Let me start by saying that I haven’t been diagnosed with any mental illnesses. I’ve never sought out a diagnosis, and I’ve never been in crisis to the point where a medical professional had to know about it. I have spent lots of time in therapy though, with an excellent psychotherapist, who once told me that although she doesn’t think labels are always helpful, maybe I should look into Body Dysmorphic Disorder, to find out about people with similar experiences to my own. So I did, and the experiences were indeed very similar.
What could have been the opportunity to find community, unfortunately, ended up being frustrating and pretty useless. The diagnostic criteria for BDD, according to the DSM-V, are:
A) Preoccupation with a perceived physical flaw that isn’t noticeable or seems slight to others
B) Repetitive behaviours (like mirror checking or excessive grooming) in response to the preoccupation
C) Clinically significant distress or impairment caused by the preoccupation
D) Not an eating disorder
It’s basically an intense preoccupation with a flaw that’s incredibly upsetting. Trying to hide it takes up a lot of your time and attention, and it affects your life, relationships, and how you see yourself and the world around you. Most of the diagnostic criteria seems fine to me, but something about it really upsets me. The part that bothers me, and the part that people tend to focus on when talking about BDD, is that the flaw isn’t noticeable or seems slight to others. Essentially, BDD is the “but you’re so pretty!” disease. It’s more about your perception of yourself being objectively wrong than about the shame you feel about your body. Every time someone writes about BDD, they talk about insignificant or imaginary flaws, to emphasize that the shame reaction is completely blown out of proportion. As if there could ever be a situation in which my intense body shame was appropriate.
Maybe I don’t have BDD, and the diagnostic criteria seems so terrible to me because it doesn’t reflect my experience. I definitely don’t want to take the label away from anyone who finds it useful; I completely understand how it could really help to be able to frame your body shame as something that’s inaccurate, that other people don’t see. But seeing yourself differently than others do, seeing specific features as more prominent or noticeable, isn’t actually a problem. Shame is the problem. Being so preoccupied with your appearance that you can’t function is the problem. And focusing so much on the flaw being imaginary tells you that your experience of your body is invalid, and reinforces the belief that it’s shameful to have “real” imperfections.
Needless to say, although my therapist thought that finding people with similar experiences to my own would be helpful, I didn’t find the BDD label useful at all. But her instinct wasn’t entirely wrong. In the end, what ended up helping me most with my body shame was Tumblr, and a healthy dose of feminist rage.
I turned to Tumblr to find photos of people who had the same imperfections as I did but who embraced them, so that I could try to get used to seeing them as okay or normal. What I ended up finding was other people who were intensely ashamed of exactly the same thing as me. I saw how ugly and alone and vulnerable and scared they felt, and I felt so much more compassion for them than I’d been able to feel for myself. And then I got furious on their behalf. Their deviation from society’s horrible, ridiculously narrow beauty standards was crushing their self-worth. I’ve gotta say, righteous indignation is a pretty great antidote to shame.
After about twenty years of intense shame and preoccupation with my particular “flaw,” for the past couple of years, I’ve been doing so much better. My recovery was long and difficult and complex, and it’s still in progress. But I’m so thankful for the brave women of Tumblr who were willing to be so publicly vulnerable and open up about how they felt about their bodies. I found people like me, and I was able to apply some of the compassion I felt for them and injustice I saw in their situation to myself.
My first memories of intense body shame that I can date are from grade 4. From then until my late twenties, I couldn’t stand the way I looked. I was constantly embarrassed and ashamed, and it coloured so many of my interactions with the people and the world around me. I don’t love everything about the way I look now, but the difference from just a few years ago is staggering. I generally like how I look overall, despite my flaws. I also spend very little time thinking about the things I don’t like, compared to how much of my focus they used to hold. Embracing imperfection is the goal, but it’s easier said than done. For now, I’m mostly accepting imperfection, which is something I never thought I’d be able to do.