Today kicks off this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I thought it would be a perfect time to discuss the issues of body image and lymphedema.

Body image is something that everyone deals with, but those with lymphedema are especially susceptible to having body image issues. This is something that needs to be addressed because it can lead to much more serious problems, such as depression and eating disorders.

Six years ago, I developed an eating disorder. Although there are several contributing factors to how it began, one of the most prominent ones was that I had thought that if I lost weight, the swelling in my leg would go down. I convinced myself that it was the only way to get rid of my lymphedema, and that I would never be pretty or worthwhile unless my leg was thinner. Over the years I continued to lose weight and wreck my body until, in March of 2010, I was pulled out of college and hospitalized for two months because I was dangerously underweight. I am now in the difficult stages of recovery, and working hard to get my physical and mental self back to a healthy state.

I share this because I feel that body image issues such as the ones I’ve experienced are not uncommon for people living with a visible medical condition like lymphedema. I learned the hard way that losing weight is not the “cure” for lymphedema. (Note: If you are obese or overweight, weight loss can help alleviate your swelling. Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting any weight loss regimen.) The swelling is exactly that – it is swelling, a collection of fluids, that weight loss cannot get rid of entirely. There is no “quick fix,” no magic cure for lymphedema. We can only adjust ourselves and our thinking so that it does not cloud the way we see ourselves as the beautiful, delightful people that we really are or impede us from doing the self-care we need to keep our swelling under control.

What a lot of people don’t realize about lymphedema is that it creates a lot of anguish for those who suffer from it. Little things become tremendous, such as buying shoes or wearing certain kinds of clothing. It affects how you see yourself and how you interact with other people. Even the weather is your enemy – summertime is not a carefree vacation, but instead a season where you’re more exposed, and the heat makes your swelling even worse. You’re constantly worrying about how you look or if your swelling is noticeable. Your swelling becomes conflated with your sense of self-worth and you feel detached, alienated, and different from everyone else. You feel alone.

But why? Why should we let this get in the way of feeling good about ourselves? Why should we obsess over it, be consumed by it? It isn’t healthy, and it certainly isn’t productive. Instead of worrying about our bodies, why not celebrate them?

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, let’s challenge ourselves to love how we look. Let’s actually feel confident when we leave our houses in the morning. Let’s wear that skirt with pride, or wear that short sleeved shirt. Let’s be proud of ourselves, let’s flirt with ourselves in the mirror. Let’s be unafraid. Let’s face the world head-on.

Will you join me?

How do you deal with body image? How has it affected your life? What do you do to overcome it? Please share in the comments section below!