a psychological disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with real or imaginary defects in their appearance.
When I was a little kid, I had a big mole on the back of my neck. It was about the size of a quarter, but in my mind it was the size of my palm. It kept growing and growing. I hated it. I hated it SO much. I would hide it from everyone. I wore a lot of turtlenecks. I based my entire wardrobe around clothing that would conceal the mole. I would look at other people (mostly other girls) and seethe with jealousy and unhappiness because they got to wear whatever they liked and I didn’t. Sometimes I would pick at the mole and be scolded by my parents.
By the time I was a teenager, I had enough. I wanted surgery to get rid of the mole. Its presence loomed so large in my mind that I was socially anxious all the time, constantly on high-alert in case someone spotted it. When I got old enough, my parents finally let me remove it (we decided it counted as skin cancer prevention to get rid of it, so it wasn’t solely a vanity project). I swapped the mole for an ugly red scar that slowly faded over time. It’s barely visible nowadays. A pale, quiet reminder of my first foray into BDD, also know as body dysmorphic disorder.
To me, that mole was monstrous. It was the ugliest thing in the world. It was the size of a dinner plate, it was foul, it was pulsing and painful and real. To others, it was nothing. But the anxiety it caused me was overwhelming. It dictated major decisions in my life, it kept me from participating in certain events, it was cruelly damaging to my self-esteem, which, as a teenager, was already low as it was. But that’s the name of the game with BDD. It makes you believe things about yourself that aren’t true.
After the mole was gone, (when people noticed the fresh scar on my neck I would lie and say that I fell on a dock over the summer and cut myself badly; I was still so traumatized by the mole that I couldn’t even bring myself to tell people about it after the fact) I felt much better. I thought that was the end of it. At that time, I had no idea was BDD was. But if I did, I would have been made aware of the fact that it would probably rear its head again. And it did.
I have always been on the skinny side. As a child, a teenager, and a young adult, I had a thin frame and not a lot of extra body fat. I wasn’t athletic — my arms would crumple if I tried to do a push-up and my legs were like Gumby’s, but I was still fairly lithe. I took it for granted and barely noticed…Until I started gaining weight after college graduation. All the nights of drinking and eating Domino’s Cheesy Bread every single day (literally, I ate so much fucking cheese and bread throughout college I’m surprised I didn’t gain weight sooner) finally caught up to me.
Suddenly, my jeans weren’t fitting. My body looked big in photos. I would squeeze all this extra fat around my waist and get a sinking feeling in my stomach. But the thing was, I wasn’t fat. I gained about 10 lbs, sure, but in my mind I was 200 lbs and completely gross. I hated my body. I tried to workout, but I was lazy about it and I kept drinking the same way I did in college, which ensured that I continued to gain, not lose, weight.
I was lucky in one thing: I didn’t have an eating disorder. I threw up many times from alcohol, I made myself vomit frequently when I was hungover, but I never did it because I ate too much. I loved food — food wasn’t the problem. My body was. I didn’t hate eating, I hated my body.
My BDD has never gotten severe enough for me to be hospitalized or anything like that. It’s on the low end of the spectrum, but it’s always there, haunting me in the back of my mind. One day I’ll look in the mirror and think, “Huh, I look good!”, and the next minute I’ll be picking the skin on my fingernails, pulling at the stubborn fat around my waist, and wanting to tear my body to literal shreds because I hate it so much. However, since I stopped drinking, I’ve noticed a remarkable and obvious change in my body. The weight I’ve been trying to drop for years suddenly melted off. The hard, high-impact exercise of rock climbing and running paid off. The vegetarian lifestyle I’ve lived for 15 years finally helped me eat healthy as I learned to cook for myself instead of just eating carbs and dairy three times a day. I lost 12 lbs in 4 months, and the smallest outlines of abs began to appear on my stomach. This was great!
But I still hate my body most days. I am still fixated on the rolls remaining on my stomach, on the fat I can grab around my love handles. It’s all I can see. Other people comment on how good I am looking. I feel like an imposter accepting the compliments because even though I can see what they’re talking about, I still struggle everyday to accept my body as it is. And what makes it so much harder is social media.
Social media, especially Instagram, is FULL of beautiful people, showing off their beautiful bodies. Girls with flawless skin, guys with cut bodies, people with pursed lips and full butts and flat tummies. Of course, most of these photos are fake. Apps to make your face smooth, Photoshop to make your figure hourglass, filters to mimic a Kardashian. It’s not real, and these beautiful people don’t look like that in real life. (Some do, but they’re very, very rare.) But the implication is still there — that if you don’t look like them, you are undesirable and unattractive.
I am so worried about the younger generation being exposed to stuff like this. I see them on there already — changing how they look, doing whatever it takes to get followers and likes. The girls are especially at risk. You can see 15 year-olds on Instagram, dressing and acting like they’re 20, desperately trying to transform their still-developing bodies. It’s depressing. So when I posted a photo recently of my own mirror selfie, in an attempt to show authenticity and raise awareness about BDD, I was scared to show myself unedited and makeup free, yet determined to try to connect with anyone who was struggling like me. The majority of the responses I got were positive and supportive. Except for one.
Unfortunately, this is a fairly common reaction. Because I have some conventionally attractive qualities, many people think that someone like me cannot suffer from BDD. But as I explained in my response, that’s simply not how BDD, or ANY mental illness works. This is a part of me that I have to accept and learn to deal with. And I am. I am learning how to love myself and love my body for the first time in my life. A big part of that is because I eliminated drinking, which was messing with my mental state and making me dislike everything about myself.
My BDD is getting more manageable. I still deal with its tricky whispers and the negative thoughts it curates in my brain. I still hate my body some days. But I’m getting better. I’m learning to love myself while at the same time still continuing on my journey to make myself the strongest and healthiest person I can possibly be.
I hope you can do the same.