My Obsessive Body: From Lethal to Lovely
I’m been obsessed with my body. How much I eat, how I look in clothing, how I look without clothing, my growing number of stretch marks. Most may find these thoughts ordinary or typical, but my obsession is not. At twenty three, I’m beginning to process the war I’ve waged against myself. I’ve also finally found a name for my obsession – Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
While many people have both positive and negative opinions about a variety of their body parts, my thoughts cause extreme physical and emotional pain. I spend eighty percent of my day thinking about the creases in my stomach, or the blemish on the underside of my chin. I pick at my face, my arms, and thighs; I brush my teeth until they bleed. My dysmorphic thoughts are so prominent that they’ve almost obliterated my productive capabilities and ability to concentrate. During intimacy, I disassociate from my body completely. And that’s just the start of things.
My BDD interacts with the PTSD I was diagnosed with after an ex-boyfriend raped me my junior year of college. That was almost three years ago. I have struggled on and off with depression and panic disorder since my early teens. BDD, PTSD, depression, panic disorder – they have been talking to each other for a while. But now, I have the vocabulary to start talking back – and I’m practically yelling. The nature of my obsession is evolving too – from something lethal to something lovely.
I didn’t know I was taking this dive, though. I didn’t know my obsession was changing, not until recently. Just over a year ago I graduated college. The first summer after graduation changes a person, and I was no exception. I developed new habits. I spent less time around friends, choosing to stay in my room with the lights off. I spent hours in the dark, ruminating on past relationships both intimate and not. I cried myself to sleep. I ate very little, or too much. I gained thirty pounds. I was terrified.
As many attest to when they close a momentous chapter in their life, nostalgia can creep up on you. It finds a home within your bones. It becomes toxic. In my case, it repeatedly led me into Facebook’s archive of my life – photos of me from 2006, complete with comments. What started as a casual perusal through my life became a thorough escapade into language. I found origins of my BDD echoed in the words of my peers. The comments were especially heinous in early high school, when an ex-boyfriend would go through photos (including selfies) and give his opinion on them, no matter how crude. “I knew God was a man,” in reference to a photo of me in a tank top, cleavage exposed.
This language was all too familiar, words I remembered from as early as middle school. My girlfriends would tell me how lucky I was to have breasts already, and guy friends would thank the height discrepancy between us – it made it easier to look down my shirt. I looked at those pictures and remembered precisely what I was feeling when they were taken: fear, overwhelming embarrassment, self-awareness. It reminded me of a comment about a self-portrait I drew in the Spring of 2012. During critique, someone said, “It looks like you’re aware you’re being watched or looked at. You look scared.” I got goosebumps, I knew they were right. I have a paralyzing fear that I take up too much space, that people notice me because I am too big, too loud to anything.
I spent the majority of May in a deep depression. Irritated and anti-social, I did nothing outside of barely making it to work. I lashed out at my boyfriend, did everything I could to isolate myself. For the first time in two years I intentionally hurt myself, and that was it; the next day I sat and looked at the marks I had left – I realized I needed help. I was out of control. It felt like my hands were cupped under a rushing faucet but I couldn’t catch any of the water, like everything was moving too fast. I needed to regain control and I couldn’t do it by myself. I didn’t even know where to start.
The past two months have been my first successful experience with therapy. Last Tuesday night I sat curled up on the couch across from my therapist. She was telling me how adaptable I am. Through everything, she said, I have a stunning capacity to adapt. To my environment, to the people around me. I also have a neurotic lack of self-worth, which leads me to doubt myself. It was indescribable, like someone had turned a light on after years of only darkness. I couldn’t help but smile at these words. In that moment, I knew that we were on the right track. All of a sudden I could see myself more clearly than I ever had. I had grown increasingly paranoid, doubting the validity of my friendships and fear abandonment. Am I doing enough for my friends? Am I annoying them? Do they need more or less from me? Am I being too controlling or needy? It has become clear to me that these negative thoughts lay at the core of my obsession, yet here I am, adapting.
So, how has my obsession changed since May?
The fourth session with my therapist I broke into tears when she asked me how I felt about myself. I told her about the nostalgia, about looking through all those photos and the weight in my chest. I told her it felt similar to when my father passed away, I felt like I was in mourning – I was (and still am) grieving how much time I spent outside of myself, how hard I was on myself, how ugly I felt I was. I have moments of disbelief, that I have spent so much of my life thinking I didn’t deserve love or kindness or patience, understanding. Moments where I question how I handled my rape, as if it was solely my responsibility to recover from it. I wonder if I talk about it too much, or whether I could have stopped it from happening. I told my therapist that I spend days in this mourning space: sleeping as much as I can, feeling nothing at all, little to no short-term memory of commitments I’ve made, or plans I missed. I often lose my appetite and become quiet, withdrawn. I spend days wrapped into myself, lost in thought over my trauma and how to overcome it.
The mourning process has been a big deal for me. Allowing myself time to grieve has shifted my body image. I am not optimistic enough to say it gets better, not yet. And I’m not endorsing therapy for everyone – each person’s circumstances are different and unique. But I am confident enough to say that my coping mechanisms have evolved into healthier ones. I practice daily doses of self-care: spa masks, a new shade of lipstick, or a night with a good book. I’ve been sober for a month and a half. I keep a therapy journal as proof that positive change is occurring.
What I’ve been doing is akin to exposure therapy. Quite literally, I have started exposing more of my skin. I stand in front of the mirror in a crop top and show my stomach to myself, and then I leave the house. This is the first summer I’ve worn dresses outside of special occasions. Short dresses, long dresses – I go by increments. One weekend I’ll wear a skirt that’s a little short, and the next I’ll wear a dress even shorter. I allow myself time to evaluate what I’m feeling. I work on forgiveness both for myself and others around me. It is good practice to be reminded of the fact that I am alive despite the trauma I’ve gone through. I adapt, and my body does too. Journaling reminds me that there is more evidence of the love and support my friends and boyfriend give me than there is for my suspicion and paranoia. I speak up for myself among those I considered my harshest critics: family and long-time friends. I don’t discuss my weight, and deleted a lot of the comments left on photos of me. I am starting to believe in myself again. The change is slow but steady. Yet some days my obsession tests me, and that’s OK – lovely is a work in process.