Self-Esteem: What Hurts? What Helps

Get Real
Now my self-esteem is very high, but if you had asked these questions a few years ago, the answer would be totally opposite. The media do not present a true image of any woman in society, disabled or not. And the people with disabilities that they present to the public are only the “good-looking” ones–they’re never overweight and never, ever have more than one impairment at a time. The thing that helps is remembering who I am and what is really important.

Kathy Hoell, 42
Quadriplegic
Graduate student
Omaha, Nebraska

If Looks Could Kill
When a disability robs you of your body, it robs you of yourself. You are what you see in the mirror and what you feel like when you get up in the morning. If these two perceptions are agonizing, then I would venture to say that self-esteem is no more than self-loathing.

Looking at television, with its pretty young things, is just too painful. Magazine articles on weight loss, exercise and health lead to a frustration level bordering on toxic. What would help? If mass media would use more people with disabilities, we’d likely lose some of the freak appeal. If someone would be my friend instead of me being their mission, maybe I’d feel more like a person. Possibly, the mirror would not be so warped, and the pain would be only physical.

Shan Lizotte, 49
Neuromuscular disability
Houston, Texas

Ignore Irrelevance
For some reason, I feel just fine about my body. Mass media has little impact on me, except for the harm I see it doing to my female students. I try to make them aware, as I am, of the manipulation going on there, and of its total irrelevance. What helps? Being busy, happy, having children and good friends, a satisfying job–all those make appearance a lot less important than it might otherwise be.

Anne Kelly, 41, T9 para
High school counselor
Nacogdoches, Texas

No Spoon-feeding
I don’t really have issues with self-esteem now, as an adult, but I did as an adolescent. As I got older and became more aware of how the media spoonfeeds images, I was able to take a more critical look. When you get out in the world, you see we don’t all look the same. You have to think: My woman-ness is not all wrapped up in what you see on the outside. Do not judge your value by other people’s standards.

Yomi Wronge, 25
Osteogenesis imperfecta
Reporter
Santa Ana, California

In TV Hell
My disability has affected my self-esteem a great deal. Actually, not so much the wheelchair, but the fact that I’m a quad and can’t get enough exercise to lose the fat I’ve gained since my injury. I look in the mirror and I hardly recognize myself.

I know a lot of my low self-esteem comes from society’s expectations of what a beautiful woman should look like, and even though I disagree, I can’t fight the negative feelings I have about my body. I yearn to look like the thin, muscular women on commercials and TV shows. But this envy did not come from being disabled–I had the same feeling before–but it has gotten stronger since my disability.

Corie Jones, 26
C5 quad, Student
Redding, California

Redefining Womanhood
I have very positive associations about being a woman with a disability, because in 1975, I and other women in Berkeley formed a disabled women’s coalition, and we sort of wrote the definition of what it is to be a woman with a disability. I have incorporated the image I try to help other women have. We have to do that: Let women with disabilities be in an environment where we’re the majority, to ensure that we haven’t internalized negative images.

Susan Sygall, 44
T12/L1 para
Director, Mobility International USA
Eugene, Oregon

Cultural Support
I have no idea what my self-esteem would be without a disability. But there are very few images of women with disabilities, and that’s not very good for our self-esteem. Things are changing, and I like seeing a lot of active cultural work by women with disabilities. There are a few positive changes in the media, but our real progress will come from the people in our community itself.

Laura Hershey, 35
Spinal muscular atrophy
Writer
Denver, Colorado

Individually Intact
It is important to have role models and positive images if we are to find a new sense of self as a person with a disability, and to feel comfortable with our new selves and our presentation to the world. It took me a long time to understand that I could be whatever I chose to be, or look like, and that having a disability does not mean that you give up your individuality.

Chris Kerr, 32, T4 para
Geraldton, Western Australia

Adaptive Thinking
My self-esteem has changed. People react differently. But when the wind changes, all you can do is adjust your sails. Knowing that helped a great deal. I had to adjust how I feel about myself.

Deborah McCreath, 30
C7-8 quad
Ms. Wheelchair Ohio
Cleveland

No Scarlett Letter
If anything, my disability has accentuated my innate individuality. Most important, it reminds me to stay in tune with my own inner voice without relying on others, men or women, for validation or approval. Don’t worry, be happy–and screw anybody who labels you with that scarlet letter “D” for denial or disability. Use your disability to tune in to your own inner authority and don’t be afraid to act on that authority.

Patti Shanaberg, 42
T10 para
President, Global Image Communications
Los Angeles

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