Meet our Muse, Jana. Jana opens about her journey navigating life with type-1 diabetes and how she's challenging the conversation around chronic illnesses.
To get started, can you tell us who you are in two sentences or less?
I’ll try. I’m both a woman on a mission to explore how we look at self-love and body diversity in media, and a person with Type 1 Diabetes on a quest to illuminate invisible illnesses in a meaningful way.
What’s your personal mandate?
My ultimate goal here is to start conversations. I would like to create a platform for awareness that is rooted in my 15-years of personal experience with a chronic illness, and witnessing how self-acceptance has shaped me, how self-love continues to be a struggle, and how often I still need to explain myself to people because Type 1 Diabetes isn’t talked about enough.
What does body diversity mean to you?
Oh, geez. Many, many different things because there are many, many different levels to it!
The layer we explore the most in media is quite obvious: celebrating and representing all body types. Every shape, size, colour. Every dimple, every scar. But, to me, body diversity is more than a movement to expand the repertoire of physical attributes that make us unique and different. It's a movement to change mindsets, to dismantle years of marginalizing beauty standards that have shaped the way women think about themselves.
I find it can be a bit of a tug-of-war topic: realizing that our bodies do not define our worth as human beings, especially as women, but also acknowledging that our willingness to accept our bodies does define who we are. If you reject your own body, can you truly advocate for body diversity? While the self-acceptance piece is essential here, we often find that women exclude themselves from their own conversations about body positivity, and in this way, I mean that they hold themselves to a higher standard than those around them.
The layer I want to dig into exists a level below the “skin-deep”, but not so far as mental health. I feel there is a whole other kind of body diversity that is lacking representation online, and I know this because it affects people like me. I’m talking about the “invincible invisibles”. The people who are struck with life-altering chronic illnesses that leave them reliant on external assistance to survive. From the outside, I look like like your average young woman, right? But on the inside it’s a different story. And under my clothes? More than just lingerie, which is why I reached out to Mary.
What motivated you to share your personal experience with Type 1 Diabetes with your community and, in turn, decide to start a conversation about self-love and representation?
I’ll be honest with you: this particular conversation is still very new to me. I grappled with the ways I wanted to bridge self-love and T1D awareness for many years. Reaching out to brands I admire to share a different perspective on self-love is based largely on that personal work I did during that time.
Type 1s comprise a massive community of insanely loyal and supportive people on and offline, who are searching for recognition in mainstream media and anywhere you see limited views on body diversity being challenged. I feel like Mary was the perfect person to start this conversation with. The brand has done an exceptional job in highlighting an widely undernourished focus on self-love in its online campaigns, especially in such a niche market. I was drawn in immediately.
We need to cater to the people adorned with medical equipment or devices to get through their everyday; the people who don’t necessarily know how to feel beautiful or fit into the framework we built around body diversity. We have a unique set of challenges and we should strive for body pride here, too. The lens still feels quite narrow and I’m hoping to surface an even more holistic approach.
Do you think people who are just starting to accept their illness will be able to relate to you when you’ve already come so far in your self-discovery?
A lot of people might look at me and think that I have nothing to complain about, and in a lot of ways they are right. But that’s kind of the point of all this, isn’t it? No one knows that I spent my teen years unable to take a compliment, how terrible my Diabetes management was for almost a decade, that I’ve fluctuated in weight by 45 lbs all through my twenties and have an unhealthy relationship with food (ongoing). You wouldn’t know that for a long time, these medical accessories made me feel less attractive, less desirable to others. That at one point in my life, I truly felt that my beauty and worth were negated by the very machine that literally kept me on this planet. Think about that for a minute. This is so much bigger than achieving self-acceptance through body diversity. This is a conversation about (self-)Love.
My hope is that my message for this shoot connects with people in some small (or big) way. I think it’s important to cultivate authenticity in your community. Pardon the pun, but I don’t want to sugarcoat my life and ignore the pain points. I have struggled with my fair share of scrutiny, judgment, and misguided commentary. Couple that with several self-love crises and the daily struggle of a disease few understand, and you’re running on fumes. So, here I am, baring (almost) all just to show people that there is more than meets the eye.
For those who don’t know what Type 1 Diabetes is, can you tell us about this disease?
I’ll start by telling you that Type 1 Diabetes is not a lifestyle affliction, it is an autoimmune disease that affects only 10% of people with Diabetes. Type 1 is often confused with it’s more prevalent cousin, Type 2 Diabetes, which has stronger links to the obesity epidemic. They are not the same. In a nutshell, for reasons that remain unknown, the immune system is suddenly triggered to attack itself and, more specifically, the insulin-producing cells in an otherwise healthy human being. As a result, the body can no longer produce insulin, which is the hormone used to shuttle glucose from our bloodstream to our cells to be used as energy. Untreated, Diabetes is fatal. Treated, Diabetes can be fatal.
Disclaimer: Cake didn’t do this! Cinnamon will not cure me! Contrary to popular belief, I can eat sugar! Saying “Diabeetus” does not a Wilford Brimley make.
There are a lot of misconceptions about how someone with Type 1 Diabetes should look and act. What are some assumptions that you want to challenge? What are some things you want people to know?
Besides the obvious stereotypes? I was the picture of health. There was no “reason” that led to this intra-cellular civil war situation. It just kind of happened to me.
Also, we make it look easy. We make it look so, so easy.
We are directly in charge of ensuring how our cells get the energy they need to do and think and speak. It is not simple arithmetic. The rules are not set in stone. There is no magical formula to get through the day. Diabetes is not generous in flexibility, and it’s certainly not predictable. In fact, it’s Murphy’s f**cking Law most of the time. But we adjust and compromise and succeed and fail, over and over, again and again, because we have no choice. Never underestimate the mental resilience and physical endurance of a Type 1 Diabetic, because 99.9% of what we do cannot be seen. We are superhumans!
It’s important to appreciate the external assistance that help people like you lead a healthy life. But, it can be a struggle to accept them. You mentioned that you wear not one, but two vital medical devices. Can you talk a little bit about them? How did you learn to accept them and what was your personal journey to acceptance like?
I’ve been wearing a Medtronic Minimed insulin pump since 2005, and I qualified for a Dexcom constant glucose monitor (CGM) last summer, which has improved my life in ways I cannot even put into words. Both devices are worn subcutaneously, not intravenously. Insulin is administered via cannula and absorbed through fat before entering the bloodstream and working its magic, and a hair-thin wire on my CGM measures my glucose levels from interstitial fluid that surrounds it. The rest is boring.
I used to be really embarrassed by my insulin pump. In fact, I would do everything in my power to keep it concealed from the public. I didn’t want to answer questions. I didn’t want people to look at me for any reason, let alone to stare at something actually worth staring at. It took a lot of work, but once I accepted my diagnosis, I had an instant change of heart. Now this technology has become symbolic of everything I have overcome and will continue to overcome. I am proud to wear them and show them off. And I do! What good is my awareness segment if they are hidden away, so I just let it all hang out when I exercise. I feel like a walking educational tool and I welcome questions, pointed fingers and stares equally. Curiosity is a good thing. I love the teaching moments and I feel like this project is the silver lining to my diagnosis.
Self-love comes in so many forms, what does that look like for you right now?
Being authentic with my process and having honest conversations with myself about what I need to work on. Self-care is how I fuel my self-love. From there, self-love guides my ability to share and spread love to the people around me without fear of running dry. I have established what my needs are, try to stick to a realistic routine, make healthy physical and emotional choices that support my goals, and try not to be so damn hard on myself. My biggest obstacle is disengaging from my thoughts. I’m easily overwhelmed, so disconnecting from my mind in times of crisis so I can replenish my energy and show up for my passions is really important. I don’t want to be the one standing in my own way, you know? I have the most amazing friends to reel me in and I also go to therapy on a regular basis for maintenance work. Keeping everything tip top!
Furthermore, physical health means something different for everyone – what does it mean to you?
Allowing for some flexibility with my Diabetes care and lifestyle while keeping the bigger picture in mind. Sometimes you choose to eat the waffles knowing full well that they will impact your blood sugar (and your mood) in an hour. These are not things you want to make a habit of, but giving yourself the occasional moment to enjoy something without overthinking every detail is the way I choose to have balance. Sometimes living your life involves making a few small concessions.
I also believe that a happy body breeds happy thoughts and vice versa. Trying to recreate this cyclical pattern every day has been hugely beneficial to my emotional and physical health.
When do you feel most empowered?
I feel most empowered when I do something that terrifies me. I’ve had to step outside of my comfort zone so many times with T1D, but the experiences have never left me disappointed or regretful. Whether I’m inserting a new medical device or traveling alone for the first time, talking openly about my struggles with strangers or doing this photoshoot –– I have been terrified every single time, and I have surprised myself with my courage and joy just as often.
This photoshoot featured an insulin pump tethered to my abdomen and a constant glucose monitor “stapled” to my arm, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I want people to see that these devices are not embarrassing or unattractive, but I also want myself to see it. I would be lying if I said it hadn’t taken me over a decade to get here mentally, but I’m really grateful to be the brains behind my bionic accoutrements. I laugh when I get tangled in my plastic tubing, and the dotting of silver scars are a source of pride for me now –– like tiny constellations on my belly. This is the kind of body diversity we are missing in self-love campaigns. I want people who can relate to what I’ve experienced to be seen and feel proud to be seen.
Which of your physical attributes do you love the most?
My strong shoulders and the little nooks above my collarbones. My family looking back at me in the mirror: I have my dad’s eyes and my mum’s hands. I share a smirk with my sister, too.