Body Image Research: Highlighting the Voices of Women with Physical Disabilities

By Erin Thomas, MPH, CHES
Erin Thomas, Researcher

Body image is a hot topic in the media. For example, we often hear about body image in stories about teen social media use and the “war on obesity.” What we don’t often hear about are body image concerns among people with disabilities, or their inclusion in body image movements.

People with disabilities often have differences in appearance and body function that might affect body image. Even so, they tend to be left out of relevant research. Given that 1 in 5 people in the world have some type of disability, this seems like a major gap.

This summer, I lead a research study that I hope will begin to fill that gap. The goal of my study was to understand the perspectives of women with physical disabilities about body image and health.  To meet this goal, I did face-to-face interviews with 15 women via Skype or FaceTime. Doing so made it easier for women from all over the country to participate in the study. I asked broad questions, such as, “What does ‘body image’ mean to you?” and “What about your body do you like the most?”

Study participants were between 21 and 53 years old. They came from diverse racial, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. They had many different types of physical disabilities including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, various genetic conditions, spinal cord injury, and amputations with and without the use of prosthetics. Despite these differences, many women shared similar ideas and experiences, described below.

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