“It is possible to have a good body image with Crohn’s disease," says Sara Ringer, "but it’s something you have to continually put effort into.”
Ringer, who's in her early 30s, has gotten medical care for her Crohn's symptoms since she was a baby, although she wasn't diagnosed until she was 14.
All that care focused on her disease. But Ringer, and anyone else with Crohn's, is far more than a patient.
“Body image and self-esteem are things that are not focused on but are a really big deal,” Ringer says. “These are the things we are all thinking but not saying: How will this affect me in a relationship? How will my body work? Will I even be able to do certain things?”
Taking charge of those concerns starts with you.
Changes You Can Make Now
Focus on the positive. Ringer, who has a blog and YouTube channel about living better with Crohn's and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), offers suggestions in her videos. These include:
- Make a list of 10 things you love about yourself that have nothing to do with your body. Put the list some place where you'll see it often.
- Write down and appreciate what your body can do instead of focusing on what it can't.
- Embrace your surgical scars. "Scars are not disfiguring, they are defining," Ringer says. "It shows how tough you are and how strong you are."
Boost your body confidence. These can be cosmetic steps, like learning to use makeup to hide scars or steroid puffiness, or choosing clothes that are flattering when your weight changes. But it can also be something that works from the inside out, like being physically active. Ringer says she's found that exercise helps her body feel strong.
Create a support system. You're more likely to focus on negative thoughts when you feel alone. The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America has more than 300 support groups nationwide. You can also follow blogs or use social media to connect with others who share your symptoms and concerns.
Get Your Doctor On Board
If you, like Ringer, find that your doctors are taking care of your Crohn's but not your body image or other concerns, you can change that.
“Patients should feel empowered to ask for what they feel is necessary and not at all feel they are the only ones with these problems,” says Corey A. Siegel, MD. He's director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center in Dartmouth, NH.
Sometimes, doctors haven’t been trained to ask about these issues, and often there isn’t time.
“When [you're] doing all the other things during a visit, you may not get to other areas of concern, like body image,” says David T. Rubin, MD. He is co-director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at the University of Chicago.
To get your concerns addressed, you can:
Start the conversation. If your doctor isn’t asking about everything that matters to you, write a list of your concerns, in order of importance, and give it to your doctor. There may be medications or other treatments that can help.
Be honest. Feel free to ask your doctor anything, including questions about sex, relationships, accidents, or other personal concerns -- including things that affect your confidence or self-esteem. For example, if you have a big event coming up, like a wedding, and you don't want unpleasant side effects from steroids to show up in the photos, tell your doctor.
Make it a team effort. You might want to add other health professionals to your team. They might include a psychologist, social worker, or counselor; an advanced practice nurse; a nutritionist; or a sex therapist. Ask your doctor for referrals to specialists experienced in helping people with Crohn's. You may also find this kind of team approach at a dedicated IBD Center.
Schedule well-visits. It’s easier to discuss these issues at maintenance appointments when you aren’t feeling sick. “If you are only managing your Crohn’s disease in crisis mode, you will never get to a place where you can talk about these other things,” Rubin says.