How being sick affected my body image

I have an invisible illness. I will have it every day of my foreseeable future. It causes joint and muscle problems, fatigue, migraines, vertigo, and chronic pain. Recently, while receiving intravenous steroids, a young doctor asked me what I think the worst part of being sick is. He seemed surprised when I looked up at him and said it was gaining weight.

On another occasion, after receiving intravenous medication at the hospital, a doctor started writing me yet another prescription for Prednisone, a corticosteroid used to treat symptoms of various chronic illnesses.

“Please don’t give me any more of that,” I pleaded.

“Why?” he asked.

“The side effects are horrible,” I replied.

“What are your worst side effects?”

“I got fat.”

“As far as side effects go I don’t think that’s one you should really be worried about.”

Really? And why’s that?

Just because I’m wearing a hospital gown instead of a sundress doesn’t mean I no longer associate with regular 25-year-old girls. Just because I am sick and hooked up to IVs doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to fit into a lovely blue dress for my cousin’s wedding. Just because it’s the medication that is making my face swollen doesn’t mean that I feel exempt from hating pictures being taken of myself because I don’t like the way I look. I’m not wearing a sign that says, “I gained weight because of medication.” I’m just wearing the weight.

I know, I know. It’s not the end of the world. Trust me, I know. Every doctor and every friend has told me that. I’m more than just my looks. I get it. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped wanting to take pride in my body when I look in the mirror. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss being the size I worked hard to become before medication.

No one really warns you properly. When a doctor tells you that you have a disease and that you need steroids, they don’t tell you that you will wake up one day, look at your reflection, and not recognize yourself under those chubby cheeks. Sure, weight gain is mentioned as a possible side effect, but doctors breeze past that to discuss the other side effects. They don’t tell you how it will feel when you try on your jeans and realize they won’t go up past your hips. They don’t tell you that you’ll be hungry all the time but you will still contemplate starving yourself because you are gaining weight so rapidly. They don’t tell you how self-degrading you will become when you spend twenty minutes every day in front of the mirror after a shower to pick apart all of your flabby flaws. They don’t tell you how hard it will be on your boyfriend when he continuously has to tell you no, you’re not fat.

I devour inspirational essays about how I am not my fat, and for a short period of time they seem to work and make me feel better about myself. And then I try to fit into that little black dress because I’m going to a concert with my friends and I am back at square one. I have been told that confidence is key. I have been reminded how hard it must be on my significant other to see the person he loves unable to love herself. I understand that. It has to be hard for him to hear me talk about how much I hate my body. But unfortunately, that doesn’t make me like my body any more.

You see, it’s not about the fact that I gained weight. I know people are probably reading this and thinking how anti-inspirational it is for me to babble on and on about how terrible gaining a few pounds is. But the same can be said for people who lose weight from an illness, as well. There is obviously nothing wrong with being overweight, either. It’s not simply about the weight; it’s about how I gained that weight. It’s about the fact that every time I look in the mirror and see a slightly different person than I saw four months ago, before the steroids, I am reminded that I am not in control of my body. I can do yoga, I can go for walks, I can diet, I can go to the gym, and shape my body to be exactly what I want, and then it can all change with one Prednisone prescription. Just like how I can stretch, exercise daily, take medication, and do everything the doctors tell me, and then it can all change when I wake up one morning and no longer have full control of my muscles.

There are obviously worst things about having a chronic illness. Chronic illnesses permeate every last element of a person’s life, and gaining weight means nothing in comparison to losing the ability to walk, work, see, or lift your crying baby. I think about those things all of the time, and I know that my appearance is not as important as my body’s ability to function. Maybe it was vain of me to complain to my doctor about my weight, when Prednisone is a necessity to keep me alive and well—but vanity does not go out the window when you’re told you are sick. No one wants to hear you complain that you don’t fit into your dress or that those bruises from your needles look ugly when all they care about is that you can still walk and that you can still breathe. But that’s just it. I am still breathing, I am still alive, and I am still a twenty-something female. I will still suffer from sudden lapses in vanity and I will still encounter fashion disasters. It still matters that my shoes match my dress and it’s still just the end of the world some days when I can’t get my hair curly enough or when I get a stain on my favorite shirt.

Parts of you change for the better when you are faced with an illness. Parts of you realize what your priorities should be and parts of you understand the importance of seizing the day and not sweating the small stuff. But still there remains, after the needles and the pills, that old part of you that gets self-conscious about the way you look and that obsesses over problems that are not, in the grand scheme of things, problems in the least. It’s easier to obsess over your weight and the fit of your jeans than it is to obsess over the physical pain and the emotional anguish that accompany illness. People cannot see my joint pain, they cannot look me in the eye and see the questions about my future that are wreaking havoc on my brain; they just see the weight.

And that’s why gaining weight has been the hardest part of being sick. It’s something rather trivial that still matters to me, even though people think I should be above vanity. It’s a sign that no matter how hard I try, I am not the only one who has control of my body. It is a visible reminder of my invisible illness.

Lisa Walters is a freelance writer from a cold, Canadian island. She likes to write about health, pop culture, religious studies, and nerdy things like Dungeons & Dragons. Her dream is to someday move to LA where it’s warm so she can write for television shows that are funny. Like most twenty-somethings, Mindy Kaling is her hero. You can check out her website at

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