Jenny | Female, Korean, She/Her

What does “body positivity” mean to you? How has your body image changed over time? How does your body image play a role in your identity or even in your daily life?

Body positivity to me means fully recognizing and embracing the beauty of our own body as a human, to cherish and honor our individual body for all it is as a whole. After a freak incident resulting in the tragic loss of my brother when I was 16 years old and in the early stages of my athletic journey as a runner, I started to suffer from several chronic illnesses and conditions that really snuck up on me (e.g., bulimia, stress-eating, disordered eating schedule). Starting to lift weights and push myself to become stronger helped me in my recovery, and then starting to climb during my gap year in 2019 along with therapy was one of the most influential times of my life. After moving to Los Angeles for my doctorate program in Spanish linguistics to finally pursue my passions in third language acquisition of Spanish, alone in 2020, I became one of the very misfortunate people to catch COVID-19 and long COVID, that triggered dozens of chronic (many irreversible or permanent) illnesses, and I’m now immunocompromised with autoimmune connective tissue disease. It felt disheartening to feel so disconnected from my body that I put many years into developing a healthy relationship with, experiencing my physical body crumble and literally break while looking even “healthier” and “more attractive” than when I was able-bodied. After 15 long months of self-advocacy and having to teach myself how to walk, talk, swallow, breathe, think/process and coordinate movements again as well as hundreds of insurance claims and a one-year break from school, I am finally two months into being under the care of UCLA’s Long COVID Rehabilitation Program and back to feeling like myself. I will never be the same as before I got COVID-19, and I will never be able to rock climb or be as energetic as I used to be, but the journey of learning to adapt through compensatory techniques and the healing from taking time off school have been necessary for returning to feeling as cute inside as I have been looking on the outside. Rock climbing has already been a dangerous sport highly involving tactile senses and dexterity which I now very much lack, but it’s been the most empowering feeling to go from high-functioning and active to sedentary and so damaged to building myself back up to return to feeling like a ‘baddie.’

How can we talk about our body image with our loved ones in a way that is supportive and helpful? How has the media influenced your body image?

We all just need to be more open and honest with ourselves as well as with others. I bluntly tell my friends when I “feel” fat from uncomfortable bloating or swelling from my autoimmune disease or when I have been put on some meds (i.e., corticosteroids) while acknowledging that I know I am not actually fat but I just don’t feel good in my body or just want my body to reflect the hard work I have put into it. It’s also okay to be fat or have fat — fat definitely keeps me warm and helps me build muscle, so I just call fatter times unintentional bulking as my body must be communicating to me that it needs extra protection or warmth to be healthy. I personally prefer not even being complimented on my body because there has been a strikingly obvious increase in receiving praises about my muscles or skin when I am in the most unfathomable pains and worst health of my life. The way I look does not equate to how I feel or how my quality of life is, and those do not equate for anybody! It’s cheesy, but beauty, healing and peace truly comes from within. The media has not really influenced my own body image; rather, I love seeing that others and society are starting to see the beauty in women being thick and/or strong through all the “muscle mommy” memes and shows such as Netflix’s “Physical 100.” The way one looks should be positively applauded for representing the hard work, dedication and patience that took years to see the current result. It’s all about the process!

Is there a specific message that you’d like to convey by participating in this project?

For all of you out there with long COVID or any other new or freaky onset of chronic illnesses or autoimmune disease, don’t lose hope! Optimism, perseverance and patience truly is key in recovery and returning to feeling happy and content in your body. Adaptability is also a great life-long skill. The only thing constant in life is change.