NEDA week is officially over, as of yesterday, but I’m going to extend the theme for one more day (and share weekend reading tomorrow) so that I can delve into a topic that a few readers have asked me about in the last six days: body dysmorphia. (Between this and orthorexia, I’m diving into a lot of the tough stuff this week!)
I should start by saying that I don’t have anything to say about this topic that resembles an “answer,” or even a resolved thought. I can only share what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned along the way. If you’re suffering from any degree of serious body dysmorphic disorder (defined as “excessive concern about and preoccupation with a perceived defect of their physical appearance,” but if you’re in the thick of it, you’ll probably know), then I urge you to talk to a professional. This particular struggle can feel incredibly permanent and unchanging. But a therapist or another health care provider may be able to lead you toward a breakthrough.
Without wanting to minimize the condition, I’d wager that a large number of people suffer from some degree of body dysmorphia. How many friends do you have who seem unable to regard their bodies with objectivity? Who say that they’re “fat,” and seem genuinely to believe it, when it isn’t accurate? Statements like these are so commonplace that it’s tempting to roll ones eyes, shrug them off, or chuckle. And the truth is that it’s fashionable enough to dislike one’s own body that an offhand remark or two might not actually indicate anything serious. But beneath it all, there may be lurking a deep well of self-loathing, a battle between body and mind. One of the things I cringe most to remember about my teenage and college years was how often I declared myself fat or ugly around my friends and peers. Looking back now, I’m amazed that my friends tolerated it all so patiently. But maybe they saw they something I couldn’t see at the time, which was that those comments were my attempt, however childish or irritating, to verbalize something I really did feel: a relentless loathing of the body I inhabited.
It’s hard for me to remember any time of my life in which I didn’t feel this way. From a very early age–8, 9, or 10, maybe–I started to feel that there was something monstrous about my physical person. I felt big, ungainly, awkward. I dreamt of slicing away slabs of my own flesh, winnowing myself down to something lean and sinewy. It’s hard to pinpoint what made me feel this way; I went to an all girls’ school, and it was certainly not an easy environment as far as body image goes, but I was never the object of excessive teasing. My mother has a fantastic relationship with food and set a good example. Yet there was always a suspicion, a deep and persistent fear, that there was something wrong with my body, something unruly, some deep and uncontrolled appetite lurking within.
The dysmorphia abated to some extent once my ED began in earnest, and it was diminished during my relapses as well. Maybe this is because the disorder itself gave me with the illusory sense of “control” over my physical form that I so desperately craved, a sick kind of dominion of mind over body. Maybe it’s because all of the routines and habits and calculations left little space for body preoccupation. Maybe–sadly–it’s because I usually liked what I saw in the mirror during those periods. It was as if, for the first time, I could see some of the positive attributes that people around me had seen all along. Part of my fear of recovery was the certainty that dissatisfaction and warped perception would once again become part of my everyday life.
Which they did, of course. During my final recovery–the one that lasted–they were particularly acute. I was gaining weight steadily, and I’d wake up each morning feeling trapped in a body that didn’t seem to belong to me. Sometimes, as I was pulling up a pair of jeans or staring in the mirror, I’d feel as if my skin was crawling. Needless to say, my pride in a certain kind of physical fragility had become a constitutive part of my identity, and I was struggling to find a sense of self without it. But I was also engaged in a very direct physical struggle, that old, familiar sense that the body I inhabited just wasn’t where I belonged.
It’s sad and embarrassing to look back upon all of this. But here’s the hopeful part: things got so much better. I never used to believe I’d be at peace with my body unless I was starving. But here I am, 31 and, if not always at peace with my body, I am at least committed being in a loving relationship with it. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my idea of “loving” my body doesn’t match up with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm and confidence you read about in magazines. I don’t enjoy trying on bikinis, or catch a glimpse of myself in spandex at the gym and relish what I see. I don’t even own a full length mirror. But there is so much that I love and take pride in.
To begin, my body is now healthy, energetic, and strong. My body has been better to me than I have been to it, and I am profoundly grateful. Working in hospitals and physician’s offices for the last two years has given me a new appreciation of health, and how precious it is–something I lost sight of frequently when I was busy cycling in and out of self-destruction.
Second, my body allows me to experience the world. It lets me touch and taste my way through life. It lets me enjoy delicious food, savor my first sip of hot coffee in the morning, run my fingers through sand and savor the feeling of wind on my face. It allows me to marvel at a Mozart concerto or feel exhilarated by one of my favorite mashups. It let’s me fling my arms around friends each time I greet them or move through sun salutations in yoga. For all of the mind/body disconnect that emerged from my ED, I’m a sensual person, and I thank my lucky stars for the body that helps me to connect with physical experience.
Lastly, I’ve gained a capacity to recognize my body’s beauty. Again, this doesn’t mean that I love what I see every time I glance in the mirror (who does?). It means that at least once each day, there is a moment or an experience that makes me feel beautiful. Maybe it’s when I’m arching into a backbend in yoga. Maybe it’s when I’m taking a brisk autumn walk through Central Park, so elated with the season and the place that I have to fight the urge to run. Maybe it’s the first few moments of a live show, when my toe starts to tap and I lift my arms in gleeful recognition of the opening song. Maybe it’s dancing with friends. Maybe it’s sex. These moments reveal my body’s beauty to me, not via a selfie or a “progress shot” or a number on a scale. They show me that my body can be a gateway to something wonderful. I can’t think of anything more beautiful than that.
I like to end these emotional posts with some practical, down-to-earth advice. While I don’t doubt that every experience of body dysmorphia or injured self-esteem is highly unique, I hope that these tips may help you to manage the day-to-day realities of coping with it.
1. Do activities that make you feel good. This can anything–walking, singing, dancing, painting, running, yoga, live performance. It could be rebounding or cooking or playing music. In my experience, physical satisfaction and enjoyment is a tremendous balm to the anxiety of body dysmorphia.
2. Wear clothes that make you feel good. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if an article of clothing is going to make you feel badly, it’s not worth keeping around. For a very long time, I resisted donating pants and shirts that were so tiny I’d had no business wearing them in the first place, even though they did nothing but remind me of a body I no longer possessed. Letting them go was the right decision. If you’re midway through recovery, or you’ve passed through it but are still hanging onto garments that remind you of the old days, I really do urge you to allow your wardrobe to adapt.
3. Accept that your visual perception may lack objectivity. We’re all told that what we see in the mirror is not what others see, but it’s amazing how hard it is to accept this as a fact. It took me over thirteen years of disordered eating and recovery to realize that I simply don’t observe myself in the same way that others do. I can’t necessarily adjust my vision to fit “reality,” whatever that is, but I can choose to be conscious of the disconnect.
4. Be mindful of your words. Remember those self-deprecating comments I mentioned at the start of this post? These kinds of unkind words (or deeds–like my old habit of looking in the mirror and rolling my eyes) really are a form of self-harm. To this day I accept compliments uncomfortably, and I rely on self-depracation a little too much. But I’m trying to practice ahimsa with my words, just as I aim to practice it with my deeds.
5. Body acceptance isn’t about perfection or mastery. I wrote about this topic last year in two posts, both of which are worth checking out if you’re curious (here and here). But here’s the upshot: eating disorders present us with enough self-loathing, guilt, and shame. The last think you need is to feel additional guilt when you go through recovery and find that you don’t love your body all the time, from every angle.
Just as your diet and life don’t have to be “neat” and perfect and ordered, your relationship with your body does not have to be neat and perfect and ordered. It can be messy, difficult, and complex. It can have ups and downs. It can feel like work. What matters is that you don’t turn away from the work, and that you establish routines that help you to treat your body with self-respect. For me, these include giving my body nourishing foods, savoring their taste, moving mindfully, prioritizing healthy habits without feeling enslaved by them, and laughing often.
Three days ago, I met up with an old friend here on the West Coast, a photographer who snapped a few new photos of me to use for my blog. He hadn’t seen me in a long time, and mentioned how pleased he was to see that I’d “filled out”–a comment that was meant as a compliment, as well as an expression of relief that I’m healthy now. But…well, you know how it goes. Normally, a day like this–scrolling through images of myself, my friend’s remark, my painful awareness of how much my body has changed since my last relapse–would be triggering. Instead of dwelling on it all, though, I decided to be grateful that what people see when they look at me is no longer someone who’s struggling. I decided to accept the compliment for what it was. I decided to move on.
This photo was taken yesterday, here in Monterey, where I’m staying with my friend Christina. In the past, no matter where I was or how beautiful my surroundings, I’d skip taking so much as a single photograph of myself. This time, uncharacteristically, I asked Christina to catch something on my phone. I wanted to remember the feeling of the sun on my arms, the wind whipping my hair around, my very evident happiness at having spent the day with one of my best friends. I wanted to remember feeling healthy, and vibrant, and alive.
Maybe I’ll always have a complicated relationship with my body, as so many of us do. Maybe I’ll always feel ashamed of the fact that, for a time, I felt such comfort in a body that was so unwell. But I can appreciate progress. I can appreciate the fact that I’m more at peace with my body today than I am at odds with it. I can take pride in the fact that, no matter how I feel about my body, I don’t act on impulses to restrict, to limit, or deny. I can be thankful for the fact that, when I look at the photo above, I see the sun, strength, and contentment–all of the things I wanted Christina to capture–rather than flaws. It’s a step, a big one, and from where I stand tonight, it’s all pretty great.
I hope you guys took some good stuff away from these NEDA week posts, and of course I hope that awareness around these issues won’t stop tonight, tomorrow, or the next day. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from readers in the last few days, and if you’re thinking about reaching out, I encourage you to do so, or (more importantly) to check out further resources. And as usual, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.