My Life with Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Illustration by Rika Otsuka
By Rebecca Blake
September 13, 2020
I

I always felt as though I didn’t fit in.  

I believed I was simply different, that there was something obvious and definable about me that would mean I would always be on the sidelines. It was when I hit my teens that I put my finger on what it was... my appearance.

I suddenly realised that I looked grotesque.  

I didn’t know what to do, or who to talk to, or even how to describe it. On the rare occasion I did try and open up, I was met with either blank stares, or the assumption I was simply fishing for compliments. Learning to keep it to myself was a fast process.

Somehow, I got through my teens and early twenties, fueled by the belief that I had to be clever, funny, generous, and a million other things to try and “make up” for the way I looked. I developed an eating disorder. I dressed in an outlandish fashion, dyed my hair a wild array of colours, began to get tattooed, and wore brightly coloured, elaborate make-up. It was all designed to distract people from looking at the real me. In some way, it was my attempt at taking back a little control over who I was.

Relationships were a minefield.  

When you have such low self-esteem, you attract all the wrong people. My friends were friends only because of what I would give them, and my partners were even worse. I made the mistake of telling a couple about how I felt. I didn’t understand at the time what would happen, but looking back now it seems so obvious. Of course, it was used against me - I tolerated ridiculous amounts of emotional, physical and mental abuse, simply because I didn’t believe I deserved better. I genuinely thought that these narcissistic, abusive, horrible human beings were better than me, because my eyes were too big, or my nose wasn’t straight enough, or my forehead was too high, or my hair wasn’t the right length.  

It took me until my mid-thirties before I felt comfortable enough to try and talk about things again. Luckily, the person I chose to talk to was great. She listened without judging and offered to help in any way she could. That gave me a little courage, and a hope that maybe there were good people out there who would understand. I told my next partner, and he took it really well. He was sweet and affectionate. And it was because of this that I realised I could never win...  

New things became scary. I had already learned to fear mirrors, and the pain they brought, but now, even watching TV was deadly. What if there was a naked woman in the movie? They’re in pretty much every movie, so the odds are not in my favour. Any time it happened, I was instantly filled with despair. She was skinnier than me. Prettier than me. Had smaller boobs than me. I felt like a clumsy, oversized lump compared to them. I knew without doubt that my partner must be looking and wishing I looked like that. He would think about her when he was being intimate with me. I would physically shake. I would throw up. I was a ball of anxiety all of the time.

Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last.

...

I threw myself into work.  

A year later I was running my own business, was chair of a social enterprise helping people who suffered with social isolation, had another part-time job, was raising two young children alone, and had a million other hobbies and interests. A friend once laughingly told me I was like a shark - if I ever stopped moving I would die. He didn’t know how true that was. I was desperately trying to outrun my feelings of inadequacy, and I still am.  

I’m 40 years old now, and I’m busier than ever. BDD affects everything in my life, from the small to the large. For example, when brushing my teeth, I stand to the side of the sink, so I’m not in front of the mirror. When running errands in town, I have memorised which shops have really reflective windows and I criss-cross the street to avoid them. I buy clothes at least 3 sizes too big to avoid ever having something not zip up. For every photograph I post on social media (and there aren’t all that many), there are another 200+ I deleted first.  

I feel intense paranoia that people are looking at me and laughing in the street. I use IMDB to check anything I want to watch, to make sure there’s no nudity in it. I never visit the beach (hard when you live literally over the road from it) or go swimming. Summer is a cause of endless stress and upset, being unable to cover up in lots of layers whilst also having to watch other women happily go about their days in shorts and vest tops. Everything has to be planned and risk assessed in my head. Every situation and person is a potential threat.

I hate the person BDD has made me. I hate all the ways it has held me back in life. I hate the way I’ve changed who I am in order to try and please others. I hate how I feel, as though I have zero worth because of the way I look. I see beauty in every single other person on earth, just not in myself, and it hurts so much.  

But if there’s one thing this horrible condition has taught me, it’s that I’m strong. I’m a fighter. And my boys, they are my absolute joy. When I’m with them, I’m truly happy. They are completely separate from my feelings about myself.  

...

I read something recently that said you wouldn’t let someone else follow you around and speak to you that way, so why do you accept speaking to yourself like that? It struck a nerve with me. I still think I’m hideous, literally the most unattractive woman to ever live, but I refuse to allow that belief to take away my value as a human being. I still deserve to be treated with kindness and respect, the way I treat others, and if I don’t judge them by the way they look, maybe they don’t judge me that way either. It might be a small step, but it’s a step nonetheless, and I’m proud of it.  

I started seeing a counsellor for the first time earlier this year. Lockdown soon put pay to that, but I definitely feel as though it was a positive experience, even in just a couple of sessions. It’s something I’m keen to get back to as soon as I can, and it’s helped me to understand that I don’t have to be ashamed of my feelings. I will find my own path through this, but to do that I need to show myself more care.

Now that I understand that, I feel a little more positive about things for the first time in my life.

***

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H1 Reglar

at least until the cold rears its ugly head again, Berlin is turning itself into a series of endless open air festivals and parties.Our little hangout reflects this festive mood, at least on the outside. If you were just a random person walking by, you would have seen two mates comfortably sharing a bottle, drinking out of paper cups, chatting away and laughing. It would all look like an uplifting scene from a European indie film.

The truth however, is different. Laurie is my friend, yes, and what’s coming out of my mouth is real laughter, but the unpleasant feeling bouncing around my skull is one of deep discomfort. The truth is I’d rather be anywhere else right now. It’s not that anything bad happened between the two of us, like a pissing contest’s gone sour just moments ago… I’ve known Laurie for almost 5 years and during that time we’ve never even had as much as a disagreement.

H2 Capital

at least until the cold rears its ugly head again, Berlin is turning itself into a series of endless open air festivals and parties.

Our little hangout reflects this festive mood, at least on the outside.

...

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