter in your life can be. For me, the deterioration of my sound limb from a previous surgery helped me come to terms with my amputation because I felt so much healthier when my leg was gone.
This often is not the case for others who lose their limbs to accidents or other medical emergencies. The initial shock of surgery will take time to comprehend, and dealing with the trauma afterwards is ongoing. Starting work with a prosthesis or other device means navigating a new way of moving, and understandably there will be times where you feel uncertain or even unsafe. With time and practice, moving will become second nature, and you’ll be able to adapt more easily. One of the biggest obstacles for amputees is associating their prosthesis with limitation; experiencing socket troubles, pain, and phantom limb sensations can leave you frustrated by this process. If you start to associate problems with your residual limb and prosthesis, it’s easy to view them as a burden; ultimately that can add to a more negative view of yourself.
To build confidence it’s really important to actively evaluate your mindset. Reminding yourself how far you’ve come and recognizing how you’re valued can be humbling and improve your perception. Building a community is especially important, and seeing that other people still value you and your contributions can affirm a more positive view of yourself. Seeking out opportunities to reintegrate into your social spheres or find new ones can be daunting, but is essential. Fears of rejection or different reactions are valid, but you have to consider how much you’ll gain from making connections and interacting. A great way to do this (especially at first) is by getting into contact with the amputee community, and finding people with similar experiences. Working your way from people with the same experience, gradually to people who might not understand fully helps ease you into the role of informing and teaching those around you. In my experience, confidence comes from having a purpose and actively shaping your self-image.
Depictions of Disability
Another huge part of the struggle with body image post-amputation is tied to the way we think of amputees and others with physical difference. The media strongly influences how we perceive the world around us, and helps establish baseline expectations for the people we meet and the activities we partake in. Unfortunately, films and general media have traditionally shown people with physical difference as pitiable, less moral, or grotesque (Dahl, 1993). Think about villains in Disney movies and how often a physical difference is part of their character, like Scar in the Lion King, or how pitiable or naive others with difference in film are, from Quasimodo in the Hunchback of NotreDam to Forrest Gump and I Am Sam. This helps reinforce that people with disabilities are different from the general public, part of an “other” that is less valued or an inconvenience (Dahl, 1993). Public media often casts real people with disabilities as dependents, and a strain on welfare and health systems. These depictions “other” people with limb loss and other physical differences (Dahl, 1993). Your mind has to reconcile that you might now belong to that “Othered” group, or rather, that this stigma exists.
Watching yourself heal and go into a new chapter with a “wound” can be difficult to comprehend if you have always considered yourself “healthy.” Here it is important to learn that people with difference and people with disabilities can be healthy. People associate health with youth, physical perfection, prowess, and independence. Our media, meanwhile, supports tragic narratives of disabled people which portray them as incapable of being independent, active, and strong. Other depictions insist that disabled people accomplish fantastic feats just by completing daily tasks, and disproportionately showcases disabled paralympians and high profile figures, while providing very, very few realistic depictions of everyday people. This can create what is known as “achievement syndrome,” where amputees and others feel they aren’t doing enough to count as equal (Liddiard, 2014). Seeing all of these images can subliminally create a pressure to achieve, making disabled people enter into a cycle of pushing beyond their limits, blaming themselves, and resenting their impairment(s).
These depictions don’t have a hold on what is possible, though. It is very possible to return to a healthy lifestyle and flourish, regardless of disability. If your healing or treatment process will be longer, it is still possible to maintain your highest level of health possible, and it is more important than ever to be striving for wellness in your mental health. Many of these thoughts are subconscious, but practicing mindfulness in how you perceive your health will really help your progress. Things that can help are understanding your treatment plan, advocating for yourself and keeping on top of your needs. I also strongly suggest being in contact with other people who have experiences similar to your own so that you can discuss these thoughts.
Our society can have very narrowly constructed ideas of beauty. It’s pretty well-known that it upholds a ridiculous and unattainable standard for women and men. Throwing a visible disability into this only complicates that. It’s made worse by some people’s tendency to say that disabled people are beautiful “despite” or “except” for their difference. It will take time for your amputation to become a part of your idea of yourself, so it’s normal not to know how to feel toward it. It’s especially difficult when living in a society that is unable to reconcile difference with beauty. There are conversations happening to change that (my fantastic prosthetic leg cover is evidence of it), and people living with visible disabilities are demanding that they be acknowledged.
Being a person of color with a disability positions you in the intersection of two marginalized groups, and no one can really measure how large an effect that has in a person’s life. For Indigenous people in Canada, the truth and reconciliation process is ongoing and beset with setbacks and disappointments, and adding disability issues means another large failing at the federal level that you might experience directly. People of colour experience discrimination at individual levels in day to day interactions and at larger levels in employment or access to resources that can complicate finding a sense of self identity.
Gender is obviously intertwined with ideas of beauty, and people of different genders can be held to different standards. In one study, male soldiers returning from war with limb difference struggled with maintaining their sense of masculinity when their appearance and abilities had been affected
(Boyle, 2006). Masculinity in Western society demands stoicism, strength, power, and independence, even being a “provider” figure. As we’ve discussed earlier, traditional ideas about disabled people conflict with these, showing them as less independent, strong, and more “needy.” They had to reconsider what beauty and gender roles and standards they were holding themselves to, and reconsider their ideas of these roles, as well as what constitutes strength or independence (Boyle, 2006). All men need to reconsider how they are judging themselves or allowing themselves to be judged, but it’s especially important for those with disabilities.
Women are held to an idealization of beauty that must conform to typical and fit physicality. It’s also important to remember that women continue to be discriminated against, and experience disproportionate levels of violence and abuse, stemming from a deep rooted sense that women are the weaker sex. Women with disabilities experience incredibly high rates of violence and abuse, because they belong to two minorities that unfortunately today are not treated with equal respect and dignity (Disabled Women’s Network of Canada, 2014). For myself, I’m hyper aware of this vulnerability. If I’m being cat-called or approached by strangers when I’m alone, I can’t help but be aware that if anything were to happen, I’m at a large physical disadvantage. I’ve also found, and had other disabled women agree, that people tend to approach me more than before, and more than some of my non-disabled friends. Some of the attention focuses on telling me how I can still be “beautiful,” or “desirable” despite being an amputee, and some of it comes from a place where the person feels more confident approaching me because they think I don’t get much attention and will be grateful no matter how crude they are. Acknowledging your self worth and integrating your disability into your identity helps in handling uncomfortable situations.
For those questioning or outside the gender binary, this is another dimension to try to fit into their sense of self. There’s a growing queer-disabled community online, and I’d definitely recommend finding folks who might share all or part of your experience. For a little research, spoon theory is something often discussed in these circles, but is a valuable tool for anyone with a disability.
Disabled people are also portrayed as asexual, eternally innocent, or are fetishized, which can bring questions when considering your appearance and how you feel about it (Liddiard, 2014). For amputees, a large fetishist, or “devotee” community exists, which targets and contacts amputees frequently (Mama Cax, 2016). The same is true for many disabilities (Gander, 2016, Solvang, 2007, & Weaving & Samson, 2018). For more on fetishism, see our Common Issues page. Movies often put disabled people in a light of having either uncontrollable sexual urges, or inherent and eternal innocence (Dahl, 1993). Characters like Forrest Gump show how the disabled community’s role in romantic and sexual partnerships has been ridiculed (Dahl, 1993). These conflicting messages can discourage people from reaching out and participating fully.
Being outside of heteronormative culture can complicate how you can view yourself as a member of intersecting minority identities. Having less role models, or not having role models at all who share your disabled experience, gender experience, or your sexual orientation can be disheartening and confusing, but representations are beginning to include more diversity, with a whole queer-disabled movement cropping up internationally (Mandel, 2017).
Self-image and Disability
All of these associations and ideas can be put on you by other people, but you might find them in your own mentalities as well. As you’re healing and learning, it’s a constant process of making sure you aren’t victimizing yourself. You shouldn’t feel held back from being an active and vibrant member of your community because of a difference. You should have the freedom to choose how your identity is interpreted, free from constricting stereotypes and shallow ideas of health, race, beauty, gender, and sexuality.
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