Physical disability can negatively affect a woman's body image, especially in a society that places value on a youthful physical appearance.
How does "body image" develop? In one study, the authors suggests that in childhood a woman learns what her body can and cannot do, what her body looks like, and whether she is a boy or a girl. Simultaneously, she develops a value for herself, her self-esteem, that is, judgments about her own abilities and worth. She may come to think highly of herself, or she may think of herself as having few skills or abilities valued by others. Others' opinions are part of this process, too.
It has been suggested that it is important for a woman with a disability to appreciate her own value, assert her right to make choices that will improve her life, feel ownership of her body, restrict the limitations resulting from her disability to physical functioning only and not impose those limitations on her sexual self, be accepting, not ashamed of her body, and take action to enhance her attractiveness.
One qualitative study with 31 women with disabilities identified "body image" as a key theme that impacted participants' sense of self. When a participant described how she felt about her body or how others viewed her body, she seemed often to be reflecting others' own sense of self. Themes identified in this study that related to body image were as follows:
- For some women with disabilities, body image seemed to be part of their definition of sexuality or their view of themselves as attractive sensual women.
- Body image was also linked to personal attributes, such as physical characteristics (bone size, weight) and their impact on the qualitative attributes ascribed to them (beauty or unattractive beliefs).
- As expected, body image was linked to social comparison, or how a woman with a disability compared herself to other people in the community.
- Women with disabilities (like all women) are constantly exposed to unrealistic ideals of women portrayed in the media.
- Scars and deformity related to disability were identified as impacting body image and self-esteem.
- Women with disabilities living in this society are not exempt from the influence of messages that attempt to dictate what is desirable and what is not in a woman.
- These messages are often internalized, and have an impact on how women with disabilities see themselves.
- Clothing and grooming were linked to body image. Several women with disabilities discussed using clothing as a way to make themselves feel more attractive. Some women with disabilities discussed using clothing to hide or mask their disability.
- One woman described her body image being related to a lack of physical boundaries in her life and feeling that her body did not really belong to her.
- Several women with disabilities had come to a point of being comfortable and accepting their disability as part of their body image. These women spoke of acceptance and realizing their inner beauty.
Early identification and treatment of body image dissatisfaction may help prevent the development of depression and other psychosocial impairment in women with disabilities.