Women with Diabetes Can Win the Self-image Battle

Women hate their bodies. At least, an overwhelming collection of statistical data suggests as much. Consider the following facts compiled by Liz Dittrich, Ph.D, at About-Face.org, which aims to combat negative and distorted images of women:

  • A poll conducted by a popular women’s magazine found that 75 percent of women thought they were “too fat.” 
  • More than 90 percent of patients with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are women.
  • A study of 36,000 students in Minnesota found that girls with negative body image were three times more likely than boys of the same age to say that they feel badly about themselves and were more likely to believe that others see them in a negative light.
  • Societal values appear to perpetuate the trend. Women earn more money than men in only two job categories: modeling and prostitution.

So, where does this leave women with diabetes? Such specific statistics are harder to come by, but the increasing prevalence of diabulimia might be telling enough. And those in the medical profession say that having any chronic illness can impact one’s psyche and self-image.

“Many times women feel totally alone,” says Patricia Addie-Gentle, a CDE in Atlanta. “Feelings of blame have a lot to do with it. Advice from doctors can come across as authoritarian, and that can present even more of a barrier.”

Women’s Worries

Experts point to myriad issues that threaten a diabetic woman’s self-image, ranging from loss of libido and inability to achieve orgasm due to neuropathy to the added difficulties presented by menopause. Weight and body image tend to be of paramount concern for women who have type 2 diabetes. And women who use insulin pumps, and don’t necessarily consider wearing a machine a fashion statement, have their own concerns about how they’re perceived by prospective romantic interests. 

But those who have devoted time to working with diabetic women to improve their health and self-image say the issues can be overcome through communication. Many women have discovered a new path to self-confidence via Divabetic events held across the country. The national nonprofit organization hosts diabetes education events to help women at risk of and affected by diabetes look at their diabetes in new ways, using respect and motivation to avoid the health complications triggered by neglecting the disease. 

As stated on the organization’s web site: “What we don’t do, is share your grandma’s views about diabetes or being diabetic. Our mission revolves around community-inspired confidence. Something that wasn’t too common ‘back then’ when shame and blame were unfairly and ignorantly associated with the disease.”

Addie Gentle, who volunteers her time at Divabetic events, has seen many women open up to her in ways they hadn’t been able to before. “At Divabetic, we’re in a more normal setting, and it allows women to bring up so many issues,” she says.

Clothes + Communication = Confidence

Catherine Schuller, a New York City stylist and Divabetic’s Image and Style Director, has counseled countless women affected by diabetes and struggling with their self-image and self-esteem. At Divabetic events, Schuller helps women improve their body image through flattering fashion, regardless of weight. She’s seen women whose improved self-image leads to losing the pounds required to achieve better blood sugar control and overall health. “A lot of plus-size women cover up instead of complement. I say ride your curves, don’t hide your curves,” she says.

Although complementary clothes certainly help, experts agree that a healthy self-image can only happen with communication. Beverly Adler, a psychologist specializing in diabetes, encourages clients to be honest and forthright in order to achieve self-confidence and affect others’ attitudes, especially when dating.

“Basically, how comfortable you are with your own diabetes management will be reflected in how soon you share this personal information,” Adler says. “Diabetes does not define who somebody is. Diabetes should be seen as a perfectly natural part of somebody’s life, like having blue eyes or blonde hair.”

That’s precisely the tack taken by Kerri Morrone Sparling, the 30-year-old, well-known blogger behind Six Until Me. “When I was dating, I’d rather guys knew before a date happened,” Sparling says. “I wanted them to know everything up front and not feel like I had some secret in my back pocket. If they aren’t OK with it, you may as well find out so you can ditch them.”

But when she met her fiancé, she actually didn’t have to tell him. Her pump did the job for her.

“Apparently he was checking me out because he noticed it. He knew it was an insulin pump, and that it meant that girl has diabetes and she’s pretty and I don’t care. It wasn’t a big red flag for him. “I’ve always gone into my relationships feeling confident with it,” Sparling says. ” If you put out confidence, other people will usually follow suit.”

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