Sunday, 16 November 2014

Beauty Vs Chronic Illness

I was shown a video a few days ago called "Letting Beauty Speak'. It is produced by Cross Fit International and it wants to redefine beauty. The definition the video highlighted brought me to tears. It was an unexpected yet quite profound reaction and it is something I want to address.

Let me get this stated right now:

I like Cross Fit. I have no problem with CrossFit or with those people who do it (in general). I like the enthusiastic approach to being fit and healthy. I love seeing my friends so happy when then have achieved something new. I also think that 'organisations' and communities like Cross Fit are really good in supporting and encouraging people more than just a call to go to the gym. Many people thrive with that sort of communal approach to achieving a goal.
So, are with clear, I have no problem with Cross Fit.

Back to the core of this post: why a video redefining beauty that explicitly pushed against the usual media standards of beauty left me distressed. You may not care about my distress itself, but I would hope you care about questioning the media definition of beauty.
When I saw the title of the video I was keen to watch. I am very pro health and fitness, and even more supportive of things that de-construct media-pedalled 'traditional' concept of beauty and attractiveness; I wanted to see how a group of people I respect viewed beauty. I wanted to know their answer to the question ''what is beauty?''.

It started off so well. Athletes (and these guys are athletes) talking about how they see beauty in the people they train with and compete against. Talking about how they see beauty in a muscular body, that muscular does not equal masculine, does not equal ugly. They talked about how a person's strength and determination was beautiful. This was where I started to baulk. I wanted to keep watching but I knew what was coming, and I could feel my throat tighten and the sadness and frustration welling up.

How did they define beauty?

“How well can this person perform”

“You want to look good do stuff”

“... to recognise and accept the body's gifts and short comings and to assert discipline over them is more many where beauty begins and then beauty is not only fleeting, it's becoming.”

On the face of it this is a great message. Beauty is about what a person can do, not what's on the outside, not the trappings. Beauty is about a person striving, mastering their own body, making, reaching a shattering goals. Beauty is about finding out what you can achieve and doing it. So they say.

But what about those of us that can't. That just can't? What about those of us whose bodies fight back?
Beauty is how well a body can perform. My body doesn't perform all that well. I look after my body to the best of my ability: I eat a very healthy balanced vegan diet (with approval of a medical dietician); I don't drink much alcohol and hate being drunk; I don't smoke; I do my best not to be sedentary and to walk as much as I can. On top of that, I see my doctor regularly, I take the recommended treatments and discuss what other options are available. I see specialists, do my physio and take my meds and painkillers. I am, in some terms, very healthy, but I still remain shackled by a chronic illness. It doesn't matter how balanced my diet or how many steps I walk I still have Chronic Lyme Disease Syndrome/CFS/Fibromyalgia.

That means, by definitions given in the video, I am not considered beautiful. Their new all embracing definition of beauty excludes people who are less able due to chronic illness or disability.

How well can I perform? Not very well at all. I go to the swimming pool, do my three lengths and then have to go home and rest.
You want to look good, do stuff. Well today I can't do stuff. Yesterday I socialised and today I have to rest. Tomorrow too. The day after I have to shower and do the hoovering. That, to me, is doing stuff. Does managing to shower count as doing stuff to you? Does that make me beautiful, just having the energy and pain management to allow me to cook my own dinner.
Accept my body's gifts and assert discipline over them. My body, my illness, currently asserts discipline over me. I do what I can to force it to behave and manage symptoms and, there are some trends in how my body reacts that I can use to predict reactions and fallout from activity. But that's less asserting discipline and more implementing containment measures; trying to stay one step ahead of my illness. No beauty here. Just a constant battle with ever moving parameters to try and stay even basically functional.

The reason I ended up in tears with this video is because the definition of beauty entirely assumed that the individual watching was free of illness and disability. The truth is, some of us aren't. All it did, instead of making me feel beautiful and inspired to strive and achieve, was highlight what I. Can. Not. Do.
People with chronic illnesses or disabilities more often than not do everything they can to stay healthy within the parameters of their condition. Unlike 'normal' people however, there isn't a curve of improvement ahead of them.
If somebody who wants to be fitter starts running they know that if they stick at it, go sensibly and with a plan and realistic goals they can improve from a 10 minute stumbling jog to a half marathon or more if they persevere.
A person with physical limitations can't do that. The body doesn't give us a chance to improve on that stumbling 10 minute jog. Every time we try it is with the same barrier in place.
This isn't a case of rising against laziness, comfort and habit. I'm not even held down by those common and genuinely tough restrictions of time and money. It is not a case of shaking of inertia. What is stopping me is a body that doesn't recover. A body that doesn't improve with work, that can in fact, get worse the more I push.
This video espouses working hard and pushing your body's limits in order to be a beautiful individual. It should be inspiring. What it did was remind me of the immoveable barriers caused by chronic illness. It made me feel trapped and useless.

That video told me I was ugly.

One more quote:

“focus on health and well being and everything will become secondary”

This is a double edged sword. You have no idea how much of my attention is focussed on my health and well being. At times it is all consuming. Between waking up in pain and trying to figure out what I can push myself to do that day, to trying to figure out the right combination of medication to mask the symptoms, to literally weeks of suffering for pushing too hard everything else really is secondary. There is little I can do without having to consider my health in some way.
I don't want to just be my limitations and my ill health, but it is such a big part of my life it can be hard to think of myself as much else.
On the one hand focusing on health and well being is the reality for people with chronic health issues. On the other hand, everything does become secondary: there is a risk we aren't valued (and don't value ourselves) for what we can do, but rather what our health forces us to not do. 

A new definition of beauty isn't what we need. What we need is to stop defining beauty. A definition of beauty will always exclude some people. It will always create an 'ugly'. 
I don't want a definition of beauty. I want people to be brave enough to say 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if I think something is beautiful then it is.' I want people to be able to recognise that beauty comes in many forms and we can appreciate them simultaneously without forcing our views on anybody else; without excluding anybody.

If I see somebody with sparkling eyes and a curvy body and think they are beautiful then that is beauty.
If I see somebody getting ridiculously enthusiastic about their favourite piece of music and how the bass changes just there and think they are beautiful, then they are.
And yes, if I see a friend beating their PBs in the box and now how hard they have worked then that's beautiful too.

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