Body dysmorphia is more than “not seeing reality in the mirror”, in fact, it’s a far more holistic disorder than that. I’m not sure I clinically suffer from it, but the symptoms resonate with my experience:
- Preoccupation with your physical appearance with extreme self-consciousness
- Frequent examination of yourself in the mirror, or the opposite, avoidance of mirrors altogether
- Strong belief that you have an abnormality or defect in your appearance that makes you ugly
- Belief that others take special notice of your appearance in a negative way
- Avoidance of social situations
- Feeling the need to stay housebound
- Excessive grooming, such as hair plucking or skin picking, or excessive exercise in an unsuccessful effort to improve the flaw
- Comparison of your appearance with that of others
- Reluctance to appear in pictures
Yep, that’s me.
But the interesting point is that I am in a constant state of surprise about my body image. There is a part of me that somehow believes I’m not supposed to look as bad as I believe I do. I compartmentalize the worst of my assumptions and then operate on the principle that “it’s not that bad if I just don’t look.” Conflicting? Yes. Yes, it is.
But it also leads to situations like I found myself in recently, sobbing while collapsed on the floor of a hotel bathroom.
I do not have full-length mirrors in my apartment. The few mirrors I have are hung only to view myself from the shoulders up. I can catch a glimpse of myself in the reflections of shop windows and such, and I’m not a fashion diva so I don’t need to verify that my ‘look’ is right. I know what I look like and I hate it. Confirmation bias is real, y’all.
Yet, the flip side is that I can brush that awareness aside most of the time. I do go out with friends occasionally; I do show up for work; I allow photos of myself if not doing so would be rude in a social context. I’d rather stay at home where no one can see me but I also understand that is not a healthy thing to do all the time, so the constant hate-loathing is pragmatically pushed into its box in the corner of my mental landscape. Ironically it’s a small box; it just contains a lot of energy.
In that hotel room, though, was a full-length, floor-to-ceiling wall mirror in the bathroom. In it, I accidentally glimpsed myself in all my naked glory and I was horrified. My body appeared as a grotesquerie. There was no way to shuffle quickly out of view, or focus on my shoes or collar line. There I was, all of me, and it was as terrible as I have imagined.
It’s like knowing you did poorly on a test, but not truly grasping the magnitude of just how badly you failed until you get the grade back. Until you see that grade, you can delude yourself into a zone of “it’s bad but I’m okay”, which falls apart when you are presented with the cold hard brutal fact that your GPA just nose-dived.
I live in that zone; the mirror was the red-letter “F” on my body.
Yet, I’m aware this is a mental problem more than a physical issue. I get that. I’ve known it for years. Wishing things better doesn’t work, though (I’d have won the lottery by now, okay?). Yes, I would also like to be in better physical health, sure. I’ve joined the gym, and do morning yoga/stretching routines, and try to keep my food intake rational. That honestly has very little to do with what is going on in my head.
Interestingly, we live in a time when neuroscience is really starting to make inroads into the hows and whys of our brains. Science is pulling things like “meditate for inner peace” and “visualize for better athletic performance” out of the woo-woo realm by understanding how these ephemeral practices actually do affect our brains. Can we think ourselves to a Tiger Woods swing in golf? No, but Tiger Woods could and did. It’s a matter of learning to train our brain to best effect — figuring out how to manifest our inherent and natural strengths and talents in order to optimize our training.
That’s a mouthful, but what it boils down to is quite literally re-configuring the wiring of our brain connections. We can’t out-think cancer or depression, but if we are in a healthy place we can out-think our bad habits and our self-perceptions. We do create our own reality, at least in the sense that how we feel about our lives and how we approach problems is well within our control.
What I’ve realized is that my since body dysmorphia is an internal status of perception, it might be possible to change how I think about myself and, just as important, how I behave, through a serious commitment to the practice of visualization and positive reinforcement of self-acceptance using affirmations.
The difference between this and wishful thinking is that visualization and positive affirmations are about changing myself internally, whereas wishful thinking is dreaming about external changes. That is, it’s the difference between feeling better and hoping for better.
It’s also the difference between actively working for something and passively accepting what comes along. As many times I’ve I’ve dieted, worked out, or punished myself psychologically, it’s generally been with a sense of fatalism, because hoping for better is based on clinging to the idea of an outcome. It is not about true change, which must be internal, and so the “better” that I hope for never happens.
I mean, chances are good at this point that I’m fat for life. There is absolutely no doubt that 30+ years of yo-yo dieting involving losing and gaining 50+ pounds several times over has significantly damaged my metabolism. I’m pre-menopausal. While I’m generally in good health, I have a bad back and reduced lung capacity due to the whooping cough of 2012. I’d not be surprised that 15+ years of suffering grief, PTSD, and poverty has resulted in adrenal fatigue. I might have issues with my thyroid (doctor’s appt. scheduled in March to find out). This isn’t adolescence where I’m hoping puberty makes things right, this is middle age where I have to deal with the damages I have sustained along the way.
So yeah, wishful thinking? My worst enemy.
I’m developing a practice of visualization meditations that focus on being healthy, and teaching my brain that I am safe, strong, and whole. Sometimes it feels silly imagining my “ideal self” and “ideal life” in ways that are realistic as opposed to fantasy. At this point, though, I think it might be the only way I’ll never end up crying on the floor just because of what the mirror shows me.