Loving the Living Skeleton

By Greg Smith, Sr., The Strength Coach

I've reached a milestone. I have achieved a victory over an enemy that has dominated me and limited me for as long as I can remember. And as I stand over this monster with my foot on its neck, it feels so good!

I Can't Believe I Am Posting This

The bully…the monster…the enemy has been my negative body image. At the risk of getting my "man-card" revoked, I am publicly admitting that all my life, I've struggled with the way my body looked.

Wheelchair gliding over water

I'm skin and bones and very little else. I have weighed 65 pounds for as long as I can remember. It never mattered that I had an excuse called 'muscular dystrophy.'

My arms and legs are bony, my neck and face are thin. But to me, the most embarrassing part has been my torso. My ribs protrude through my chest. My clavicles pop out. I have no pectoral muscles. No chest. It is just skin and ribs.

Since the time I became self-aware, my teenage years, I avoided being seen without a shirt on. I can count the times on one hand that I've been swimming in a public pool. I've never gone shirtless while out on the boat. I've never felt comfortable wearing shorts, exposing my bony knees and legs.

Now don't get me wrong. I've always held a great deal of self-esteem. I'm comfortable with my overall appearance. I think I'm a very handsome guy. I have always felt that I could hide my literal frailty behind clothes and use my wisdom and personality to compensate quite well. But self-consciousness about my boniness was always with me.

Devastating Impact of Negative Body Image

Being skinny was always a barrier to full enjoyment in life. It had a tremendous impact on my love life in particular.

I didn't want women to see me with my shirt off until after we became intimate. "Shirt on and lights off" was my modus operandi. Revealing my body was a gradual process that I only allowed to happen after I was certain that I would be accepted and loved regardless of the physical flaws.

I knew they knew I was thin, but they did not know the true horror of the condition. If they saw me with my shirt off, they would be repulsed by it and that reaction would outweigh any feelings they allowed themselves to develop for me.

And that actually happened to me a few times. I've had women who cared deeply say they've tried to think of me in that way but they just couldn't do it. So I've gone through life as a mind, a face, a voice, a smile but without a body that was acceptable enough to be presented.

Forget the physical limitations of having muscular dystrophy. I dealt with those things and figured out ways around the literal weight of life and the battle against gravity. But there was no way around my appearance.

The Living Skeleton

I recently started receiving in-home physical therapy to expand the range of motion in my neck. My therapist, Wendie Hawkins, made me realize that being so skinny might have its advantages. She was amazed at being able to look at my body and clearly see bones, joints, muscles, arteries…things she had learned in anatomy class. My clavicle, scapula, scapula winging, sternocleidomastoid muscle, sternum…

"Medical students could learn so much from you. You're like a 'living skeleton!' I can actually see your heart beating in your chest!"

That led to the idea of presenting myself to universities as an option for anatomy classes. The thought of posing shirtless for young med students terrified me at first, but then I thought about how it could lead to income while helping future doctors, nurses, therapists and researchers.

Wheelchair gliding over water

So I embraced the idea. In order to proceed, we would need to take some pictures. With her iPhone, Wendy snapped a few shots. When I saw the pictures, I was literally shocked and amazed by my reaction. I had never seen my shirtless body from multiple angles before. What I saw was not repulsive.

What I saw was asymmetrical artistry, the result 51 years of weathering, like a piece of driftwood, shaped into its own distinctive beauty by the elements of scoliosis, surgery and unique positioning.

If I didn't have muscular dystrophy, I'm quite certain that I would have a perfect body in the traditional sense. I've always stressed the importance of physical fitness to my children and all three of them are athletic specimens.

What about you?

If you are not happy with the way you look and it is impacting your level of enjoyment in life, you have two choices:

You either decide that it is impossible to change your body and find comfort in your own distinctive beauty.

Or you can do the work and go full-strength to make the changes that are within the realm of possibility.

As "The Strength Coach," I'm not allowing you the option of letting your negative body image diminish your quality life like I did. Nor am I allowing you the freedom of lying to yourself about your ability to make the changes necessary to build the body you desire. It either is what it is, or it is what's possible.

Wheelchair gliding over water

You decide and embrace your choice. Listen to my podcast this week as I discuss the "Living Skeleton" with my therapist, Wendie Hawkins, and Alice Wong, who also has muscular dystrophy and similar thoughts about her body. Subscribe and download Timeout with the Strength Coach and please spread the word!

About the author:

Greg Smith is a professional speaker, broadcaster and author known as "The Strength Coach." He is the founder of "On A Roll: Talk Radio on Life & Disability," a nationally syndicated radio show that aired on 70 stations from 1992-2006. He is subject and associate producer of the PBS documentary "On A Roll: Family, Disability and the American Dream," which reached 1 million Americans in 2005. He is also the author of "On A Roll: Reflections from America's Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude." For more on Greg Smith, Sr., visit www.thestrengthcoach.com.

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