TRIGGER WARNING: MULTIPLE MENTIONS OF BODY DYSMORPHIA. Do not read if it triggers you/ makes you uncomfortable.
NOTES: The following article is in no way supposed to be professional. I am still trying to learn and be more aware. Please forgive any errors made. This is just written keeping in mind the perspective of a handful of people and their struggle with body dysmorphia. Our experiences do not make this any less real or valid, though.
Body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), as I have come to understand after some ten odd years of having dealt with my own issues surrounding the way I look and the way I have been told by others to change myself because it would somehow make me ‘prettier’, is a very serious issue and a lot of us tend to brush it off as something that is ‘just in our heads’, instead of treating it for what it is: a mental health disorder.
A couple of quick things for people who don’t want to do their homework:
WHAT IS BODY DYSMORPHIA?
Body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived flaws or defects in your appearance. It may or may not be visible to others, but it may make you feel ashamed, embarrassed or even anxious enough to avoid social situations.
WHAT CAUSES BDD?
Body dysmorphia could be the result of many internal things such as genetic conditions, depression, anxiety or OCD. But a lot of it is the result of external factors such as bullying, fear of being alone, and having dealt with negative experiences where your appearance is concerned.
IS IT TREATABLE?
Of course, it is. But most people need to understand that body dysmorphia doesn’t go away on its own. You cannot ignore it into not existing. You cannot tell yourself that you’re going to put in more effort into loving yourself and then watch it magically disappear. That’s not how it works. Body dysmorphia, like all mental health disorders, is deep-rooted and it needs expert treatment.
The worst part about body dysmorphia is that so many people I know have dealt with it in one way or another, and almost all of them feel as though they have ‘grown out’ of it and that ‘it’s not as bad as it seems’. Well, I don’t know how easy or difficult others have had it, but from a personal perspective, I can tell you that it has only gotten worse in the last few years and it keeps getting worse— all because people around you do not know how to choose their words.
I really want to forgive the people who have caused this to happen, I really do. Maybe they didn’t know what they were talking about. Maybe everything they said came from a place of valid concern. But the fact that none of them ever even tried to educate themselves about BDD even after I repeatedly made myself clear about how negatively their comments affected me and the way I looked at myself make me very bitter about the whole forgiveness thing.
The thing about body dysmorphia is that it, first and foremost, begins at home.
It begins when you start gaining weight with the onset of puberty. It begins when people tell you that the way your body is changing during puberty is unattractive and downright vulgar, as if gaining fat on your chest and hips isn’t a normal thing during puberty. It begins with the way people around you ‘subtly’ point out that you’ve gained weight and that it might make you less attractive because you cannot wear certain kinds of clothes. It begins when people make fun of you and call you cruel names because of your skin condition that is just a part and parcel of puberty. It begins when people think you’re slacking off and being lazy about your health just because you’ve gained weight. It begins when people make it a point, again and again, and yet again, to remind you how if you just changed yourself drastically, you’d be much more appealing.
I haven’t even scratched the bloody surface here. Body dysmorphia can be traced back to skin colour, skin conditions, hair patterns, hair textures, hair volume, body hair or the lack of it, body type, weight, body structure, face structure. Just about anything and people think it is their personal duty to remind you that you are not good enough.
And, no! ‘You’d be prettier if you *insert drastic change here*‘ doesn’t count as a compliment or concern.
I get it. This is what the world has made us believe for a long time, that girls who are well past their puberty should still look like pre-puberty school-girls with thin waists, thin arms, thin legs, and smooth, hairless, unblemished skin. This is what the world has made us believe, that boys are supposed to develop rippling muscles and towering heights after they hit puberty. Why? Because of the visual appeal of it all. Which is utter garbage.
It took a long, long time for me to come around to the fact that I am not supposed to look like my sixteen-years-old self. Growth happens and it brings about a ton of change. It’s only natural. It’s only normal.
But let me tell you something. The way you are built has got nothing to do with your health. You could be the most well-built person out there and you could still have a whole world of problems surrounding your health, and it is a fact. So, no, forgive me if I don’t take your ‘valid concerns’ regarding my health seriously. Anyone who guilts or shames another person into drastically changing their appearance is terrible, especially if they know how damaging it can be, firsthand.
And no matter how you look at it, it always seems like you need to drastically change something about your appearance for people to treat you better. But believe me when I say this, you could be at your best and people will still find a way to make you insecure about yourself. It’s a vicious, vicious world and I hate it all the more for it.
I asked a bunch of people to share their experiences with body dysmorphia, and before we get to them, this one by Anupriya should clue you in on what it is like:
“Growing up, I was always picked at for the way I dressed and looked. Twenty three years, and I still get to hear on almost every day about how “dirty” I look wearing a particular clothing because I’m curvy. I guess I’m the most uncomfortable and insecure around my own family but the battle doesn’t stop there. Every single comment adds up to the image I perceive myself to be. For someone who has both gained and lost weight several times, I always feel like it’s not enough. Even through the years, I felt most confident when I was away from home for studies; I found faults with my body, but now looking back I’d do anything to have that back. I wish I had loved myself a little more and embraced myself for going through the worst of it. But that’s the thing about dysmorphia: no matter what positive comments you get, it all still depends upon how you perceive your body. I often have these window of moments where I see my body for what it is, and I appreciate that. It takes me back to the time I was extremely confident in myself and in life generally. But now, it’s only a fleeting moment. All I have to say is, if you can’t help someone or understand their situation, don’t add fuel to the fire. People like me are constantly trying to put off that fire which is waiting to devour us, and the least others can be is kind and to put it as nicely as possible, mind their own business!“
My own experience with body dysmorphia goes back to when I was about ten or eleven years old, at the doorstep of adolescence, when I had begun to develop body hair and acne. If I thought I had it bad back then, I didn’t know the worse things that were in store for me. I clearly remember, at the age of eleven, being told that I could no longer wear sleeveless clothing because I had developed underarm hair, and that it was somehow, dirty. That has stuck with me, twelve years in, and I still am unable to wear sleeveless clothing because it makes me very uncomfortable. Through ages thirteen to seventeen, people would take one look at my face and go ‘Tsk, tsk, poor girl!‘ right in front of me because they thought my acne was pitiful. I have struggled so much with that, and I still do. At some point, I remember dropping a ton of weight because people would make really cruel comments about my body. No fourteen or fifteen year old ever deserves to hear such comments. Then again, I gained weight because I was happy and in a good place, and I still have to hear about how I would look much better if I shed some. The thing is, whenever I look back at myself, I see how skinny I used to be, but there was no happiness to my face. I looked miserable. I am in a much better place now, but it still hurts so bad when people think it’s okay to make unsolicited comments about my appearance, as if that is my only merit in life. I desperately make an effort to feel good about myself, but then there’s always someone who makes a throw-away comment about ‘Oh you’ve become so fat’ or how ‘You looked prettier before’ or ‘You’re never going to lose this weight’ and it just crumbles at me.
It always goes back to the way you’ve been conditioned to hate yourself, even when you were at your best, and I think that is one of the most cruel things anyone can ever be subjected to. We’re always looking at ourselves through the filter that the world has made us look through. On a good day, you see yourself and you like what you see, but on a bad day, when someone points out your insecurities, it’s all you can think about, and that’s just so heartbreaking.
Here’s what some people had to say, regarding their experiences with body dysmorphia:
“It’s terrible; people are never satisfied with the way you look.” –Kriti Singh Chauhan, from ‘Kittu’s Modern Mixtape‘.
“When you call me fat and say that you’re concerned about my health, the only thing I hear is ‘I’m not good or pretty enough'”. –Harsha Sridhar.
“I hate it when people do that; all it took was one person to tell me I’ve gained weight, in like, 2014, and that voice still hasn’t gone… After that person told me I gained weight, I started working out like a mad person but I’ve only lost weight after becoming sick multiple times. I hope everyone who goes through this comes out of it, one day.” –Leon.
It always feels like an uphill battle. Coming to terms with yourself and loving yourself looks like the easiest thing on paper, but in reality, it’s a whole struggle. Like Anupriya said, body dysmorphia is the way you look at yourself. But even when you try your hardest, it feels difficult. This one from Vallari might give you a different perspective:
She says, “I feel, somewhere in my mind, I wanted to like my body but didn’t allow myself to. But it gets manageable once you see your body for what it is. Plus exercise (building strength) helped me listen to what my body needs. Plus, a good sweat lifts my mood.”
I like how Vallari didn’t mention anything about changing her appearance, rather, changing the way she looked at herself. That’s the key take-away from her experience with body dysmorphia. While it may not work the same way for everybody, and getting help is still highly encouraged in such a situation, we must also keep in mind that the things we say to people, even in passing, leave a lasting impression on them. What we say can and will negatively impact people, which is why it is extremely important to choose our words.
It all comes down to this: be a nice person, don’t say unnecessary things to people when you know it will hurt them, even and especially when you mean well. Shaming people into feeling bad about themselves and changing something about their appearances is not the right way to go. If you’ve been taught otherwise, it’s not late to understand that you were taught wrong and that you can still learn to be better.
For those still battling body dysmorphia, I may not exactly get what it feels like because although I am in the same fight, I haven’t walked in your shoes. But I hope you find a way out of this, no matter how long it takes. I hope we all do.
You’re beautiful. You’re loved. You’re appreciated. Even and especially on the days you cannot show yourself the same kind of love.
Here’s to learning how to be kinder to people and making this world a little bearable to live in.