How Body Dysmorphic Disorder Has Affected Me Since I Was 2 Years Old
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Many have heard of it. Most have little understanding of the condition beyond “a person with BDD worries about how they look.” Even the description of body dysmorphic disorder on the NHS website describes it as “a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance.” But I wouldn’t call the feeling worry. Worry is bearable. Worry is temporary. I’m an anxious person and I worry all the time time, so I know this is not in the same league as worrying.
I was two years old the first time I felt I didn’t belong in the skin I was in. I have always had very fine hair. At 2 years old, I still didn’t have a full head of hair. I remember playing with a little girl called Emma who lived in one of the flats nearby. I remember admiring her full head of hair. It was thick and blonde and her mummy could get in in a ponytail. I pulled at my hair, thinking it would make it grow as long as Emma’s.
How and why did a 2-year-old girl have such thoughts? There is a multitude of reasons as to why someone may develop BDD. The mental health charity Mind lists the following as potential causes:
- abuse or bullying
- low self-esteem
- fear of being alone or isolated
- perfectionism or competing with others
- depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Perfectionism and competing with others: check. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a perfectionist. I have always been very socially aware and constantly comparing myself to others. I am extremely hard on myself, to the point where you could call it a little sadistic.
Abuse or bullying: check. I was abused by my family and bullied at school. My most painful memories are being humiliated for how I looked.
Low self-esteem: check. With a predisposition toward being a perfectionist, the bullying and abuse caused me to have low self-esteem.
Depression, anxiety or OCD: two checks here. I have had depression and anxiety for most of my life.
Genetics: check. There is a history of mental health problems on my mother’s side.
Fear of being alone or isolated: check. I have always felt like I am not enough and one day people will leave me. Because I believe I am hideous, I feel I have to work harder to be an exemplary person. I can’t rely on my looks to carry me through life.
What is a typical day like?
Every day is different. Sometimes, I have good days. The thoughts of being disgusting and hideous are background noise and don’t hold me back.
Sometimes, I have OK days. I will change my outfit several times in the morning and feel anxious about being seen by others. But I can force myself to carry on.
And then I have bad days. I want to scratch my skin off. I want to remove the parts of me I hate. It feels like there is no possibility of ever being happy in this body. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. I feel forced to live with it.
Sometimes, bad days can become bad weeks. BDD isn’t about vanity for me. Sure, I am preoccupied with how I look. I assume everyone thinks I’m ugly. I ask my husband for constant reassurance. I can see how people would think I am vain.
But even if I was perfect, I would still hate myself. Because this isn’t really about how I look.
On my wedding day, I looked nice. My dress was lovely. My hair suited me. My makeup looked pretty. But when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t compute how all that made me look nice. All the components that made up the look felt separate from me. I was still Laura. I was still hideous.
And this is why I feel a sense of unexplained loss. I’m aware that other people have insecurities and low self-esteem, but they have the capacity to feel attractive, whether it’s a new haircut, a flattering outfit or feeling desired by their partner. I don’t have that capacity. I never have. And when I’m going through a rough time, I grieve for what I never got the chance to experience and most likely will never get the chance to experience in the future.
What helps my BDD?
I prefer conversations to not be about how I look. An innocent comment will easily become twisted in my head and I will obsess over that feature. Once someone said I have athletic shoulders. They are being complimentary about how fit and healthy I looked, but that’s not what I heard. I computed it as, “your shoulders are too broad and everyone notices.” Compliments that are more general are better received, such as “your dress suits you.” Because I don’t feel like I own my body, it helps me to take ownership of it whenever I can. I wear quirky clothes and like to experiment with fashion. I am looking into getting tattoos so I can have beautiful artwork on the parts of me that cause distress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been extremely helpful in teaching me techniques to manage my thoughts. It also enabled me to understand where my thoughts come from so I can start to heal from past trauma. I cannot cope with being told “looks don’t matter” and “other people have ‘disfigurements.’” I can’t help the way I am. I am doing my best. Comments like this are intended to give me some perspective. But my brain doesn’t work like that so I end up feeling ashamed. What helps me is validation and being given the space to feel and heal.
I make sure my social media feeds are filled with body positivity. Reading a comment from someone who is body shaming, even if it’s not directed at me, really damages my recovery. I recommend following Megan Crabbe, Stacey Solomon, Alok Menon, Kelvin Davis, HerBodyCan, CurvesnCurlsUK, and Anti Diet Riot Club on Instagram.
I truly believe happiness is possible. I believe I can feel happy even though I don’t feel pretty. One of the principles of recovery is hope, and by believing I will find happiness, I have hope.
My biggest motivation is my daughter. I know all too well how previous generations can cause damage before you’ve even had a chance to experience life properly. I don’t want to continue the generational curse of adults commenting on children’s bodies. I will never say she’s too this or not enough of that. I will refer to her body in a loving way so I can fill her with self-compassion.
And if I say these loving words enough out loud, maybe I will hear them too.
A version of this article was previously published on Medium.
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash