There is one representation of women in the media; thin, beautiful and definitely not disabled. In fact, as representations go, women living with a disability are invisible - a bit like the way our illness often is.
In my early 20s, I was career-driven and exercise obsessed. I wanted it all and I worked the crazy hours and exercised during the others in a bid to earn those labels. My idea of a work-life balance was to spend my spare hours on a cross-trainer. I wanted that perfect, strong female body we see all over social media. I analysed every inch of my flesh and no matter how much I exercised, how much the numbers kept reducing on the scales, I still hated how I looked. Why would I think otherwise? I didn’t grow up in a world that taught women to love themselves.
Then I developed a disability to go with it and as MS slowly crept in to steal my mobility, exercise turned to something I did for how it made me feel and not for how it would make me look.
Recently, I put on my jeans and discovered they were too tight. I was ecstatic because I realised - after spending so long using a wheelchair and a stick and being unable to walk far, having watched my weight plummet and my muscles slowly waste away - the tight jeans meant that through all the physio and swimming, I finally had muscles again and that was something to celebrate. As I gained muscle, the numbers on the scales increased and before panic could set in, the scales found their way to the bin and my confidence as a woman soared.
As women, all too often we are defined by how we look, and it took me getting MS for me to stop defining myself that way too. Now, I look in the mirror at my untoned body and I hug myself because this body has been through a lot and it deserves my love. I deserve my love. I fight chronic pain and fluctuating mobility levels and yet it’s still MY body. It’s mine to be proud of and to celebrate and to get frustrated with. It is not society’s to label.
Exercise is sold to us on the grounds of how many calories we can expect to burn in a session. Fashion is sold to us as clothing only those with the most toned bodies will look good in. And disability aids are sold to us as something only older people need.
At first when I started using mobility aids, I felt like I no longer fitted in anywhere. Where was I represented? Because I now used a stick, did that mean I was no longer stylish?
As a woman with MS, I’ve had to challenge a lot of society’s labels. And as I settle into life as a wife and I move into a new chapter, those labels expand. I would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to touch upon the topic of having children. That’s something that will only be possible for me if my pain and spasticity could one day be managed on a minimal amount of medication. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t worry me but it’s not something I’m physically in a place to challenge, and that’s not to say I won’t ever be.
I’m learning that because I’m a woman with MS, a woman with a disability, I am also still a woman with a career, I’m still sexy and beautiful despite the mobility aids and the lack of high heels. I am still a valuable human being if I end up not being able to have children. I still have a voice that deserves to be heard. In fact, as women, we are far more than the many labels society pins on us. And as a woman with MS, I’m finally learning to value me. And a woman who believes in herself is an unstoppable force. That’s a label I’m happy with.
Rosie Farrell is a sub-editor and designer with Irish Country Living and the Irish Farmers Journal. She blogs at www.sherunswithms.wordpress.com