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What Scoliosis Taught Me About Body Image

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I was recently diagnosed with a medical condition. I've got a mild case of it, but it brings a few troublesome complications regardless, nothing serious. And as one might well do, the first thing I did when I got home upon receiving my diagnosis was Google it to learn more. The list of symptoms included what took me to treatment in the first place, a good number of troubles I don't have, and a surprising entry: poor body image. The diagnosis? Scoliosis.

Now, if I'm being officially diagnosed for the first time at age 35, obviously my scoliosis isn't terribly problematic. I was monitored for it as a child (do they still do those annual scoliois screenings at school? It somehow seems like a remnant of the '70s, like the Dorothy Hamill haircut) but it was so mild that it barely qualified as scoliosis, and it didn't warrant treatment -- certainly not intervention like surgery or a brace. Basically, my muscles compensate for my wonky spine, running me through varying degrees of pain; I treat it with exercise, occasional ibuprofen, massage, and masturbation. (Deenie in da house!) In other words, it's not a huge deal, and it's not something that weighs on my mind a lot.

But there it is, that symptom far down on the list -- below the physical pain, below the visual cues -- poor body image. There's a whole body of work devoted to studying the psychosocial effects of scoliosis, particularly in adolescents, but it boils down to this: Something about your body is "wrong," and chances are it's not something you ever thought was a problem, and you really can't do much of anything about it. Wearing a brace may or may not have an impact on patients' body image, but there's evidence supporting a correlation between scoliosis and body image, regardless of treatment.

Now, the people being studied aren't people like me: I'm an adult, for starters, and one with a very mild case of scoliosis. Though I've been told repeatedly by chiropractors, tailors, and osteopaths that there's something irregular about my form, nobody until recently has used the word scoliosis about my body since the sixth grade. Whatever body image problems I have come from the usual suspects -- perfectionism, media, growing up girl -- not my spinal curvature.

But it's not hard for me to see how my body image has shifted ever so slightly in the past few weeks. Part of it was the pain that drove me to seek treatment; it's difficult to feel like your body is something to be proud of when you're wincing whenever you take off your shirt. But more than that, I've learned that -- and this is an unkind term -- I'm misshapen. I found myself complaining of feeling "broken" and "twisted" -- words I've never used to describe myself. Whenever I've had a problem with my body, there's been a part of me that has known it's in my head, because the concerns I had were solely about about how I appeared. If I thought my thighs were unappealing, there was still a part of me that understood that "unappealing" was subject to interpretation. With a twisted spine that was causing me pain -- that wasn't in my head, that was in my bones.

But in a way, whatever feelings I had are beside the point here. My literal body image -- that is, the visual projection I have when thinking about my body -- had shifted as well. My new mental drawing of myself was small, dropped onto a large white canvas, drawn in a combination of pencil and ink, and, yes, crooked.

Most of the time when I refer to body image, I'm really referring to negative self-talk. The image part doesn't come up much, not for me; I'm pretty sure that my actual mental drawing of myself is reasonably spot-on. Even at my lowest, I don't actually envision myself with elephantine thighs or a ballooning waistline; it's more that I see roughly the same body in my mind that I saw the day before when everything was fine, but suddenly it's unacceptable for one reason or another. I can dissect that all I want, but what it comes down to is that the interpretation of the image is what's poor, not the body image itself.

But with the specific and decidedly dysmorphic shift in body image that accompanied my diagnosis, I've become aware that there is a body image living inside my head, one that's plastic and that can shift according to new information it receives. And I don't necessarily have any conclusions as to what this might mean, because in my case I don't think my mental projection is erroneous. (Yes, I recognize that that's sort of the point -- that the very idea of body image means that you don't think your mental projection of yourself is erroneous. I'll never know how close my mental image actually is to the real deal. At least not until brain scan image projection is a helluva lot more developed, and when that happens I am using all my brain scan image technology to be able to put my dreams on YouTube.) It was only when there was new information presented -- the information about myself as someone with a spinal curvature that causes me some troubles every so often -- that a disconnect appeared. (For the record, once I recognized what was going on I felt fine mentally, and physically it's really not a problem now that I've learned some corrective exercises.)

I guess what I'm wondering here is A) What the "image" part of "body image" means to you, and B) How your body image is affected by medical conditions that have nothing to do with weight or conventional attractiveness. (You could argue that severe scoliosis affects conventional attractiveness, I suppose -- but hell, Marilyn Monroe was rumored to shave half an inch off one high heel of each pair to lend a sway to her step, and I've got that naturally, so I'm at an advantage here, oui?) Do you have an actual visual image in your head of what your body looks like? Is it in a distinct medium -- like photography, drawing, animation, video -- or is it too indistinct to single that out? Does the image change? Do you think your body image matches up with what's really there, in a visual sense if not on the level of judgment/perception? Could you draw or otherwise externally project your body image? And have you ever found your body image being formed by things outside the normal trajectory of body talk?

This post originally appeared on The Beheld.

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