I looked in the mirror. My hair was shiny. My skin looked OK. Did I even think I was pretty? The audacity. Why had this unknown resolve risen up within me? For years, I had a dangerous addiction to my body image that saw me experience anorexia, then nearly undergo breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, and collagen lip implants simultaneously. I found myself on the operating table, within seconds of undergoing surgery. Suddenly I experienced a compelling epiphany, asking myself why I needed to do this. Despite my seemingly adult choices, I wanted to claim power back so much that for decades someone else’s lie had become my truth. I got up off the table and ran out the door as fast as I could. So how does someone with severe body dysmorphia and perpetual feelings of ugliness suddenly do an about-face?
Here's how I shifted my perspective to overcome body dysmorphia and feel comfortable in my own skin.
1. Observe people's behavior while you are dressed up.
In a flash of recognition, I suddenly remembered how people reacted to me when I was dressed up in my sexy phase, with long blonde hair hung down over my tight buttocks and slinky body. I wore high heels all the time. My make-up was perfect. I got mistaken for someone so much younger. Yet I attracted nothing akin to empowerment. Old men who wanted a status symbol. Alpha males who turned cold after reciprocating. Men touching me without asking. Swingers and those with open marriages. Men who cried on me, who became pushy and angry, sometimes harassing me in workplaces if they couldn't have their own way. The good ones were few and far between. I never got the respect I craved. Observe people's behavior while dressed up. You'd be amazed at what you can glean from people's responses to your appearance.
2. Take photos of yourself to combat body dysmorphia. Different angles create different results.
I was trying to take a professional shot of myself one day. From one direction, when I held the camera angle up, I had the jaw of a weightlifting champion. Camera down, I had the nose of a coat rack. Oops, a shot of my eyes fluttering. Great — I'm possessed! I decided to turn my head to the side and put my hair in a bun. What a difference the angle makes! It was a nice shot. I thought, “Oh that's me.” I keep it as my professional journalism shot. It is the same for stomachs, thighs, breasts, noses, and the list goes on. Accepted wisdom says you should avoid looking in the mirror. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have realized that's how I look most of the time.
3. Find out if a medical condition could be affecting your appearance and contributing to body dysmorphia.
Toxic positivity in health circles has become a form of medical gaslighting. There's a medical reason for the things you don't like, but people try to convince you otherwise. Unbeknownst to me, I did have an underlying medical condition. Like one of the most bizarre stories you could hear on Ripley's Believe It or Not, I had a teratoma. The name is Greek for “little monster.” It is the result of another unborn fetus attached to the body which doesn't quite form into a twin. Being a predatory extra organism, it was depleting my nutrients, making me pale, skinny, and causing undernourishment. After my operation, people did not recognize me. I also have lordosis, which is a concavity of the lower spine. This makes my stomach protrude naturally and unfairly. There's nothing I can do to treat it except have a metal rod put in my spine. Always explore the possibility of health or medical reasons for the way you look. My condition was asymptomatic.
4. Stop reading books and articles about cosmetic surgery — including those that are against it.
This sounds ironic but the more I read texts on this stuff, the more I want to have plastic surgery. These books are compelling, the writing is amazing and they contain many truths about the politics behind plastic surgery. However, due to the topic of focus, and the physical appearance of these female authors, it tends to undermine the underlying messages. 1990 heralded “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf. Described in a language never articulated by women before, her book was set to revolutionize the way women saw themselves. “Beauty is not our sexuality, sexuality is our beauty,” she says. There's only one problem. Naomi Wolf is absolutely gorgeous. At 60, she still is. Looking like something from the pages of a magazine, she sports a peaches-and-cream complexion, long black hair, blue eyes, and perfectly symmetrical features. No matter the rightful moralism about beauty, I just want to look like her. Things like status that are tangential to body image are also often stress triggers for eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
5. Don't compare yourself to celebrity images.
I am unsure who possesses that small percentage of stereotypical beauty. I'm unsure if it exists. Glamorous icons are in nuanced contrast to everyone else, resting upon the shaky mantle of fickle celebrity, only by the mute image that separates them from us. They are liked for what they possess, not for who they are as human beings. While it seems models relish their status, powerful industries thrive off of the silence of their inductees, making the uninitiated perceive that looks are all-encompassing. By living our lives through media, we take for granted the medium in which female celebrities are presented. We forget that they are under hot lights, with makeup on, and at the right angles. In fact, I could write a separate article on the many political inequalities of fame. I'm not saying we all look the same. But it's an unfair comparison just the same. Voyeuristic magazines that print ugly photos of celebrities with cellulite and no make-up are not good either. It's still a fixation on looks and it makes me relate to the world in an egotistical, competitive way. Perhaps “image fluidity” is more my thing; it helps me realize the power of appearance.
6. Recognize your distorted perceptions of what “beauty” looks like.
It’s funny what images tell us about success. Relating to images cons people. It removes them from their own concept of individuality such that they don’t know what is good for them. Before I went to have my teeth done, the dental surgeon said, “You don't want white teeth because the coloring won't suit you.” I was in shock. I’d been fed the concept that the whiter my teeth the closer I was to beauty. Envy drives obsession so much that sometimes you can't see what you're looking at realistically. The breast implants I nearly got might have made a mockery of me. I would have been sending mixed messages with a regular skin tone and natural hair, with tight round breasts that never seemed to move. I'd then have to change my hair; my skin. More surgery. The results of plastic surgery may trigger body dysmorphia further. Often, our concept of the way our enhanced selves look is out of touch with reality. You might be making a mistake by having surgery.
7. Understand that when people are praised for their looks, they aren't truly valued.
A “looks hierarchy” is distorted unification. While I have been rejected based on my image, especially by being severely bullied in high school — ugly, not good enough, less status — people who are valued for their looks are rejected for their soul. They fit in by pleasing people; liked as some kind of yearning projection from others, while never being valued for who they are. As a result, people develop what I call “split consciousness.” While feeling compelled to enhance themselves, parts of them are trying to eradicate their identity, out of anger and rebellion about being valued for nothing else. If they have had surgery, they often look gaudy and hideous, not even close to resembling the distorted representation they conjure in their minds.
I also wanted to change myself for others who don't fit a stereotype. The consultant in the cosmetic surgery clinic, who was advising me on its vagaries, hadn't had one ounce of surgery. She knew how bad it was. A lot of the time, feeling the need to have surgery comes from other women. Women who impose this on others are as sexist and anti-feminist as any man. It does not come from trustworthy, objective thought, it's out of some kind of twisted girl connection. People who evaluate your looks don't respect you or themselves.
I'll let you in on a secret that should empower anyone for the rest of their lives — I am not considered stereotypically beautiful. I'm on the edge; not quite classic; almost. Some might think I am because of the whole package and some might not. I am happy being borderline stereotypical as it sends a different message — that you don't have to be beautiful to be happy. I love not quite fitting in and being different.
What has helped you improve your self-esteem and overcome body dysmorphia?
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