By Emily Ladau
When the clock struck midnight and the calendar turned to 2014, I made myself a promise. The next twelve months of my life would be different. At the start of each New Year prior, I had resolved to lose weight, to get healthier, to look better. Then, I’d find myself in a mess of self-despair every time I felt like I failed. Having grown tired of this mindset and tired of beating myself up, it occurred to me that I needed to change my approach, and so my resolution for 2014 would be to focus on self-acceptance.
Initially, I worried that self-acceptance might seem like a euphemism for complacency. Another year would go by and I’d fall back on embracing who I am as an excuse for not taking better care of myself. But now, half a year later, I’ve realized that this year’s resolution has proved to be anything but an excuse. I think I had things backwards each time I thought losing weight would be the key to loving who I am. Instead, I have been working every day to accept myself, and efforts to make positive changes are slowly but surely following.
Unfortunately, “slowly but surely” definitely hasn’t meant “easily.” I’ve had a complicated relationship with my body for as long as I can remember. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that I was born with a visible physical disability called Larsen syndrome that affects my joints and muscles. I use a wheelchair to get around, and it’s not always the easiest to feel good about myself when I’m sitting in a chair that’s practically the size of a tank. My disability has turned me into a contradiction on wheels; I’m a passionate advocate for accepting everyone as they are, and yet I struggle each day to accept myself. The societal prejudices about disability that I’ve internalized, along with the media’s projection of the “perfect” female, hasn’t exactly created a deep well of self-esteem for me to draw from as I work on self-acceptance.
My main focus on my journey this year has been my weight. Sounds like almost any woman’s story, I know. However, my disability adds extra complexity to the hang up I have with my appearance. As I’ve grown, I took the idea I’m so often exposed to – that I’ll never look or feel quite right – and let it take over completely. I came to lean on the idea. For instance, doctors (and sometimes other people in my life) often remind me to keep up with a healthy diet and exercise, but in the same breath, they tell me it’s understandable that I’m not in peak shape since I’m disabled.
I get what they’re saying, but the empathetic looks that follow seem to indicate that I should use my disability as an excuse for why I don’t look like a cover model. And then I wonder, is it fair to treat me like I have an excuse? It feels like I’m getting a metaphorical pat on the head – the kind that says “it’s okay to be who you are, but only because your body doesn’t fit social norms anyway.” It seems that some people think I should only accept who I am as a form of resigning to my fate, because I have no other choice than to live in the disabled body I have.
It is true that my disability and my weight are interrelated. It is true that the physical state of my body affects my fitness abilities. There’s no denying that my disability is deeply entrenched within my identity, and it colors everything about my life. As such, the ways I perceive my body and my experiences are different than those of people of who are able-bodied. Even so, neither my body type nor my body image should be written off as mere side effects of my disability. No one should ever have to learn to love themselves in spite of who they are. And although I may have to work at it every day for the rest of my life, I refuse to let anyone dictate the parts of me that are acceptable, because at any ability and any size, self-acceptance is about learning to love our whole selves.
Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights advocate whose career began at the age of 10, when she appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street to educate children about her life with a physical disability. In the years that followed, Emily took on leadership roles in many advocacy initiatives. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Adelphi University. Immediately after graduation, Emily was selected to participate in the prestigious American Association of People with Disabilities internship program based in Washington, D.C. Since completing her internship in August 2013, Emily has been both employed and volunteering with multiple organizations to foster employment opportunities and develop resources for the disability community, as well as to encourage people with all types of disabilities to develop their inner voice for advocacy. Her blogs at Words I Wheel By about her experiences as a disabled young adult, challenging people to consider all aspects of the disability experience in new ways. She loves forming new connections, and invites you to like Words I Wheel By on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @emily_ladau.