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The Real Faces of RA

In the last several years I’ve noticed a huge increase in advertising for medications that treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Instead of getting excited about new treatment options, I’ve found myself getting annoyed and angry that none of them feature realistic images of people like me.

I understand that the disease has a huge range—from people with mild symptoms to those severely affected like myself. But not one ad has a swollen joint, fatigued patient, or slight limp. Instead of appealing to me, I feel offended and excluded.

Depictions in RA advertisements

For example, one medication features a famous athlete as a spokesperson. That’s great that the medication worked for him and he can still compete in a highly-athletic sport. But what about the rest of us RA patients? Where do we fit in? Is the ad saying that if we can’t become top-athletes we should just stay home and moan in bed?

I’m overdramatizing, but the reason is that while ads for rheumatoid arthritis seek to be aspirational, they are leaving most of us behind in their fairy-tale depictions of the actual disease. Why can’t one of their characters have a swollen joint that is relieved by the medication? Or a limp that improves?

It doesn’t give me much hope for the medication if the people who are taking it already look healthy, happy, and active. What can I get from taking this drug if I already don’t fit the image of youthful and athletic?

Representation of RA in magazines

I have this same problem with a leading arthritis magazine. Part of the reason I’m dropping my subscription is because, for a full year, none of the people featured seemed to have any significant damage from the disease and other articles didn’t contribute any more knowledge to my understanding of RA.

Depict the spectrum of RA

Few people live with the extensive damage of RA that I’ve experienced. I know that I’m a rare case. But I also know many others struggle on the spectrum—these people have pain, joint damage, deformities, lethargy and many other symptoms. To me, the most powerful and inspiring examples celebrate people with RA who have managed to persevere and thrive despite the disease.

Don’t sweep us under the rug! Don’t disappear us behind a façade of smiling, healthy actors! Here’s an idea: tell the real stories. Show how we cope with the disease. How treatments can work. Show the real disease and the true damage it causes. But include the hope and the tenacity—how we fight for quality lives.

Let’s show honest depictions of RA

I feel angry when I’m ignored, when I feel my experience of RA is maligned by the glossy hopes of advertising. My husband overhears me shouting at the television like a crazy woman. “That lady hasn’t had RA a day in her life! She’s probably not even met anyone with RA!” While those ads may be beautiful, they insult the reality of RA and offend people like me.

Don’t run away from the fear of RA

Sometimes I wonder if those ads come from a place of fear. That the advertisers know the pain and struggle of RA, but are afraid to depict it and scare off their customers. I would argue that running from the fear, doesn’t make it go away. That no matter what, RA is a difficult disease and pretending it is not doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it may hurt to delay facing reality rather than getting early treatment.

So let’s face our fears and turn a spotlight on the real RA. There’s plenty of stories to tell. Many people struggle with the real RA and live well despite the disease. How about we honor the real faces of RA?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Gayle
    5 years ago

    At first I was laughing and agreeing with you. However, I am one of those who do not look like I have RA. As a result I have not been taken seriously. I look healthy, lived an active life, I try to maintain a healthy diet, and I am not overweight. I am 55 and was finally diagnosed in August. It took 6 months for my Enbrel and Plaquenil to work. I was in tears when I wasn’t getting better during the fifth month of my treatment. I hate my RA doctors because of their arrogance, I have been insulted on a blog because I’m not crippled and laying in bed. Well I slept 15 plus hours a day, but not because I’m crippled. YET! So of course the golfer is going back to golfing, his onset was later in life I am guessing. The other people are actors and I might represent the image of the actor and not your image. It doesn’t mean that I am not going through something very hard to deal with.

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    5 years ago

    Thanks for your comment. I definitely understand and sympathize with my RA friends who suffer with an invisible disease. My point with this article was that a more diverse group of patients with varying kinds of RA should be included in the ads for medications. Best, Kelly

  • Amy
    5 years ago

    Amen Kelly! I also find the fantasy advertisements of “take our meds – you’ll be an athlete too” insulting & exclusive. I’m one of the many invisible RA sufferers, externally I don’t look like anything is wrong. But the pain and fatigue have posed huge limitations on my life. If I get the dishwasher loaded & a simple dinner made that is a huge day for me — put that in a commercial! The same with the magazines, I don’t get anything out of hearing how a singer/actress/wife/mother manages with RA, it’s just too ridiculously far from my reality. Likewise, how many articles does one need on the benefits of sleep, exercise & healthy diet? How about articles on how to create healthy meals when one is exhausted? That would be helpful!
    Thanks very much for an honest article Kelly!

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    5 years ago

    Thanks Amy! 🙂 I really like your idea for an honest article too!

  • Lindsay
    5 years ago

    As a 31-year-old person with mild to moderate JA, I find this perspective equally exclusionary. Phil Mickelson has PA, so his celebrity can only help raise arthritis awareness. He may not look like you, or me for that matter, but that does not make his experience with arthritis any less valid. I do agree that there should be more diversity in these ad campaigns, but referring to visible disfigurements as the “real” face of arthritis is equally closed-minded, in my opinion. I have been on the verge of taking a biological for about a year, going back and forth on the issue, and I do not have the disfigurements most of the time.

  • Lindsay
    5 years ago

    Kelly, I understand that may have been your overall point. In your article, you say, “’That lady hasn’t had RA a day in her life! She’s probably not even met anyone with RA!'” You also refer to swollen joints and limping as the real RA, as opposed to fake RA? I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t seem to encompass an understanding of diversity either. Because of new drugs, like those in the ad campaigns, being taken at early stages of the diseases they treat, more and more arthritis sufferers look outwardly healthy because they are able to ward off some of the long-term changes to their bodies. Yes, I agree there should be diversity among depictions of arthritis, but the ads are ultimately touting the effectiveness of the drugs, not the potential severity of the diseases they treat. Believe me, as an adult with juvenile arthritis, I feel left out of the conversation all too often. The article ranges from a person feeling left out to a person actually claiming to have a more relevant experience, whether intentional or not, and then to a call for diversity. I do not mean to take away from the need for diverse representations of RA. It just seems to me that your call for sensitivity was a bit insensitive.

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    5 years ago

    Lindsay, my article was not meant to exclude anyone but to proffer the idea that there’s a more diverse concept of RA than currently portrayed in medication advertising. I’d like these ads to include a variation of the disease so that all RA patients can be represented and identify with the campaign. Best, Kelly

  • Mariah Z. Leach moderator
    6 years ago

    This is a really great point, Kelly. Thank you so much for bringing it up. I completely agree with you. It also frustrates me that the people in those RA medication ads tend to be older, white-haired people – further extending the stereotype that only old people get arthritis!

  • Marie A. Burkett
    6 years ago

    I agree – you never see anyone with hands crippled struggling to do the simplest things. Besides who can afford to take the stuff they advertise even with insurance unless the pharmaceutical company waves the co-pay.
    Thanks for your site.

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