A TALE OF BODY DYSMORPHIA

As someone with an academic background in women’s/gender studies, I’m deeply embarrassed to admit this, but… there was a time not so long ago, that if such a thing were possible, I would gladly have traded my ability to write for, well… for physical beauty.  I now know that I really wanted was to feel confident.  I wanted people to like me.  I wanted to be loveable. 

I come from a family of petite women, but I never possessed that same waif-y build as most of the female relatives I most admired, and I fell into the trap of comparing myself to these women who were, to my mind, beautiful. 

The summer before I started college, I had a major nervous breakdown, and for a good month and a half, I couldn’t eat much of anything.  I basically subsisted on water and dry Special K, so it goes to follow that I lost a lot of weight.  I had to adjust red faux-snakeskin belt to the tightest notch because my pants were literally falling down, and even my grandmother, who once admitted that I was the “heaviest” of her four granddaughters, thought I was way too thin. 

My family, including my beloved but fat-phobic grandmother, became very concerned about me, and as there was no other recourse, I started therapy and psych meds, after which I was able to eat again.  It was then that I began to develop a flaming case of body dysmorphic disorder—in no way did I want to regain the pounds I had lost when I was all but starving—so I severely restricted my food intake and started exercising compulsively. 

If I ate even one Oreo over the serving size, I would do a cardio yoga routine over and over again, well into the night.  My weight plummeted to its all-time low, and for a 5’4” young woman with fairly average bone structure, I was, medically speaking, underweight, even though I was never emaciated or   anything like that.  I didn’t have a full-blown eating disorder, but my eating habits were very definitely… disordered. 

Years later, my dad told me that I was “painfully thin” during that period of my life, and he was not wrong. 

When I was twenty years old, we went to our favorite beach down on the Cape, and I felt confident.  I felt good in my swimsuit.  Until I saw the photographs, that is.  I was posing alongside to my teenaged sister , and she and I were the same size.  For the record, my sister is 4’11” and small-boned, so there was no way I should have been the same size as she was.  There’s still no way.  But my perception was so distorted, I actually believed I was “too fat.”  There is nothing wrong with being fat, and I never judged anyone else for the size of their body or for any physical “flaws,” but I was never able to extend that same kind of grace and compassion to myself. 

By my second year of college, I was a proud, self-identified feminist, and body image became my pet “cause.”  I fully understood—on an intellectual level, at least—that we unconsciously absorb the media images with which we are bombarded each and every day, that the standards set for us are not realistic, and that very few of us fit the socially accepted definition of “beautiful.”  It’s like intellectual giftedness; it happens, but it’s rare.  I’m not stupid, and I knew all that stuff.  I knew there was an effed up disconnect there, but I was hopelessly incapable of applying theory to my own circumstances. 

Interestingly, I never compared myself to celebrities.  Instead, I compared myself to my petite family members, and I just did not measure up.  No one meant any harm, but there was always a lot of “fat talk” in my family, and as if by osmosis, I took in every single word.  I just knew that everybody was judging me for not looking like the thinner, prettier women whose blood I share.

Post-college, I quit dieting and exercising altogether, and to my profound shame, I gained a significant amount of weight. If I felt like crap about my body before, I hated it that point. I loathed myself because it was “my own fault” that I had morphed into what I saw as a flabby, blubbery shadow of my former self, and I dreaded family functions more than I ever had before because I could just feel the judgment. I could almost hear my relatives thinking, Man, she really let herself go, and I just wanted to crawl under a rock and stay there for the rest of my life. In hindsight, I don’t think anybody really cared that I wasn’t “painfully thin” anymore, that I was a few pounds overweight, but I was sure they all thought I was gross and ugly.

I had a wake-up call when it was confirmed that I did indeed have “too much weight for my height,” so I started dieting and exercising again. Not to the same degree as in my early twenties, but it was still nowhere near healthy. I quit carbs (which are nutritionally essential, by the way), and I began measuring out every morsel I put in my mouth. Today, I firmly believe that my obsession with food and its restriction was the catalyst for an escalating problem with bingeing—I found I could no longer satisfy myself with a few cookies or a bowl of ice cream, and even though I didn’t “indulge” often, when I did, I would eat an entire package of cookies or an entire carton of ice cream in one sitting. It goes without saying that I would be completely disgusted with myself after each binge. I would convince myself that I would “start over” on Monday, but… I never did. God knows I tried, but it wasn’t working, and I constantly beat myself up for having no willpower.

Several years later, for reasons I still don’t understand, something finally clicked, and I gave up trying to attain the “perfect” body—a body that nature never intended to be mine.  So what if I am “bigger” than my family members?  I am so much more than my body, and the number on the scale is the least interesting thing about me.  I don’t even get on that scale anymore because I find it very triggering, and I just don’t want to go there, as I don’t want to relapse into body dysmorphic hell.

I stopped hating myself for my perceived “flaws.”  I stopped focusing on my weight and my looks.  I decided that I just don’t care anymore.  I wish I had some sage advice for those who still struggle with body image, but… I don’t.  Somehow, I just figured it out.  It took the first thirty-five years of my life for me to reach this point, and while it pains me when I think about all the time I wasted picking myself apart and worrying about what other people might think about my appearance, I have to look at it as a better late than never kind of deal. 

I am so much happier since I stopped dwelling on that stuff.  I exercise in order to feel physically strong, and I (mostly) eat a balanced diet because I want to be healthy, but my body is not “perfect,” and I am never going to be any kind of supermodel.  Sure, there are times when I catch myself sliding into my old way of thinking, but I am able to catch myself and rationalize—something I was never able to do before—and I will never, ever take that for granted. 

Never again will I be willing to trade my brains for beauty.  Even for those few individuals who are born “beautiful,” ageing happens.  No one stays “beautiful” forever.  If you’re lucky, you’re going to get older, and once your “beauty” has faded away with your youth, well, what do you have left?  You might have to find a whole new identity and reevaluate your entire concept of who you are, and that, I have to guess, would not be easy.  Our faces and bodies grow, shrink, and change as our lives change.  It’s supposed to be that way, and there is nothing wrong with it.  We cannot allow our physical bodies to define who we are. 

It’s true that I am neither “beautiful” nor “petite.” I will never be either of those things, and that is okay. Every body is unique, including me.

Including you. 

Who you are, and what you do with yourself between the cradle and the grave, matter infinitely more than what you look like—take it from someone for whom this revelation happened far too late.  I am neither over- nor underweight.  I no longer look like a twentysomething.  In addition to a bit of (normal) body fat, I now have gray hair and crow’s feet, but I have better things to do than worry about that.  Our faces and bodies, are going to change as we become older, and there is no getting around that reality.  The good thing is that age is often accompanied by wisdom.  Regardless of what we look like or how much we weigh, we are good enough.  Our appearance is not what makes us loveable.

We’re all going to die someday, and maybe we’ll even grow old and senile before that happens, but as a poet by the name of Sappho said, “Though they are only breath, these words which I command are immortal.”  I was not put on this earth to fight in vain against ageing or to maintain my figure.  Neither were you.  I was, as one of my high school history teachers said, “born to write.”  That is my purpose. 

What’s yours?

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