I have felt the way I do about my body for as long as I can remember and I cannot ever recall a time that I have been happy with my appearance. There is a harsh critic that lives inside of my head and it tells me I am overweight, pale, ugly and undesirable. My eyes are drawn to every reflective surface I see. I lift my top up and obsess over my tummy at any mirror I find, I turn and squirm at my arms in photographs and I cover these parts of me as best as I can at all cost. I have completely lost all concept of what I look like and how I am valued. I hate my body…. I hate it, and more so, I hate my mind and the things it tells me.
The all-consuming obsession begins every morning. I wake up, get unchanged, weigh myself, stare over my body in the mirror, get in the shower, find clothes to cover myself as best as I can, sit on the train and flick through Instagram at girls I admire and aspire to look like and then I start to experience the all too familiar perpetual sensations of dread and shame. Imagine the response that you might have when your body reacts to a physical threat, and then try to envision how distressing it would be if you experienced the same feeling after looking in a reflective surface or a photograph. This is the tormenting reality for me as a Body Dysmorphic Disorder sufferer, as it is for 1 in every 100 people in the UK alone.
Compliments and photographs are something that I avoid at every opportunity. Although I always seek for reassurance on how I look (annoyingly so) and what I am wearing and if I look ‘OK’. When a compliment comes such as “you look nice”, I subconsciously hit back with “no I don’t” rather than a thank you – this is a very frustrating habit, especially for the people closest to me like Scotty.
After getting a boyfriend and moving to Hong Kong, my anxiety increased dramatically. Living in a country where its hot 99% of the time means covering your body in 89% humidity and 33 degree heat is physically impossible and being around naturally petite Chinese women made the comparison habit begin. You go into shops and the largest size they have on the rack is an 8/10 or a (Chinese) medium and you feel absolutely huge, even for someone who doesn’t suffer, this is very disheartening. After a few months of feeling dread and shame I began to start having panic attacks whenever I would get ready or be out in a social situation. My breathing would become erratic and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything apart from looking at the people around me.
I eventually sought for help as I have told you all before and went to see my GP who started me on a course of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication along with seeing a psychologist. This was to help me speak about my thoughts and fears about my body and help me rationalise them and find out truly where they have sparked from, right down to the roots.
In one of the first sessions I had with my psychologist, I made the comment that I was “chubby” and had “fat arms”. I went on to explain that I felt people would gaze (negatively) my way and the anxiety would hit as I imagined the way in which they would be passing judgement on my appearance. She automatically stopped me and quizzed me on my comment which I didn’t feel too comfortable about. “Ok” she said, “So when you are out in a social situation, do you judge people on how they look and how chubby they are? Does it make them a better or worse person if they are the ugliest/prettiest person in the room?” This made me sit and think… do people analyse others based on what they look like? I know I sure don’t. All of my friends are of different shapes and sizes and everyone is different, so why am I so critical of myself?
I had habited myself to think that people were ruthlessly critical (which they are not, particularly those you’ve engaged with as friends). The anxiety that would build up triggered my fight or flight mechanism, something we all have. Fight or flight is an instinctive psychological response to a threat and we’re all hard-wired as such to ensure our survival (remember, we used to be cavemen!). My response was often flight, that said as much as the fight/flight response is instinctive – the reasons for why it is engaged are not always correct.
Although BDD is not the same as OCD, there are a lot of similarities in regards to obsessing over something such parts of your body. Mine was looking at my tummy in the mirror. Every time I walked into the work bathrooms or got into a reflective surface I would lift my top and analyse my stomach. The cause of BDD is unknown but it is commonly linked to people who were teased and bullied as children and it usually starts during your adolescent years when you are most sensitive about your appearance. Almost everyone feels unhappy with their appearance at some point in their life but for someone with BDD the thoughts are very distressing and can impact daily life to a serious extent.
The NSH states that –
“A person with BDD may:
- constantly compare their looks to other people’s
- spend a long time in front of a mirror, but at other times avoid mirrors altogether
- spend a long time concealing what they believe is a defect
- become distressed by a particular area of their body
- feel anxious when around other people and avoid social situations”
A lot of my anxiety and depression stems from my body appearance issues and I sometimes feel like I am forever going to feel this way and have to always live with this harsh critic inside my mind. I have spent years learning cognitive behavioural therapy tricks in order to address the issues I have with my body image. I understand that there is no overnight cure and this will take time to fully leave my system but I am happy to say that lately I am gradually able to go into social situations and have a good time, without being a prisoner to my own thoughts. The past few weeks I have become worse again due to the increased weight I have gained through my tablets. It’s a very scary feeling for me and I am currently very conscious of how I look and the clothes I wear. But, I know there will be ups and downs along the way and I know that one day, the mirror and photographs will not matter anymore. I will be able to enjoy life without being held back with thoughts on how I look.
Despite everything I have been through on my journey living with BDD, I look back now with such pride on the way in which I have kept my life moving forwards. One of my objectives in publishing this piece is to encourage people, if they are suffering with any symptoms like the above, to speak to someone as soon as possible. Your parents, your friends, your loved one, your GP… anyone. It is important to nip it in the bud as early as possible in order to not let it escalate into something that is all-consuming and starts to affect your everyday life.
There are only small steps upwards, an easier day; a mirror that doesn’t matter anymore.