I’m A Black Woman Living With Body Dysmorphia — & It’s Hell On Earth

Trigger warning: this piece references eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and sensitive content regarding body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
Photographed by Jordan Tiberio.
I was 20 years old the first time I heard of the term Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), and learning about it made me realize that I could be suffering from the disorder. I came to understand that BDD was an all consuming delusion that made me believe my body was a deeply distorted image.   
At the time, I was interning remotely at a fashion agency in New York where my job entailed solidifying photographers, booking flights for models, editors, and even selecting designers to showcase their work in preparation for New York Fashion Week. Simultaneously, I was entering my junior year of college. It would be easy to assume that after curating objectively beautiful images for my job, I came to a conclusion about my own objective attractiveness but it was less of an observation than it was a disruptive confirmation of self-loathing
Working at an agency surrounded by models wasn’t the reason for all the FaceTime calls I declined, the pictures I avoided taking, or the way I could brush my teeth and wash my face in the mirror without glancing at my face. My job didn’t account for the fear of facing myself in the mirror when I started my nightly routine.

BDD is like a repetitive whisper from a monster under a bridge inviting you to jump off, to come and hide in its shame and disgust. You’ll miss milestones and have many regrets for the moments you didn't make space for yourself due to this monster. 

John Hopkins Medicine lists the symptoms of BDD as: obsessive mirror checks, avoiding mirrors altogether, hiding behind hats (and scarves and makeup), constant grooming, obsessive exercising and comparing your body to others. I had many of the symptoms, including the more severe:  I avoided social outings with friends and refused to leave home when my thoughts were especially intense. There was anxiety, shame, suicidal ideation, and I felt worthless. 
I was never a self-assured kid. Like many preteen Black girls, I had a host of insecurities. I hated that my hair was so coarse and short that I could never get the hairstyle I wanted in the Just For Me perm boxes. I dreaded wearing my first bra and lived in denial when I got my first period. But then there were more alarming insecurities — the ones that weren’t normal — like when I’d feel pride about the lack of food I'd eaten for days at a time. 
While my pre-adolescence was full of insecurities, my teens were dedicated to masquerading them with high-functional performance. I was an excellent student, I could wow people with my talents and giftedness. But not much could lure me out of my own poor body image and lack of self-esteem that led me down a psychotic rabbit-hole of obsession. 
One quiz on just how asymmetric my face was became multiple quizzes and frequent research on facial symmetry: which face shape, bone structure, eye shape, brow shape made me more engaging, which would result in me being beautiful, which would mean I could belong and succeed. My self-actualization didn’t consider fact checking or interrogation. Had I approached my discovery holistically, I would have known that leading mathematicians still can’t find a general consensus on whether symmetry makes for a beautiful face. Moreover, what constitutes “perfect” varies cross-culturally. The “perfect” feature in western culture isn’t always the pinnacle of beauty elsewhere. Sadly, the dysphoria I experienced for much of my life was partly due to holding myself to white beauty standards and features.  

Of course, this mental illness is more heightened and pervasive, but I often think of how many Black women have crippling shame about the way they look.

My irrationality heightened when I stumbled across the halo effect; a cognitive distortion that connects first impressions with physical traits. In regards to perceptions of beauty, this theory suggests that people connect physical attractiveness with high morality, intelligence, and exceptional skill sets. After my extensive google, I concluded that my relationships (personal and professional) would suffer because of my disproportionate face and body. 
When I was suffering from BDD, I remember seeing conversations surrounding body dysmorphia online, but none quite like my visceral experience. I would see posts about BDD from accounts that posted selfies every other day And the dysphoria many users described was the occasional bout of feeling unattractive, not the disorder I knew well. 
BDD is more like a repetitive whisper from a monster under a bridge inviting you to jump off, to come and hide in its shame and disgust. You’ll miss milestones and have many regrets for the moments you didn't make space for yourself due to this monster.  
In the United States, one in 50 people suffer from BDD’s distortions, with its numbers rapidly increasing as more people become chronically dissatisfied with their appearance. One major phenomenon as a result is the rise in plastic surgery. 
In a piece for The New Yorker called, “The Age of The Instagram Face,” the writer details current cosmetic surgery trends with quotes from leading makeup artists and plastic surgeons. Women were reportedly using screenshots of themselves with Snapchat filters as procedural references. This aesthetic — otherwise known as “Instagram Face” — is an amalgamation of stereotypical features from all over the world: Black lips, a white nose, Native American bone structure and a South Asian brow and eye shape. 
The demands of social media are literally and figuratively costing women. Society’s dystopian obsession with attractiveness has made chronic dissatisfaction with our faces and bodies profitable. Last year, a global market analysis valued the cosmetic surgery market at 71.5 billion projecting its worth to 205.1 billion by 2030.  No matter how much it costs, it’s clear our society is not equipped to provide help to people with BDD —  especially Black women who suffer from the disorder. 

Social media and society’s expectations are harmful to all women, but they are giving Black women hell.

Desirability is a currency in our current attention economy, and the performance of it is frequently coupled with racism, fatphobia, colorism, texturism and featurism. While the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s and 70s challenged these ideals and embraced the femininity of Black women — our natural hair, broad noses, full lips and figures — there were still raised questions amongst Black radicals as to whether the pursuit of beauty was a worthwhile cause. Toni Morrison famously asked, “ Once we’ve convinced everyone and ourselves of our beauty, then what?” 
Whenever appearance is constantly praised, the implications of what is ugly always seems to coexist. Today, the pressures of upholding “Black beauty” for women have become practically inaccessible (read: expensive). Consider the several Black girl aesthetics existing online that have all been ridiculed at some point. Think of the BBL versus natural bodies debate — no one wins in the end because beauty standards are impossible and confusing. Yet, desirability and respectability practically insists upon our “perfection.” And falling short of perfection could result in loss of opportunity, friendships, relationships, and careers. 
In my own struggle with BDD,  I’ve realized that many of its symptoms (like avoiding social events, major anxiety, and refusing to leave home) are all regular Black girl emotions when we don’t think we look perfect. Living with the fear of how people will respond to them is something Black women know well. Of course, this mental illness is more heightened and pervasive, but I often think of how many Black women have crippling shame about the way they look. My own disorder exaggerated my prominent nose — which racist societal expectations forced me to dislike — causing me to think that my face was predominantly covered by it. 
Social media and society’s expectations are harmful to all women, but they are giving Black women hell. The filters that women are running to plastic surgeons to replicate? The ones that we can’t take a selfie without? They’re increasing dysphoria and known to often lighten skin and “correct” ethnic features and media platforms have yet to amend the racism ingrained in the algorithms of their technology. As a result, we’re seeing inaccurate images of the people we know personally offline. These inaccurate images only manage to make us more unsatisfied with ourselves and the people around us. The cyclical praising and bashing of natural bodies, plastic surgery, and natural hair dismiss just how overwhelming and nauseating body dissatisfaction can be. 
When my dysmorphia was most crippling, I didn’t have access to the right psychiatrist or treatment. I suffered in my thoughts alone, and amongst close family, I wondered if my absolute shame and disgust with myself would ever leave. 
Now, as I am nearing the end of my twenties, somehow through trial and error, therapy, and prayer, I’ve been able to shield the hurtful thoughts in my head that used to never seem to quiet themselves. At times, I still struggle with inadequacy, but I’ve managed to hold deep gratitude for my body and how it functions, protects, the stories it tells, and how it remembers.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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