I’m a happily-disabled wheelchair user. It may sound like an oxymoron but I’ve worked hard to achieve it. This hasn’t always been the case. At one stage I was among the 40% of girls regularly using social media who had symptoms of depression.
The turning point happened two Christmases ago when, after a long hard day of doing nothing but eat, I was lying in my bed cuddled up in a blanket. I was warm, cosy – and unhappy.
Displayed on a 5.5 inch screen in front of me was an infamous Instagram influencer. She was talking to her followers, one of whom was me, about why the packet of gummy bears she was holding was a vital investment for anyone who wanted longer, thicker, healthier hair faster.
I started sobbing. It hit me that the post was telling me I didn’t meet the bar because of how my body is shaped. It told me the bar for a young woman was perfect hair, perfect legs, and a flat, toned, tanned stomach to match. I cried as I realised I spent my life helplessly consuming and contemplating content like this online, and it made me feel utterly worthless.
My legs are far from perfect, I know that. They are, according to one stranger who ever-so-kindly told me, legs that would “make you want to kill yourself.” Using a wheelchair clearly makes some people think I’m helpless and require a carer for all aspects of life. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a strong-minded, self-care focussed 15-year old. Granted, it took a while to become this.
But everything I witnessed on social media drilled into me my body isn’t perfect. I was constantly reminded that I was never going to look like one of the influencers posting photos of themselves looking slim, shiny and – significantly – non-disabled.
Due to my compulsive desires, I was obsessed with weight loss. I wanted to look like the girls and young women I saw across social media. That night, I realised wanting to look like the influencers on Instagram was far from healthy and that my goal was to look perfect, solely in an effort to distract people from my disability. Although I’ve used a wheelchair full-time since I was aged five, I felt uncomfortable about how my body looked due to it. I didn’t want people to notice my wheelchair.
But I realised those influencers that I had devoted hours to looking at, wishing I could be like, weren’t really perfect. Their shots were photoshopped and they were paid to promote products they probably didn’t use. I willed myself to unfollow every influencer who promoted products claiming to miraculously make them slim from the first sip.
I made it my mission to become the embodiment of self-love, without having to rely on what I saw on social media. I did this by buying some crop tops because a ‘crop top body’ is a body with a crop top on it, regardless of its shape or size. I began loving my not-so-long hair and not-so-flat stomach. Most importantly, I started attending youth clubs run by the disabled children and young people’s charity Whizz-Kidz. It helped me meet other young disabled people, have fun, and learn new skills, without being transfixed by gazing at other people’s lives on my screen. It also helped me to live my own life.
I found ways to make peace with myself and to utilise my unique circumstances to help others do the same. This was only possible by not spending hours scrolling through social media, obsessing about my appearance.
This New Year, I suggest unfollowing two influencers’ accounts that you haven’t been able to before; learn two new words a day; join a social group; start a new hobby. Do anything that’ll make you more comfortable being you.
Penny is a member of Whizz-Kidz Kidz Board.