On Body Dysmorphia

She looked at me down her aquiline nose, letting me know that she’d noticed my second trip to the Christmas dessert table: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels, Jennifer Nicole” she said, and my 13 year old hand placed the golf ball sized ricciarelli back on the platter.  In a year, I’d be taller than she was and in two I’d learn from a girlfriend that a daily dose of Ex-Lax would keep my stomach flat flat flat enough that I wouldn’t have to unbutton my pants to get them down past my hips.

When I was a young girl, I grew up watching my mother tornado about our living room in shorts and a t-shirt, bounce, bounce, bouncing her way through any number of Jane Fonda workout videos.  Good old Jane, in a chevron striped leotard, would be bent in half, calling out instructions that my mother did her uncoordinated best to follow.  The prescribed dosage of these videos was one a day, but my mother would do three or four in a row starting the second after she had put dinner on the table for my brother and I.   Next to her, would be a can of Diet Pepsi with a bendy straw poking out of the metal hole in the top….

She never ate, that woman, always doing some chore when we were eating.  When my dad was home (he traveled a lot for work), she’d finally sit at the table, but even then, it was a show of sleight of hand, a convincing pantomime of eating that she’d perfected over the years.  Weight was a preoccupation with her, and my eight, nine, ten, eleven year old eyes absorbed it all.  She was the most beautiful woman I knew, and it was my mission to earn her love.  Staying thin was one way to remain invisible to the critical glint in her often crazy eyes.

By 16 years old, the idea of my weight was an out-of-control monster that I could not tame.  I would leer at my naked self after showers, horrified at how wide my hips were (never mind that the delicate bones were visible beneath the skin).  I would sit on the edge of my seat in classes to keep my thighs from “spreading” into what I was convinced was a horrific blob of disgusting fat.  Mirrors were evil henchmen distorting the natural curve of my lower abdomen into revolting rolls of cellulite and revealing, out of the shadows, double chins just above my neck.

Over the years, I would wage a silent war with my body image; seeing how many days I could go without eating, waking up before dawn’s light to get an eight mile run in before school, spending hard earned money on The 24-Hour Hollywood Diet and fantasizing about the cost prohibitive lipo procedures that would solve all my woes.  As my body filled out, I’d berate myself for hating my body so much the previous year, wishing only to go back to THAT body instead of the new one that had changed overnight.  “If only I’d known!” hissed my Inner Monologue.  Ha!  If only I’d known is right.  If that 16 year old, at 93 pounds knew that she’d balloon up to 130, she might have actually committed suicide.

Over the years, I’ve taken small steps, and won some major battles against the drunken juggernaut of my flawed self-image.  I’ve permanently thrown away scales and will only step on one if forced to by someone in a medical setting.  I gauge my weight by how I feel and how my jeans fit, adding more cardio as is necessary.  I focus on fitness and have traded my fixation on weight for a fixation on muscle definition and overall health.  I eat now, and don’t deprive myself of anything, really, but do say no to those things that I’m not totally in love with; forgoing the bread basket before dinner so that I can have a scoop of coffee ice cream after.

Really though, I’ve only traded the method to my madness.  I’ve never been able to appease that awkward and body dysmorphic teen girl.  I still look at myself with that critical eye.  I cringe in dressing rooms when it comes time to try on bathing suits and jeans and skirts and well, basically anything at all.  Married to mirrors, my eyes are constantly roving my body, screeching at the fleshy bulge of skin around my braline and nauseas at the sight of the pillow of paunch around the tops of my jeans.  I am conscious to sit up straight, and to always wear loose fitting clothes that camouflage the little extra I carry around with me.  I still covet other women’s bodies and have a slowly growing savings account for that lipo that I will eventually get.

I can’t speak definitely (for, who really knows what we all wrestle with when the lights go out at night and have only our thoughts on silent loop), but I am fairly sure that this issue occupies my thoughts enough to consider it an obsession, and that anyone knowing the full extent of the way it consumes me would stagger backwards wondering how I function at all with it standing there, akimbo and taunting.  My mirror-image is a demon.  It forces me through workouts though I’m about to pass out.  It holds hands in camaraderie with the guilt of that extra tablespoon of ranch dressing.  It makes me turn out the lights before having sex and denies me the ability to just throw something on for a night on the town.  I keep it at bay, but I don’t know if I can ever exorcise it.

 

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18 thoughts on “On Body Dysmorphia

  1. My wife has dealt with this, up to and including an eating disorder. Damn near killed her.

    Our society’s overly obnoxious preoccupation with pubescent thin-ness is scary as hell and just plain f-ed up.

  2. I wish you could really see how beautiful you are. I wish I could lend you my eyes, just once. You break my heart.

    You’re quite possibly one of the most amazing women that I’ve ever known, as well as one of the most beautiful. Inside and especially out. I admire your dedication, but I hate that it stems from a monologue of self abuse.

    If you could see yourself through my eyes, you would see a woman with smooth toffee toned skin, glossy ebony hair and black coffee eyes that give the impression of seeing through to the soul. This woman that I see is lithe and energetic – you can see it in the graceful curve of her back. She’s to be envied her classic, striking beauty. The fact that this strong, magnetic woman has any self doubt as to her beauty is more than just a little confusing. She is the flame that moths are attracted to.

    Try to see yourself through my eyes.
    Love.

    • I thank you so so so much for that. (though it seems you’re talking about someone else…;) ) There are, of course, days when I feel fine. It is not as dramatic as all that, as I’ve learned to live with and around it. *shrugs. It is what it is, sadly.

  3. Visceral. Wow. Hard not to have a self-image like that when your mom was on that bandwagon too.

    I wish you self-acceptance and peace. Isn’t it ironic that people put off being happy until they’re thin, not realizing that the really thin aren’t that happy?

  4. There’s a relief in being over 50, mostly single, in some ways “invisible.” It doesn’t matter if I’m a bit puffy around the edges. I was (still am, really) thin most of my life, but my body image was of a flabby girl. Part of this was related to my mother’s struggle with her weight. She had other issues – rheumatoid arthritis that made it nearly impossible for her to exercise. I hate that I’m 15 pounds heavier than I like. But when I’m feeling sane and accepting of this process of aging, I really don’t mind so much. What I see as beautiful has changed, too. Oh, this is such hard stuff though. My 16-year-old daughter, active, beautiful, elfin, freaked out when she hit triple digits (I’m certain she’s back down to two digits again). I was relieved that she didn’t stop eating but chose, instead, to eat healthy and start a yoga routine.

    And, hey, we had pizza for dinner, and no one died. 🙂 This is gorgeous writing. You are gorgeous.

    • Thank you so kindly. There are days when I don’t mind so much, or when I actually see the real results of my efforts at the gym in the mirror, and they’re recently less and less far apart. I envy your daughter who has someone comfortable in their skin to set an example and a different set of priorities. I love my mother with every inch of my skin, and I know that she struggled with the same stupid body-image ridiculousness, but oh, how I wish sometimes she’d hidden it a bit better….

  5. You know what? This is fucking brave. It’s one thing to be able to say “I have issues with my body and am terrified of gaining weight,” but it’s another to deconstruct why you feel that way and take positive steps to actually get past this. Kudos to you.

    I think that most women experience a sort of self-loathing that relates almost entirely to their bodies. I am most definitely one of them and it’s a habit that is a killer to break. There are so many factors I can cite that contribute to the problems but I think my biggest breakthrough will be when I learn that I can still love my body even though it doesn’t look like it’s “meant to”.

    Thanks for this, Jennifer.

    • Thank you.

      I wrote it while trying to reason out why on earth I would push myself through a step class even though I was on the hair’s edge of passing out. I was compelled to finish, and it was mostly because I knew that the guilt and disgust I’d feel at myself for not finishing would far outweigh the embarrassment of actually passing out. It was sick, IS sick, and I thought it deserved a blog post.

      Plus, I thought there needed to be another side to all the other posts I’ve been reading about New Year’s resolutions and weight loss.

  6. Great writing, as always. The sad truth is that I can’t think of anyone I know who can’t relate to what you wrote here, in some measure at least. And that includes men. I certainly can relate, although I’m sure my body image issues are far less intense than what most women go through, given the way our society is. Most of us adults can only hope to keep these (and other) demons at bay in our own hearts and minds. Where we can make the most difference, I think, is in delegitimizing this shit wherever we see it taking hold in our culture, so that the next generation can be spared. Honest reflection, like what you’ve done here, is an important step.

  7. I am right there with you. Too many of us are. And now that I have a daughter, all I want is for her not to have the negative self-image that I have, and especially the image I had of myself growing up.

  8. i found you through stereo – this is so reminiscent of my own life and that of so many women today – it’s sad, it really is, that we carry this unnecessary burden. we are normal and fine – and yet, it’s so impossible to believe that. i’m right in your boat with you.

  9. I know you wrote this awhile ago, but I never really seemed to be able to find the right words to have a response that was worthwhile of typing up. Even still, I don’t think I truly have a response to this (which is notable in and of itself)… but I did want to share with you that this inspired me to thank my mother. I think I only have the self-image that I do now because of her. She had her own issues, but only projected positivity onto me (and still does). I may have moments of lamenting a perceived imperfection, but I suspect that it is less than the norm & I really have her to thank for that.

    I hope that at some point you see (on a daily basis) the beauty that you yourself possess, as others already do.

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