I think most people don’t see themselves entirely as they are. We look into the mirror and instead of seeing ourselves subjectivity, emotions and judgements enter in. We have those “problem” areas we want to fix and often get caught up in the, “if only my nose was smaller,” or “if I could just get my thighs to be a little less side heavy,” or “where did those wrinkles come from?!” or in some cases,“if I could gain a little weight and have a bigger chest, THEN I would be happy,” mindsets. We constantly critique ourselves and pick our looks apart. We go on diets to manipulate our size. We get plastic surgery to “enhance” our features. We spend hours running or in the gym sculpting the perfect abs for the beach. We cake our faces in makeup or shop for the perfect jeans for a “pear shape” body. As a society we are obsessed with how we look, and most people don’t even like how they look! It’s like we can’t simply see how beautiful and unique we all are. It takes work and effort to embrace our curves, or love our flaws. When did loving ourselves become so hard?!
I am not only guilty of critiquing myself and picking my body apart in front of a mirror, I have actually been diagnosed with a disorder that makes me have literally no idea how I look, which is a MAJOR game player in my eating disorder. What I suffer from is called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
“Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you may feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.
When you have body dysmorphic disorder, you intensely obsess over your appearance and body image, repeatedly checking the mirror, grooming or seeking reassurance, sometimes for many hours each day. Your perceived flaw and the repetitive behaviors cause you significant distress, and impact your ability to function in your daily life.” (1)
To be honest, based on that description I’m pretty embarrassed to be sharing this with the world. It makes it seem like I’m a super vane woman who can’t stop looking at myself and trying to be perfect. I want to be clear that this is FAR FAR from the what it is like to suffer from this disorder. This disorder causes a severe amount of shame. It takes up a massive amount of time. It causes so much insecurity that it’s near impossible to walk into a room confidently. The word obsess is true, but it’s not by choice. It’s like an automatic obsession that I have to constantly fight my brain to stop doing.
You see, the problem is, I don’t see myself correctly. So I’m constantly trying to figure out how I look. I’m sure many of you have seen the picture where the very thin, typical anorexic girl, is looking into a mirror and what she see’s in the reflection is a woman that is MUCH larger then she actually is. That’s me. I actually suffer from that. Even now, much heavier, I still see myself as much much larger then I am. Now, I want to be clear that not every person with an eating disorder suffers from this, and not everyone that suffers from this has an eating disorder. However in my case, I do suffer from this and I do have an eating disorder. This is problematic because when I was at my thinnest and sickest weight, I had no idea. I saw myself as heavy. Which allowed me to not see that I had a problem. Now that I am healthier and a little heavier then my norm, I actually see myself as morbidly obese. Which greatly hinders my ability to go through the recovery process with more acceptance. I literally can’t see myself right.
I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about when I was diagnosed with this disorder and when I started to realize it was true. Then I’ll share a little bit about what it’s like to live with it and the ways I am trying to fight it and fix it.
I was diagnosed with this disorder a couple of months into my treatment for my eating disorder. It became very clear to my team that I did not see what I looked like at all. I was obsessed with my size. I was body checking everywhere I could get a reflection and constantly seeking reassurance about my weight as well as being extremely critical of any perceived flaw.
I distinctly remember arguing with my first therapist about this. She said I was very thin. I said I was very fat. It was like she was telling me the sky was green and the grass was blue. The hard part about realizing I had this disorder was that it made me think I was legit nuts. I mean, how can I NOT see myself right? How can I be THAT off? What’s even more interesting is that I see everyone else as they are, just not myself! Which is another thing that makes it even hard to realize and fight.
Anyway, it wasn’t until almost six months into treatment that I started to acknowledge that maybe I did actually suffer from this disorder. In fact I remember the exact moment. I was getting better nutritionally and my brain had started to come out of it’s starvation fog. I already had countless hours of challenging my eating disorder thoughts in therapy and then I saw it. I saw a photo of myself from 2011, at my thinnest weight and I actually saw what I looked like. I saw all the bones and how frail and sick I looked. I cried. The sobs came quick and strong. How could I have let myself get like that? How did I not see it? I distinctly remember thinking I was HUGE when the photo was taken. How could I have been SO far off? This is what an eating disorder and BDD does to you. You can’t see what you look like and it will 100% convince you that you are healthy, that you are ok and that you are even a bit chunky and could stand to lose some weight. It is EVIL. I’m sure some of my family and friends could vouch for the fact that I didn’t see myself right. Some had made comments about my weight, but because I couldn’t see it, what can you do?
I now could admit that I didn’t see myself correctly while I was anorexic, but I still thought that I saw myself correctly at the present moment. So, it took many many more months and therapy sessions to get me to realize that even NOW, at this present moment, I still do not see myself as I am. I know this because you and I could take a photo together today. I will think I look massive in the photo, and then in five months I will see that photo again and not look as massive as I thought I did. It’s a problem.
So what is it like to live with this disorder? Honestly, it’s frustrating, confusing and stressful. On bad days I am constantly looking in the mirror. My mind is like a drone of negative body image thoughts. I might ask my husband or sister ten to fifteen times if I look ok or if my belly is showing or if my shirt is like a tent. I’ll cancel plans because I am in such distress about what I look like or how big I perceive myself to be. It is draining.
I was once asked what caused me to have this disorder. My immediate thought is, heck I don’t know!!?? There is the typical answer that it’s genetics, the brain, the environment, but I’m not exactly sure. I can however identify some things that may have helped it to settle in and make itself at home in my brain. These things can easily cause a girl to be confused about what they look like. When I was young I was tall. I mean seriously, I was called Sara plain and tall, haha! I think I was over 5 feet tall by fourth or fifth grade. I didn’t care about being tall but I distinctly remember people calling me a big girl. Now BIG is very different then TALL to a girl. So many people called me big that I just started to believe it. I thought I took up a lot of space. I look back at what I looked like in fifth grade and all I see is a tall bean pole, not a “big” girl. The way I remember it in my mind however is that I was big. That my feet were big and my sizes were big. Not tall and thin, big. Another example is that my pant size does not represent the size I actually look. I’m not going to drop numbers in this blog as it might be triggering for some readers, but I would be told I was skinny, but I was wearing a double digit pant size. How can that be? I saw myself as my pant size, not my actual size. It would lead me to be confused and frustrated. I’m thin but wear a large size pant? This makes no sense. I wasn’t able to attribute it to being tall, or my bone structure, it only had to be because I was fat or big. These are just a couple of examples of things that I think contributed to me having this disorder, at least from an environmental way.
So, how do I deal with having this disorder today? I fight it! Now that I am aware of it, I can push back on it. When I look down at myself I see a completely different size then I do when I look in the mirror. So, I currently I have the mirrors in my home turned over so they are facing the wall. No, I’m not avoiding my reflection! I’m simply trying to view myself in reality. Mirrors have flaws and when I look in one it becomes a subjective and emotional experience. So now I get ready and only turn my mirror over to affirm that everything is in it’s right place and then I move on. The longer I stand in front of the mirror, but uglier my thoughts get, the more emotional I become and my BDD sneaks its evil way in.
I remind myself constantly that I do not see myself as I am. When I see my reflection or start to get anxious I immediately fact check. The facts are that I suffer from BDD, I KNOW I don’t see myself as I am, therefore I cannot trust what I’m thinking about my reflection in this exact moment. Also, people TELL me I’m not as big as I say I am. Yes, this is subjective, but when everyone tells you that you are not morbidly obese, it’s something to think about!
I also do mirror exercises with my therapist. Our looks can be VERY subjective. When we describe ourselves we add on words like, fat, pretty, oily, big, small, round, flat etc. All of these words are subjective. You might be pretty to one person, but not to another. The key for me is to try and view myself objectively. So when I do mirror exercises I stand in front of the mirror and describe myself OBJECTIVELY. I have a nose. It is in the middle of my face. My eyes are blue and my hair is short. It takes all the emotions and judgments out of it. I start to see myself as I am instead of how I do or don’t want to be.
I also try to catch myself when I’m asking others for reassurance about how I look. It happens from time to time, but over all it is not near as bad as it once was!
I practice radical acceptance. I still think radical acceptance is straight from hades, but it is something I do regardless. I accept that this is my body today. That it is not what I want it to be and yes, there are things I want to change about it. However, God gave me this body and it is good. It is unique. I may not see it correctly, but I can be thankful for what it does for me. It does things without me telling it to! It helps me see the world and its beauty. It allow me to go for walks with my Millie. It rests and it heals. It is fearfully and wonderfully made.
These are just a few things I do to fight back against BDD and ED. One of my fears however, is that when my overshoot weight starts to come off I will not be able to truly see it and thus relapse. This is the main reason I’m working so hard to accept my body and try to see it for what it is now, so that relapse doesn’t happen.
I don’t know if I will every be able to see myself as I am, but until I do I will at least remember whether I am heavy or thin, muscular or wobbly, big or tall, I am still Sara. Sarcastic, artistic, blogging, God loving, bossy older sister, crazy aunt, wife, daughter, messy, thoughtful, sassy Sara....and I’m going to love her anyway.
- Sara -
1- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Body Dysmorphic Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Clinic, 28 Apr. 2016, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/body-dysmorphic-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353938.