How Living with Scoliosis Has Shaped My Body Image

I’ll never forget the first day I wore a back brace to school. I was 8 years old and had recently been diagnosed with scoliosis, which was curving my spine into an S shape. The rigid plastic hardware imprisoned my torso from hip to underarm; my shirt couldn’t hide its bulk. “Can I punch it?” curious classmates asked, fascinated that I couldn’t feel their blows. My acceptance-seeking third-grade brain consented. They weren’t trying to be cruel, but each strike chipped away at my innocence and confidence.

(Photo: Rachel Rabkin Peachman)

As puberty approached, my upper spine, once at a barely perceptible 15-degree curve, warped even more, shoving my right shoulder blade out like a chicken wing. The wayward lower curve on my left side made my hips lopsided. I hid my body in extra layers; I skipped sleepovers to avoid changing in front of others; I planned dates with my first boyfriend for times I could remove my brace so he wouldn’t feel it when he slipped his arm around my waist.

At 16, green-lighted by doctors, I left my brace behind. By then, my upper curve measured 45 degrees, which, in many cases, warrants surgery. Instead, I chose to live with my spine as it was, and time began to heal my damaged body image. In college, I even worked up the nerve to join a naked campus run, a tradition for seniors. That night, I found the confidence to bare all, regardless of whether people could see my misshapen back.

(Photo: Rachel Rabkin Peachman)

The liberation was short-lived. In my twenties, I developed back pain. By 33, I couldn’t stand or walk for long stretches. My upper curve progressed to 55 degrees; the lower, to 33 degrees. Getting dressed one day, I realized one of my go-to tops no longer fit over my right shoulder blade. As I looked in the mirror at the stretched, distorted fabric, I felt an old, familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach: shame. Once again, I wanted to hide my body.

Since surgery would likely lead to reduced flexibility, early arthritis, and more pain, I researched other options. That’s how I found Curvy Girls, an international scoliosis support group. Last year, at their national convention’s fashion show, I watched girls with scoliosis proudly strut down the runway in strapless dresses, backs on display. Others wore braces over their clothes for all to see. I was in awe.

I’m 40 now, and I still don’t view my body as “normal.” Even if I opt for surgery, I know that a completely positive body image will remain out of reach; my formative feelings about my body are embedded too deep. Still, lately, when I see an unflattering picture of myself, or catch a glimpse of my back in the mirror, I think of those beautiful girls on the runway. And I remind myself how far my body has come: It gave birth to two daughters. And they deserve a role model who is proud of her body, and herself.

For more women celebrating the skin they’re in, pick up the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Women’s Health, on newsstands now.

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