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.

Defining body experiences: Participants defined body image in the same ways as other groups of women. However, when asked to define body functionality, study participants offered new information. Researchers define body functionality as “everything the body does.” Women in the study wanted to update this definition. They wanted to include things that the body doesn’t do, and things that the body does differently than how society might expect. They described how focusing on everything their bodies do is important, but excluding what they feel their bodies don’t do (or what they do differently) ignores the important ways that their disabilities shape their life experiences.

Body image fluctuates: Participants talked about how fluctuations in their physical, mental, and emotional symptoms related to their disabilities affect their body image. Many women talked about mental health symptoms and pain. One participant described how her chronic pain affects her body image: “I do have chronic pain, so during times when my chronic pain is worse, it's difficult to feel super perky about your body when that's happening.” Another participant described how her pain shows on her face, affecting her appearance.

Body image can be negative and positive at the same time: All 15 participants talked about how their body image is negative and positive. Negative body image was more often linked to body functionality. Positive body image was most often linked to appearance. Women in the study, often described feeling positive about their facial features such as their eyes, hair, and smiles. One participant described why she likes her face: “It’s probably my face because it has the least amount of symptoms. And that’s like, something I’m able to take care of more so, it’s just easier.”

Appearance and body functionality may not be as “separate” as researchers think: Researchers treat appearance and body functionality as two distinct parts of body image. Many women in the study thought differently. Participants explained how appearance and body functionality, for them, are linked: “It's not so much my body itself. You take each part, my arm, my leg, my chest, my stomach, my back, my hair. I like all of them as individuals. When I don't like them is when I'm physically functioning out in the world, having to walk, trying to get things done.” Others shared similar thoughts, describing how their body image concerns are focused around what they look like while they are engaged in specific body functions, like eating or talking with others. This is an important new finding!

Overall, I believe this research will make an important contribution to what we know about body image. It will also inform programs and policies that aim to improve body image among different groups of people. I hope to continue to have opportunities to highlight the voices and experiences of people with disabilities within this area of research and to educate scholars about the importance of including people with disabilities in health research and advocacy.

About the Author:

Erin Thomas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research focuses on body image and chronic disease prevention among individuals with disabilities. Please contact Erin at with questions or comments about this article.

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