Illness & Body Image

Although illness affects all of us at some point in our lives, it is a socially stigmatized condition, and those suffering from serious and chronic illnesses are often either marginalized, pitied, or even blamed for their ailments. The experience of illness itself may have a negative impact on people’s self-concept, as they experience such things as pain, discomfort, changes in appearance and a loss of control over their own bodies. Just as significantly, however, the social stigma that comes along with serious illnesses can deal a heavy blow to self-esteem and body image.

Bodily Changes and Body Image

For many people, many of the physical changes that occur with serious and chronic illnesses are psychologically devastating:

  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain (“bloating”)
  • Limited or lost mobility
  • Limited or lost control of bodily functions
  • Scarring or loss of body parts
  • Changes to the skin and nails
  • Hair loss

In a society that values fit, healthy bodies, physical beauty, and the importance of self control, such bodily changes can be experienced as a humiliating personal failure. In addition, they serve as constant reminders of one’s poor and possibly deteriorating health.

Illness and Social Stigma

Such physical changes also attract a range of responses from others: pity, fear, avoidance, even anger. When faced with a cancer sufferer, for instance, some people are disturbed at the thought that this could happen to them or someone they love. Contact with the illness forces them to confront their own mortality.

With socially transmittable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, the social stigma is even greater. One study reported that people with HIV/AIDS face “greater social rejection, economic discrimination, internalized shame, and social isolation” than people with other illnesses (Charmaz, 1991).

Illness and Body Image

Both the physical experience of illness and the social stigma attached to illness can have negative psychological effects. These may include:

  • Feelings of fear (of rejection, of loss of control over body and emotions, of exposure of formerly private things to public view)
  • Difficulties maintaining “normal” social interactions
  • Loss of self-esteem, with a sense of being different, deficient, or unattractive.

Nonetheless, as better information becomes available on serious and chronic disease, illness may eventually become less stigmatized. Fifty years ago, when many still feared that cancer was contagious, cancer patients battled both social isolation and a sense of shame. As our understandings of the disease have deepened, however, this is no longer the case. 

Likewise, while HIV/AIDS was a highly stigmatized disease in the 1980s, leading sufferers to be shunned and ostracized, this stigma has decreased somewhat with a better understanding of the illness. High-profile HIV-positive sufferers, such as NBA superstar Magic Johnson, have helped to destigmatize the disease. His Magic Johnson Foundation helps educate people about the disease, and empowers young people to decrease their HIV risk factors.

Efforts such as these can lead to greater understanding of serious and chronic illnesses, and greater acceptance of those who suffer with such conditions. As society becomes more accepting, those with serious and chronic conditions may come to internalize such attitudes, leading them to a more positive relationship with their own bodies.

Ask Yourself

Why are people with serious and chronic illnesses stigmatized in our society?

How do you think people suffering from serious and chronic illnesses are affected by the behaviors and comments of the people around them?

Can you imagine a day when diseases such as HIV/AIDS are as destigmatized as the common cold? What would it take for that to happen?