MY OWN WORST CRITIC: BODY DYSMORPHIC DISORDER
By Vanessa Campos // Model: Sira Clarkson
I looked into the mirror and the reflection that stared back at me was distorted. All I could do was cry, pull into my own shell, and try to go unnoticed or act out, be a rebel and pretend I wasn’t me, because anything was better than living in a body I loathed.
For as long as I can remember, I have disliked my body. I know what you are thinking; most women don’t like something about themselves. But it wasn’t just one thing for me. I existed in a body that felt and appeared to me to be flawed beyond repair. I couldn’t see what others saw. Every flaw shone bright as if illuminated with neon lights. Even worse was the feeling of inadequacy in other areas, i.e. school and sports which accompanied my body image issues. I just thought I wasn’t good enough as a human being.
So, I retreated. I became a shadow of myself. As a child, my parents thought I was just shy and so I became. I played the part, and let others take center stage so I could fade into the background. As I matured, I battled self-consciousness and events that would trigger this sense of ugliness and distortion. My reaction was always retreat, cry and punish myself for being not good enough.
The Struggle is Real
To some it may seem shallow, but for many, it is a legitimate psychological disorder known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (from herein referred to as BDD). The textbook definition of BDD is “a mental illness involving obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance.
“I was always comparing my body to the popular, pretty girls, the current pop culture princesses and the image of perfection I had created in my mind.”
The flaw can be minor or imagined. But the person may spend hours a day trying to fix it. People with this disorder may frequently examine their appearance in a mirror or constantly compare themselves with others and avoid social situations.” (Source: Mayo Clinic) In my case, I was always comparing my body to the popular, pretty girls, the current pop culture princesses and the image of perfection I had created in my mind.
In middle school, I was the only girl not developing and I was “too skinny”, and my “shyness” was perceived as snobbishness and self-centeredness, by those exact girls I idolized. I was bullied and called names, but I hid it all from my family, for fear of being a disappointment.
In high school my obsession turned to needing to be skinnier to keep up and fit in. I was getting more interested in pursuing dance, but I wasn’t blessed with the long, lean, lithe body of a ballerina. I was told I didn’t have the right body. This is when I turned to diet pills, restricted eating and experimenting with purging.
I remember listening to conversations of the popular girls and how they made themselves throw up. I tried it all. I restricted my meals, and only ate dinner. At school I would take five diet pills (appetite suppressants) and drink only a diet soda for lunch every day for a year.
From the age of 12-16, I went through a major bout of what I now know was depression and anxiety because of these issues. In this time I found fitness and lifting weights as a way to distract me from everything, and a way to channel my obsession with my perceived imperfections.
Thankfully, over the following few years, until I was 21, I was able to temper the obsession. I think in part because I found comfort in the people I surrounded myself with, especially in college. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel ugly or fat or inadequate. I fit in and I was happy just being me. I could get lost on stage as a dancer, and not think that people were looking at me and judging me negatively. I was free.
“This time I paired it with alcohol abuse and over-exercising.”
The cycle continues…
I began restricting my eating again when I came to the realization that I was in an unhappy and unhealthy marriage in 2005. This time I paired it with alcohol abuse and over-exercising. I was punishing myself for getting into the marriage. Not knowing whom to confide in, I retreated. I reunited with the only way I could control the chaos in my life.
I went from a very healthy and muscular, 140lbs, to a sickly 120lbs and had social anxiety so debilitating that I couldn’t get dressed to leave the house and I couldn’t be in public without being drunk. On my frame, I looked emaciated. I was miserable. My inability to communicate my depression and what was happening in my life brought me to a breaking point. I wanted to die and was drawn to even riskier behavior during my divorce. I decided that I would just be a disappointment and a failure and just end it.
A turning point
Then I met my savior. The man I now call my husband saved me from myself. He loved me from the moment we met. I was a disaster, but he SAW ME. He made me feel beautiful and alive for the first time in my life. He forgave my “craziness” and encouraged me to follow my passions. My BDD took a backseat. I was 27.
The words, “I never want kids so I don’t ruin my abs,” actually came out of my mouth whenever we talked about having kids. This was my BDD subtly resurrecting. But, then I got pregnant. Shockingly, my BDD was held at bay by my infatuation with our unborn child. I LOVED my pregnant body. I led a very fit pregnancy, working out and training clients until the day before he came into the world. I still gained a healthy 40lbs, but I was more than happy to have the extra weight for my baby to grow. My new curves and thicker limbs didn’t bother me. Although my body was quite literally distorted from its usual state, I didn’t see it that way. I felt beautiful. I bounced back fairly quickly, getting back to my healthy pre-pregnancy weight within 6 months.
The BDD didn’t resurface until after the birth of our second son in 2010, but it was mild. I would pinch at myself and say I was gross. I would change clothes a thousand times before settling, and sometimes would cry during the process. But my husband was there to talk me down from the episodes. He allowed me to feel what I was feeling, never telling me that I was wrong to feel it. I know it disturbed him but he knew that what I needed was his support and love to carry me through those difficult days.
“I was officially diagnosed with BDD in the summer of 2014, when I sought therapy for other personal issues.”
I was officially diagnosed with BDD in the summer of 2014, when I sought therapy for other personal issues. My therapist helped me to identify the root of my disorder and the triggers that cause my episodes. My feelings of inadequacy as a child came from a deep need to please everyone, primarily my parents. When I didn’t do that, it would trigger the anxiety and I would punish myself. I had to hide these behaviors, and I did it well. Being in the highly competitive dance world wasn’t helpful; in fact I believe that it was a major contributor to the progression of my disorder because I was always longing for a body that I just couldn’t have.
This inability to achieve this false sense of perfection triggered my feeling of inadequacy almost daily. I was so afraid of people thinking I was self-centered and shallow, that I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I finally came clean about my BDD to the No Excuse Mom group (of which I am the National Fitness Pro), because I found a community that finally understood and didn’t pass judgment. Letting go of this huge dark cloud that hung over me for so long set me free. I faced the fear head on, and my success has grown from there.
The road to figure pro
I never would have been able to take the stage as a Figure Competitor before this year. I made a promise to myself at the very beginning of the process that if I found myself comparing or getting anxious about my body, getting obsessive or feeling inadequate I would stop. It wasn’t worth it to me to put my mental condition at risk. But the complete opposite happened. The coach I found, by some twist of fate, was exactly the right guide for me through this process. The women of The Figure Workshop, led by Janet Marsico, held my hand through it all and made me feel at ease.
My confidence grew as my self-loathing diminished. I gained strength, not only in body, but also in mind and spirit. When I finally took the stage, I felt ready and secure and more beautiful than ever. My BDD isn’t “cured” and will never go away completely. But I know what the triggers are and how to combat it. I catch myself ogling other Figure Pros online and saying negative things like, “I’ll never look like that.” Or, “She’s perfect, I can’t get there.” So I turn it around and refer to them as my goals, something I CAN work towards.
“It’s about staying positive, having attainable and realistic goals, and knowing that I am good enough.”
It’s about staying positive, having attainable and realistic goals, and knowing that I am good enough. I remind myself daily that I have a loving husband and children that love me just as I am, and to them, I am the most beautiful mommy in the world. THAT makes me completely adequate and drives me to be the best me I can. I now know that it is ok to be perfectly imperfect, it makes me, ME.
If you think you may be suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, you are not alone. About 1 in 50 or 2% of the population, both men and women equally, suffer from BDD. It is a treatable condition. If you are not sure if your feelings/thoughts are in fact BDD, you can take a questionnaire at www.bddfoundation.org and begin your healing. NMI