Chronically Catherine: Weighing my self-worth over side effects and swimsuit size

Four women standing with their backs to the camera.
Everyone navigates the world of body confidence, regardless of whether they’re chronically ill. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Shkraba via Pexels)

Is it just me, or have the social media powers-that-be gotten together for their monthly Illuminati-style meeting and decided, “Yes. OK. We are all in agreement: commence swimsuit advertising.”

For the past few weeks, every time I open Instagram, or literally any website, it’s been “Here are images of perfectly toned muscular women; our bikinis will make you look like this!” 

And as a chronically ill woman, I have to say, that shit has really been getting to me.

As someone with many health issues, my body is already a complex, delicate masterpiece. Some might say like a Picasso, and to that, I would not argue.

To that end, like a great work of art does, it’s taken many moons to find the perfect balance of color and uniqueness to my composition — my color being the cocktail of multi-colored pills I take four times a day, and my uniqueness being the intended, and many unintended, side effects of that cocktail. 

Recently, one of those unintended side effects for me was weight gain, which, being a woman, felt like a perfect patriarchal one-two punch to the boob. 

For some context, I grew up tall, thin, and being told, “Are you eating enough?” or “Get some meat on those bones.” Then there were the really clever and totally original nicknames: stick bug, baby giraffe, Gumby and my personal favorite, pencil. That one really impressed me. 

Throw in coming of age during the renaissance that is Victoria’s Secret, and the holy pinnacle that was the VS Fashion Show, my little adolescent mind was very confused. On the one hand, the media I was inadvertently consuming as a kid was praising me for being tall, thin and let’s not forget white, but on the other hand, the girls at school teased me for being flat chested, having bony elbows, and looking more like Wilt from “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” than a teenage girl.

Needless to say, when I became chronically ill and unintentionally lost 20 pounds, I knew it was a sign that my body was really sick and battling something, but the kid in me who grew up drinking from the fire hose of early 2000s beauty standards was confused. (And no, I’m not going down the rabbit hole of “It’s ingrained in you because of the patriarchy.” I only have so much energy, and we have a word count honey.)

During my fourth hospitalization of 2020, I was desperate, and my family and doctors were seriously concerned. I needed to gain weight fast. My fabulous internist prescribed me a medication that was two-for-one: It would jumpstart my appetite and help with my insomnia. 

Overnight, I had an appetite again. In a few weeks, I’d gained back 10 pounds and was finally able to participate in physical therapy. Sleeping better allowed me to exercise, be upright and participate in activities of daily living. 

However, after two months on that medication, my weight gain didn’t stop. Suddenly, I had gained over the weight I’d lived at 90% of my life, and I didn’t know how to handle it. The weight gain accelerated past what I was mentally prepared for. 

The catch was I couldn’t stop this medication. It was helping my GI issues and my insomnia so much that I was terrified to come off it only to watch the pendulum swing hard in the wrong direction again. I was stuck on a medication that had positive health benefits but was negatively affecting my body confidence. Despite exercising and improving my physical strength, I was still unable to lose the excess weight this medication retained. 

This dilemma did a real number on my mental health for a long time. I felt stuck in a feedback loop, constantly asking myself: Do I stop the medication literally helping me sleep just to lose a few pounds? Why am I so caught up on having a little extra fat on me when my physical strength is finally coming back? And the hardest one to grapple with: Why am I having such a hard time loving myself now that I’m a little heavier than I’ve ever been?

To be honest, it’s been almost a year since starting that medication, and I am here to report that 1) I’m still on that medication and 2) I still don’t have answers. 

However, I have made progress on how to live with these unanswered questions. 

First, I’ve concluded that if there were no reflective surfaces left on planet Earth, and I was forced to get quiet with my mind and body, would I feel capable and courageous regardless of my physical appearance? Focusing on that question rather than what I see in the mirror has really helped. 

Second, I’ve realized that because my chronic health conditions already place me in such a state of chaos, experiencing a loss of control over my physical appearance as a result of illness, and now medication side effects, was especially difficult. It was just one more thing lost to the unpredictable nature of chronic illnesses and that took some time to grieve. After a while, I found some peace accepting my physical appearance in its current state because my body was healing on the inside.

Third, I recognize I’m not diving deep into the entire conversation on the body positivity/body acceptance/body neutrality movement. That’s intentional. I am still educating myself in those movements and finding out how they may or may not work for me. But I’ve taken comfort in knowing others are navigating the world of body confidence too, regardless if they’re chronically ill.

Lastly, and most importantly, I’ve realized all this fluctuation with my weight and physical appearance because of my health conditions presents an opportunity to shift attention away from my physical self and towards other parts of myself that make me who I am. 

I’ve realized I don’t have to make peace with my physical appearance because it’s a work in progress, as are my mind and spirit. I’m learning to balance taking care of myself while simultaneously learning that my worth is rooted in places outside of how I look. 

Yes of course, I still poke, pinch and squish. But I know my worth is rooted in my obnoxiously loud laugh, my listening skills, my ability to be a good friend, the sexiest dancer, a dedicated student and so much more. Not in what the scale reads or mirror reflects. 

So as far as bikinis go this summer — fuck it, I’m going naked. 

Writer’s note: Feel free to reach out to Chronically Catherine if you’re also a student of different abilities working to coexist with daily adversity without losing sight of your fabulosity – or @itschronicallycatherine on Instagram.

Catherine Ames is a junior writing about life as a young person coexisting with chronic illness. Her column, “Chronically Catherine,” usually ran every other Friday.