My Struggle With Body Dysmorphia

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
By Manya Dotson

I think my dysfunctional affair with mirrors began the first time I stepped into a ballet studio and took my place at the barre. I was five years old and I remember becoming aware of myself — or rather, aware of my body, which is not exactly the same thing. Before that moment, my body was an expression of my inner sense of self — the jumping, twirling, singing body was just me actively being me.

But, as I twisted and sweated and strained and was critiqued for years in mirrored studios, unable to achieve the elusive perfection that is the hallmark of classical ballet, the girl in the mirror emerged as a parallel self. And, she was often mismatched with the feeling inside my head. I could feel sublimely floaty and graceful in my soul, and yet “objectively speaking” (in ballet terms) look awkward and goofy in the mirror. It was the mirror that determined quality and worth. Instead of mistrusting the girl in the mirror, I began doubting the one in my head.

Ballet, with its gossamer costumes and dramatic makeup, was a passion and a constant throughout my childhood and adolescence. While other girls were honing their strength and physicality in sports played on sun-drenched patches of grass, I was beating my hips with shampoo bottles in the shower so that the mirrors in the dressing room would show I had the bruises that meant I had the “right” body type for serious ballet. For the record, I do not: My skinny adolescence was always preprogrammed to give way to a tall, busty, hourglass figure more adept at metabolizing sugarplums than being their fairy.

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It was painful to say goodbye to the metronomic ritual of classes and rehearsals, barre, center work, and Chopin that had been the heartbeat of my life for so many years. I might have metaphorically limped along a lot longer in ballet if I hadn’t literally done so: Chronic tendonitis led to a serious ankle injury when I was sixteen, we moved to a new state without a studio close by, and I was set free. But, the girl in the mirror — and her scathing judgment of my quality and worth — has remained with me well into my adult life.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Seducing The Succubus
I don’t know if she’s a harpy, a succubus, or a siren, but let me tell you: That bitch be trouble. When I started filling out, she drove me to all sorts of non-moderation. I would run six miles in the morning,and then grind out a second workout after school. I went onto incredibly restrictive diets (half a banana for breakfast, half of a tuna salad sandwich for lunch…) and then started throwing up to “erase” any deviations from the untenable plan.

As long as the girl in the mirror had angular collarbones and a concave arch between her visible hipbones I thought I was still okay. By the time I was in college, I was throwing up four to five times a day — desperate to keep up the image of quality and worth in the face of all-night study sessions at IHOP. A first job at a major women’s fitness magazine didn’t help matters much. Although we said we cared about health and strength — and although my own editorial and writing focused on mind and spirit more than body — we all knew that our sales depended upon readers believing that if they just lost those ten pounds, they would be happy.

In the New York Magazine world I discovered that makeup could be a way to bring the magic of theatre and dance into the everyday. Not only did I have unfettered access to entire closets filled with the newest beauty products sent to the editorial team, I had a professional obligation to test and review them — and look fab. Sparkling powders, rich pigments, and tubes of perfumed colors to daub and sculpt became a new way to seduce the girl in the mirror and sweet talk her into a sort of submission.

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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Into The Wild
When I decided to end my magazine career and go into the Peace Corps, my mom and dad were extremely surprised. My fantasies had always seemed more Cinderella than Into the Wild. You’re not the type, said they. Lipstick travels, said I. Off I went to rural Cote d’Ivoire, with only the small mirror in my powder compact.

I didn’t realize how many mirrors there are in New York City until there were none. My village in Cote d’Ivoire had no skyscraper windows to glance into, no full-length mirrors masquerading as closet doors. My bathroom was a cement and mud brick latrine, built on a sun-soaked patch of grass. Food was hard to make and eaten out of communal bowls, with our hands. There was no electrical socket to plug in a blow dryer and no need for highlights under the equatorial sun. Exercise happened just by living: drawing water from the well, washing clothes by hand, and riding my mountain bike around the 25 kilometer catchment area covered by the health center to which I was assigned.

The men in my village (and the boy who ended up being my first husband) loved curves, and “You are so fat!” was high praise, delivered often, sincerely, and with relish. The comment had little to do with weight — but rather an overall aura of glowing health and wellbeing. I may have fallen in love with my ex-husband because he said: “Why would I want you to be skinny? A man needs a place to lay his head down.” I dressed up every day, “did” my hair and brushed on some mascara and lip gloss. It turned out than my beloved lipsticks did not travel well in the suffocating heat.

The few mirrors I had access to — rearview, powder compact, a chrome edge here and there, weren’t big enough for That Girl. She retreated into some shadowy corner of my soul, and I once again started feeling my body was an expression of my inner being. I danced — West African style — with abandon. I got hair extensions and had flamboyant outfits made out of loud and beautiful cotton wax prints, and I felt tres chic indeed. I have a vivid memory of riding my bicycle down a hill, pedaling really fast with the wind combing my hair. I have no idea if my thighs were dimpling or my stomach was jiggling — only that I was powerful and very alive. I was hungry in Cote d’Ivoire, and I ate chicken and cabbage salad and cassava couscous until I thought I would burst. For a couple of blissful years without mirrors, the only girl there was me, and I knew she was vibrant and gorgeous.

The Mirror's Siren Song
I wish I could tell you that I have held on to that feeling for the rest of my life. But, when the Peace Corps ended, and I was back in the international world of cities and work, of skyscrapers and bathroom sinks, Mirror Girl crept out of the shadows once again. And, the sad truth is that over the years, her influence has waxed and waned. For me, and probably forever, every mirror is a fun-house mirror.

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Her siren song has changed over time. She no longer expects me to be concave — right now, for example, as I approach forty, she is ravenous for youth. She points out every melasma spot and draws my attention to my no longer sharp chin and neck. She chides me about my flanks, and makes me think twice about whether my love of sparkle is “appropriate.” She berates me with shoulds and shouldn’ts. I beat her back with steady doses of self-compassion and art journaling, with gratefulness and an explicit ongoing effort to redefine sexy in non-physical terms. Also, cute shoes. I’m practicing these things. Sometimes they work and I’ll find myself alone in the mirror, feeling confident, serene, and irresistible.

She is also terrified of my husband, Brian, who has loved me — and fought her alongside me — for many years now. When he comes upon me performing ablutions with my magical lotions and potions, he wraps his arms around me, meets my eyes in the mirror and whispers in my ear: “Hey gorgeous... You are so sexy... I love your body... I am so lucky you’re mine…” I know he believes it in his soul. And, she evaporates, leaving just him and me and a silvery halo of love.

So we pirouette, that girl in the fun house mirrors and me. I have learned to distrust her. I am still learning how to trust me. If only I could relish my body as wholeheartedly as Brian does. If only I could just dance.