Last week I talked a bit about body dysmorphia, and this week, I thought I’d share some of my experiences with it. This is a bit difficult for me; despite how far I’ve come, there is a part of me that will always see these ‘flaws’ in myself. (My victory is in being able to live without letting them run my life anymore.) While logically, I know that there is nothing wrong with my body, there is still a part of me that hates thinking about it.
I have struggled with body image for as long as I can remember.
I was a bit of a chubby kid compared to my siblings. While all of them were skinny for the entire time they lived at home, my skin was softer and paler. I also developed breasts quite early, adding extra curves to my figure that drew a lot of negative attention. The main person to give me a hard time about my chest was my father. By the time I was in fifth grade, he was calling me Pamela Anderson and tell me that all of the boys would think I was a slut. He would also tell me that no one would ever like me because I was fat and ugly, and that I should be ashamed of how I looked.
His words affected me to my core.
Due to the conditioning he’d already been doing throughout my childhood, I was very easily convinced that my father was right. That I should be ashamed of the way that I looked. I was so convinced that something was wrong with me and I started to see my curves as a major flaw every time I looked in the mirror. Each time I glanced at my siblings, I would be filled with jealousy and wonder why I was the only one that had such a terrible body.
My extreme anxiety about my chest combined with my weight issues weren’t easy to hide. This meant that anytime someone wanted to get a reaction out of me, they knew what buttons to push. My siblings teased me (as kids do), one often referring to me as the Pillsbury Doughboy and poking my soft belly in order to get a rise out of me. And then my mother would tell me that I looked just like her, following it up with an apology (this wasn’t meant to be cruel on her part; more of misinterpreted projection). And then there were some kids at school that took it even further. Rumors went around that I stuffed my bra and about what I did with who (none of which was true) and I was teased for my weight. I was called names, made fun of and humiliated.
My confidence tanked.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake the idea that my body was nothing but flaws. I started wearing extra-large t-shirts all of the time to try to hide my breasts and avoided anything that showed any sort of form or shape. My closet was filled with oversized clothes and minimizing bras. Rather than retail therapy, shopping was a nightmare for me. I hated seeing myself in those dressing room mirrors, knowing that nothing would make me look less curvy. Nothing could hide my flaws from the world, but I was determined to try.
I tried exercising, playing sports, weight loss drinks and fad diets but it never helped. It also didn’t help that my mother’s entire living room wall was covered in mirrors. This meant that I was forced to see my reflection constantly. There were times when I couldn’t look away, analyzing every wrinkle or fold in my shirt and wondering if that meant that I’d gained more weight. Wondering if other people saw those same wrinkles and folds and knew what I was trying to hide underneath.
I became obsessed with my reflection.
It seemed like I was always trying too figuring out what I could change to get rid of my flaws. Trying to figure out everyone else saw when they looked at me. Should I stand differently? Does lifting my chin help? Should I wear more makeup or change my hair so that my head draws the focus away from my body? I was constantly on the lookout for something to fix what I thought was wrong with me.
I wanted to be in pictures so that I could feel included, but I hated every photo. Rather than remembering the event or looking at the smiles in the photo, my eyes would immediately start searching for flaws. I was embarrassed by how I looked every single time. What could I change to look better for next time? How else could I trick the world into thinking that I was pretty? That I wasn’t a monster?
The thing is, I wasn’t actually that big of a girl.
I just thought that I was. When I look back at photos of myself from when I was younger, I still feel the instinct to look for those flaws, but I don’t really see them in those photos. Even one of my sisters, who teased me more than anyone when we were kids, has told me that I was never fat. It was just that I had such emotional reactions anytime someone suggested that I was, that I was an easy mark. My mom had told me that if I stopped reacting, they’d stop teasing me. I guess she might have been right.
But honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered if they’d stopped teasing me. They could have told me that I was beautiful but I wouldn’t have believed them. Because again, at my core, I believed I was a freak. I saw my body through a distorted lens rather than as it was. Eventually, I was so horrified and uncomfortable about my chest, that I ended up having plastic surgery.
I thought surgery would fix my flaws.
When I was twenty, I had a breast reduction, going from a DDD to a B. I was so excited, thinking it would fix me. That I would feel more confident and be less of a freak. But even after I had healed, I was still obsessed with finding things to fixate on. I started wearing clothes that fit better, but I was still uncomfortable. Could people tell I’d had work done? Did they think I was even more of a monster now because I had been altered? Were my scars showing? Did I look fake now?
I started finding flaws everywhere.
Did having smaller boobs actually make the rest of me look bigger? Were people looking at my stomach now? Or maybe my upper arms? I would stand in front of the mirror taking in every part of my body, pinching and measuring and criticizing. My hands were weird, my legs weren’t long enough and too much of my gums showed when I smiled. I also became obsessed with the numbers on the scale, writing down my weight each day and measuring parts of my body often. I started alternating between not eating and binging and always feeling guilty about it. Basically, I was miserable.
It took a lot of work to adjust my mindset.
I started working on my body issues in therapy and started learning about other tools to be able to change the way I saw myself. I’ll be honest- it can still be a challenge. I still spend more time in front of the mirror than I’d like and I am still not a fan of the way I look in photos. It takes effort to let go of the need for perfection and to stop obsessing about what other people might be thinking when they look at me.
But, I’m getting better. Now it’s a few minutes rather than hours. I’m able to focus on things I want to do and better at being in the moment. I can relax and believe that people see me for me and aren’t just seeing things I might perceive as flaws. Now I take care of myself. I spend more time laughing than I do worrying. And I am so proud of that accomplishment.
It’s work, but it’s worth it.
I’m happier and stronger and much more confident. And pretty soon, I’ll share some of the tools, tricks and ways that I have been able to make progress.