The first feeling I ever had about my appearance was panic.
For as long as I can remember, I have thought that my ears stick out too far from my head.
I was embarrassed by how self-absorbed I felt, and when friends asked why I pulled on my blouse or chewed on my finger, I brushed it off and made self-deprecating jokes about being “OCD” so as not to draw attention to myself. But my plan to fade into the background didn’t work. In fact, I got noticed in what was, for me, the worst way possible: During my freshman year, an older boy off-handedly commented, “you got some hairy arms for a girl."
My legs defined my purpose and masked my grief. I started to starve myself in order to obtain the “perfect figure” that I knew I could have if I just worked hard enough. I lost weight, but I was convinced my thighs only got bigger as the rest of me shrank. I didn’t feel better. Defeated, I binge-ate on the floor of my kitchen, hating myself for my ears, my arm hair, my thighs.
Growing up, hearing peers say they “felt fat” was as common a saying as “TTYL".
I couldn’t sit with my grief, but I physically couldn’t sit with my thighs. I had recurring nightmares about both my best friend and my thighs — when I woke in the night I'd reach down to make sure they hadn’t grown. When I saw someone walking towards me on the sidewalk, I felt immediate panic that we both wouldn’t be able to fit. Gradually, I avoided sitting between people on the subways because I was scared my thighs wouldn’t fit. Instead, I stood and stared at the reflection of my legs in the window, analyzing if they looked different from 30 minutes prior in my bathroom mirror, bedroom mirror, in the reflection of my kitchen oven, neighbor’s window, or shop window.
After graduating college, I started working at my dream job at a book publishing company, but after only a few months I completely lost interest and presence, and my work suffered. Everything revolved around my legs. I laid a coat over my lap in meetings so I could try to focus without looking down at them. I stopped showering consistently because bathing meant I'd stand there playing with the fat on my thighs to determine how much I needed to lose to feel better. A year after starting my job, I was let go. My behavior became more and more erratic. I imposed a rule that I had to run several times a day, or purge. I stopped going out with friends because they were badgering me that I looked “sick,” but I rationalised that I just wore clothes that masked my thighs.
Growing up, hearing peers say they “felt fat” was as common a saying as “TTYL,” so I assumed being unhappy with your appearance was something everybody struggled with. Don’t we all hate that mole on our cheek? Or the way we look from a certain angle?
The breaking point came at Thanksgiving when I attended a wedding in Texas. In unseasonable 80-degree heat, I insisted on wearing a coat over my dress. Underweight and refusing to eat, I drank five glasses of wine on an empty stomach and could barely stand. My parents cornered me later that night and, through fits of tears, I agreed to treatment.
I checked into an eating disorder facility days before Christmas 2013. Along with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, I was diagnosed with Severe Body Dysmorphic Disorder. “Isn’t that just another way of saying I’m self-absorbed?” I whined to my rehab therapist. However, what I learned in treatment (and throughout my two years so far in recovery) is that BDD is more than just saying you “feel fat” after a big meal, or seeking compliments and attention. A body-image disorder characterised by “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” Body Dysmorphic Disorder is like having a mosquito in your ear — a buzz from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep.
When I began treatment for BDD, I was shocked to learn that my obsessive childhood rituals weren’t a standard way of life. Like the boy who cried wolf, I lied to myself for so long that I no longer understood what was real about my body and what was not. In one exercise, a counselor had me take a ball of yarn and guess how big my thighs were with the string. After mulling it over for several minutes, I cut the yarn. Much to my horror, my string wrapped twice around my thighs. I carry those strings in my purse now to remind myself that my perception versus reality is often skewed.
Through treatment, I've come to understand that focusing on my BDD is a distraction from something inward. I have to dig deep to understand what is actually affecting me, no matter if it’s uncomfortable and I can’t control the outcome. What I’ve found is that recovery is successful when you own your truths, even if there is fear that doing so will open you up to criticism. Recovery is taking the good days with the bad, and accepting that you will still struggle. In September, I confidently posted pictures after wearing a bikini for the first time, but not even one month later I refused to get in a hot tub. Body Dysmorphia has no “quick fix.”
However, the more I work to help others find their own voice, and fill my life with meaningful relationships, the healthier I become. So often those of us that struggle with BDD or eating disorders feel defined by it, and it doesn't have to be that way. I write about eating disorders and body dysmorphia, but I am more than either of these illnesses. I'm an open person, loving and adventurous, yet I'm also scatter-brained, an over-sharer, and a control freak, too. I’m not perfect, and that’s okay. Today, I’m in recovery and I'm content with the person I'm growing into, flaws and all.