This Is What Living With Body Dysmorphic Disorder Is Really Like
The first feeling I ever had about my appearance was panic.
For as long as I can remember, I have thought that my ears stick out too far from my head.
As an anxious and underweight 7-year-old, I fixated on my ears in the bathroom mirror and squeezed them down with the palms of my hands. At 9, I started refusing to wear a ponytail so I wouldn’t have to tuck my hair behind my ears, and I recall, at 11, sitting in my bathroom, yanking my ears back, and duct-taping them to my head. Preoccupation escalated in my pre-teens when I was bullied on AOL Instant Messenger and told by a group of girls that I resembled Dumbo. Humiliated, I complained about my ears to my parents daily, pleading that I “needed” surgery to pin them back.
In middle school, the bullying ceased as I grew taller and began to feel better about my ears — and then, I found out I had my first cavity. “Haven’t been brushing well, have you?” the dentist joked as I froze in the chair. All this time, I worried about my ears, I thought, and I wasn’t paying attention to my mouth.
From that point forward, I was petrified of bad breath, and my obsession with my ears transformed as I began to compulsively brush my teeth seven to nine times a day. I covered my mouth with my blouse when I spoke, and when I couldn’t do that, I bit on my index finger to ensure I constantly had a blockade in front of my mouth. By the end of eighth grade, my gums bled and my index finger was caked in blood. I ate a tin of Cinnamon Altoids a day, even though it made me sick to my stomach.
I was embarrassed by how self-absorbed I felt, and when friends asked why I pulled on my blouse or chewed on my finger, I brushed it off and made self-deprecating jokes about being “OCD” so as not to draw attention to myself. But my plan to fade into the background didn’t work. In fact, I got noticed in what was, for me, the worst way possible: During my freshman year, an older boy off-handedly commented, “you got some hairy arms for a girl.”
Having never thought about the hair on my body, I tumbled down a rabbit hole, compulsively pulling hairs out of my arms and shaving them nearly every day. I became obsessed with waxing the “peach fuzz” above my lip. In every mirror, I checked for new, sprouting hairs, and if I moved under a different light, I’d find the nearest mirror to see if it might uncover hairs I hadn’t noticed before.
All of these compulsions gradually became building blocks to a full-blown eating disorder as I hit puberty and was no longer the underweight girl I’d always been. Being thin was one of the only physical factors I had owned confidently, so I shifted my preoccupations onto my thighs when I noticed my jeans size went up. Convinced my legs were disproportionate to the rest of my body, I’d cry in my car as I drove to school. It felt like my imperfections were a twisted version of the Whack-a-Mole game — one obsession would pop up and I’d smack it down, only to have another appear in succession.
At 18, my life took a turn when my best friend died unexpectedly my first week of college. Grief, coupled with the growing preoccupation with my thighs, meant I began to live in my college gym, working out hours a day. Initially running a couple miles per day, I increased quickly to extremes no trainer would allow. I convinced myself that if I was in control of my body, I’d feel more confident and, in turn, I would feel less lonely and more able to deal with the loss of my friend. I wasted hours a day fantasising about how much better I’d feel if only I could stick a vacuum wand into my leg and suck out my upper inner-thigh fat.
My legs defined my purpose and masked my grief. I started to starve myself in order to obtain the “perfect figure” that I knew I could have if I just worked hard enough. I lost weight, but I was convinced my thighs only got bigger as the rest of me shrank. I didn’t feel better. Defeated, I binge-ate on the floor of my kitchen, hating myself for my ears, my arm hair, my thighs.
I couldn’t sit with my grief, but I physically couldn’t sit with my thighs. I had recurring nightmares about both my best friend and my thighs — when I woke in the night I'd reach down to make sure they hadn’t grown. When I saw someone walking towards me on the sidewalk, I felt immediate panic that we both wouldn’t be able to fit. Gradually, I avoided sitting between people on the subways because I was scared my thighs wouldn’t fit. Instead, I stood and stared at the reflection of my legs in the window, analysing if they looked different from 30 minutes prior in my bathroom mirror, bedroom mirror, in the reflection of my kitchen oven, neighbour’s window, or shop window.
After graduating college, I started working at my dream job at a book publishing company, but after only a few months I completely lost interest and presence, and my work suffered. Everything revolved around my legs. I laid a coat over my lap in meetings so I could try to focus without looking down at them. I stopped showering consistently because bathing meant I'd stand there playing with the fat on my thighs to determine how much I needed to lose to feel better. A year after starting my job, I was let go. My behaviour became more and more erratic. I imposed a rule that I had to run several times a day, or purge. I stopped going out with friends because they were badgering me that I looked “sick,” but I rationalised that I just wore clothes that masked my thighs.
Growing up, hearing peers say they “felt fat” was as common a saying as “TTYL,” so I assumed being unhappy with your appearance was something everybody struggled with. Don’t we all hate that mole on our cheek? Or the way we look from a certain angle?
The breaking point came at Thanksgiving when I attended a wedding in Texas. In unseasonable 80-degree heat, I insisted on wearing a coat over my dress. Underweight and refusing to eat, I drank five glasses of wine on an empty stomach and could barely stand. My parents cornered me later that night and, through fits of tears, I agreed to treatment.
I checked into an eating disorder facility days before Christmas 2013. Along with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, I was diagnosed with Severe Body Dysmorphic Disorder. “Isn’t that just another way of saying I’m self-absorbed?” I whined to my rehab therapist.
However, what I learned in treatment (and throughout my two years so far in recovery) is that BDD is more than just saying you “feel fat” after a big meal, or seeking compliments and attention. A body-image disorder characterised by “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” Body Dysmorphic Disorder is like having a mosquito in your ear — a buzz from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep.
When I began treatment for BDD, I was shocked to learn that my obsessive childhood rituals weren’t a standard way of life. Like the boy who cried wolf, I lied to myself for so long that I no longer understood what was real about my body and what was not. In one exercise, a councillor had me take a ball of yarn and guess how big my thighs were with the string. After mulling it over for several minutes, I cut the yarn. Much to my horror, my string wrapped twice around my thighs.
I carry those strings in my purse now to remind myself that my perception versus reality is often skewed.
Through treatment, I've come to understand that focusing on my BDD is a distraction from something inward. I have to dig deep to understand what is actually affecting me, no matter if it’s uncomfortable and I can’t control the outcome.
What I’ve found is that recovery is successful when you own your truths, even if there is fear that doing so will open you up to criticism. Recovery is taking the good days with the bad, and accepting that you will still struggle. In September, I confidently posted pictures after wearing a bikini for the first time, but not even one month later I refused to get in a hot tub. Body Dysmorphia has no “quick fix.” However, the more I work to help others find their own voice, and fill my life with meaningful relationships, the healthier I become. So often those of us that struggle with BDD or eating disorders feel defined by it, and it doesn't have to be that way. I write about eating disorders and body dysmorphia, but I am more than either of these illnesses. I'm an open person, loving and adventurous, yet I'm also scatter-brained, an over-sharer, and a control freak, too. I’m not perfect, and that’s okay. Today, I’m in recovery and I'm content with the person I'm growing into, flaws and all.