“What losing my legs taught me about body neutrality”

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Kat Hawkins had just embarked on a new beginning at university when a serious illness changed the course of her life. After becoming a double amputee, she grew determined to pursue her passions for journalism and dance, and rediscovered her identity and philosophy on body neutrality in the process, too…

Presenter, filmmaker and writer Kat Hawkins has been bringing underrepresented voices to mainstream media for years as a reporter for the BBC. 

Her interest in creating intersectional work stems from her own life experience: at the age of 18, she fell seriously ill with meningitis and had both legs amputated below the knee. 

Here, Kat discusses her journey to self-acceptance, her experiences of living with a disability, and why the power of body neutrality can help change the narrative around body image for good.

Becoming an amputee

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“I started university in 2007 at the University of Leeds to study English and Theology. I was 18, straight out of school and it did really feel like a first taste of independence for me. I was making new friends, going out all the time, and I’d joined a dance society as well called Dance Exposé. 

The night before I got taken into hospital I’d been to a dance rehearsal with them. I went off to bed, and in the night was violently sick. I was passing in and out of consciousness, but luckily I’d set an alarm for the next morning for a seminar, and got up. I managed to get out into the corridor and the lights were blinding. Then I got into the kitchen, and slumped down on the sofa. My housemates called an ambulance and I was taken to hospital.

I was in Accident and Emergency when a doctor walked past and spotted the start of a rash on my wrist. I was quickly taken into a side room and they cut off my pyjamas, and my body was already covered in this rash. And so they did a lumbar puncture and realised I had meningococcal septicaemia. 

I was rushed up to Intensive Care straight away, put on life support and then into an induced coma. All of my morphine-induced visions were that cats were nibbling my feet, and I could feel them itching. I can remember seeing them at one point and thinking “Why are my legs purple and black?”.

As soon as I came around I already knew that there was damage to my legs. 

The initial thought was that I’d have toes and heels amputated, but the septicaemia had devastated my body. I was a month and a half into my hospital stay when the doctor said, “We’re going to have to amputate your left leg below the knee”, and I just remember screaming. Then they told me the other leg wasn’t healing either, so I had that one amputated two weeks later.” 

The road to recovery

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“After the amputation, I was desperate to try and reclaim my life. 

I didn’t want to feel disabled, I didn’t want to be disabled. I would hide my legs, and I was too embarrassed to tell people I was an amputee. 

I would see myself in the mirror and feel sick at the sight of my own body. 

When I went back to university I would always wear my prosthetics and try and keep up with everybody, walking really long distances and causeing myself a lot of physical pain.

I genuinely thought dance wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.

It was all internalised ableism, it was all me thinking that I was weak, that I was vulnerable, everything that I’d been taught about disabled bodies that I now know isn’t true.

Now, I do make a conscious effort to be honest and truly say how I’m feeling.

It’s OK to feel really shit and disappointed at your own body because that is the reality that we live in as disabled people. Healing is tiring, and living with impairments and chronic illness is really tiring; it isn’t all happy and smiley and inspirational, which is the narrative we hear so much.

It’s really hard sometimes; I miss my legs and I want my body to do better because it causes me a lot of pain, and that’s a hard thing to cope with.”

Rediscovering my identity

“After university I stayed on and did a Masters in Religion and Public Life. Then I applied for the BBC’s journalism trainee scheme and had a year in Manchester where they trained me to be a journalist across radio, TV and online. 

I worked in Manchester for a little bit before I moved to London, and I started working for the disability affairs department in the BBC. 

Then I moved into digital current affairs and made short documentaries before I became a reporter for them. I enjoyed playing video games and I liked technology, and so when the job came up at BBC Click, it felt like a good fit. I do think that there’s a real importance in how technology can be used for disability-related issues, and so I was interested in bringing some of those stories to that department.

When I left to go freelance, I realised I could still dance and be involved in projects. I had a six to seven year break of not dancing at all, before I found this dance company called CandoCo, a national touring company of disabled and non-disabled dancers.

Since getting back into dance and leaving my full-time job, it’s really helped me process what happened and what my body is now. But it’s also helped me enjoy my body again, and realise how it deserves to be in spaces.”

My philosophy on body neutrality

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“For me, body neutrality is working towards this place where we respect our bodies, but we don’t give them too many positive or negative thoughts. 

It’s about saying, ‘I might not love this certain part of my body,’ or ‘I might not like that this is happening with my body at the moment,’ but I’m not going to punish myself for it.

Within body neutrality, there is a focus on the body being the home. It’s not to say that you won’t love yourself, that is absolutely a possibility. But it’s not the end goal. 

It’s about treating yourself with acceptance. It always goes back to that pressure to love our bodies and celebrate them. But for people with chronic health conditions, body dysmorphia or impairments, that idea is just so difficult. 

So, it’s about as much as we can do to treat our bodies with kindness, and accept that they are our homes, that we live within them and with them.

It can be really helpful for disabled people, because a lot of the time we do feel betrayed by our bodies, and it can feel like a real release to be in this neutral place about that. 

The body positivity movement has moved well beyond what it first started as, which was a fat acceptance movement. It has been capitalised upon a lot, and actually adds a lot of pressure to people. 

Also, it doesn’t put disabled bodies and marginalised bodies in the foreground anymore, and that’s where I think body neutrality has a really useful potential.”

Moving towards self-acceptance

“I do still have days where I feel like I hate my body, and days where I feel like I love bits of my body. 

I don’t think it’s achievable to be able to look at yourself every day and think ‘I love myself’. Sometimes I just don’t feel like that, and I do think that it is harmful because it puts this extra pressure on people. 

But body neutrality provides an opportunity for treating yourself with kindness and acceptance. 

It’s been great to shift that focus away from thinking ‘I need to love my body’, to thinking ‘My body is the least interesting thing about me.’

And it means that I can focus on other things as well, because I’m spending less time thinking about what my body looks like.

I also think it’s important that if my body isn’t able to do something, as a lot of disabled bodies aren’t, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of respect. 

It takes a long time, because we don’t always know how that looks, or how that feels, because society has taught us, especially women, that there is a capital to their bodies that can be leveraged. 

Unlearning that and thinking about the body in a completely different way is a hard thing, especially when you do live with a marginalised body. 

But we need to be less body-centric. Our bodies, abilities or looks are not what make us the people we are, we’re so much more than that.” 

Transforming your worldview

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“One of the most important things for me is to diversify your feed. 

If you’re on social media, follow more people who live with marginalised bodies, and that will completely change how you see the body. For me, that was following more disabled people, people of colour, trans people, which shifted how I viewed my own body, and how I view other bodies as things that are worthy of respect, no matter what they look like, how they act or move.

It’s a really exciting time to be able to learn from people’s lived experiences, as so many conversations are happening on there. It’s really important that people listen if it’s an experience that isn’t yours, and trust that what that person is saying is true. 

Something disabled people face a lot is this feeling that we’re lying about our experiences, and that they can’t be as bad as we say they are.

But we all need to listen to what people are saying, because it happens: people can’t access buildings, they are being left out of social events, they are being made to feel as though their bodies are not worthy of respect.

The more people realise that this is the situation, the more it begins to change everything.”

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.