When I checked into an eating disorder facility two years ago, I was diagnosed with severe body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) of my chin and thighs. “Isn’t that just another way of saying I’m self-absorbed?” I whined to my therapist.
Growing up, hearing peers say they “felt fat” was as common as hearing “TTYL,” so I assumed being unhappy with appearance was something everybody struggled with. But over time and through a lot of self-reflection and work, I came to realize it was more than that.
We live in a society where outbursts of negative self-talk are an accepted reality. It's human nature to have insecurities, but that also means we bystanders are often complacent when we hear peers chide themselves. However, when should negative self-talk be treated as something beyond a typical insecurity?
While every case is specific, these are five signs of body dysmorphic disorder I experienced that you may also be experiencing if you suffer from BDD:
1. You never feel fully engaged in anything.
You have a complete loss of interest and presence. You talk to someone and are unable to concentrate on what they say because you wonder whether they've looked down and seen how “disgusting” your hands are.
You hike with your family and spend half the time obsessing about how big your thighs looked in a picture taken back at the cabin.
You promise a friend you’ll go to dinner and then flake because you can't spend another moment looking at your thighs in your pants. The thought of spending two hours sitting in the discomfort of your "crazy-tight" pants is inconceivable, so you cancel to go home and put on baggy sweatpants and an oversize T-shirt and hide under a blanket so you don’t have to look at yourself.
2. Your relationship with mirrors becomes abusive.
Every mirror incites obsession. On a subway, you stare at your reflection in the window, obsessing over the differences between that one and the one in your bathroom mirror and the oven door and a coffee shop window.
As a 7-year-old, I'd sit in front of my bathroom mirror and yank my ears back while I attempted to tape them to my head. As a 23-year-old, I'd obsessively seek out a picture of my thighs and any pimple every time a reflection was available.
My family used to joke that I'd never seen a mirror I didn't like, but what they didn't understand was that I lived in constant fear of what I looked like, so I had to constantly check in with my reflection.
3. You develop negative coping mechanisms.
Whether you "cope" by running 13 miles every day to burn off every calorie you've consumed (and then some) or you compulsively shop and end up with 10 different concealers to hide the "grotesque" acne on your chin, undiagnosed BDD can lead to some very severe, very compulsive habits.
It plagues your thoughts, compelling you to feel like you need to change or "fix" something immediately. You can't sit with the discomfort of the way you think your nose looks on your face, or the wrinkles around your eyes. You have do something to make it all better, even if it means spending money you don't have on "fixes" or drinking a bottle of wine every night to ease the anxiety.
4. You compare yourself to every person you see.
You're in a meeting at work, fixating on your co-worker's thighs, fantasizing about how different your life would be if you could only have her legs.
You're standing in line at the grocery store and notice someone near you has a pimple on his chin. You continue to glance at it, comparing it to the ones you just know are invading your face.
Whether it's a celebrity, a model, or someone you interact with every day, the comparisons never stop. You never feel adequate or good enough or pretty enough or small enough, especially when you measure yourself against someone else. And it's always a losing comparison in your mind.
5. The thoughts are constant.
From the minute you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, the negative, attacking thoughts never stop.
You walk down the street and panic as someone walks toward you, thinking you won't both be able to fit on the sidewalk. You step onto the bus and immediately check to see if a handicapped seat is available because you're afraid your thighs will hang out into the aisle. You choose to stand on the subway because you're scared you won't fit in the seat between two people.
You stop showering consistently because you know that if you get in the shower, you'll only end up playing with the fat on your thighs to determine how much of it you could cut off to feel better.
You stand up from a table and immediately check to make sure your friends' eyes aren't looking at your legs and waist.
BDD will consume you, whether it's gradually or all at once. It can take on many different shapes, forms, and body parts, and it will strip your life from you without you even realizing it.
The more candid those of us in recovery become, the more we can help others. Perhaps then we'll have a better means of fighting it within ourselves and as a community.
If you feel that any of this applies to you or think you may suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, please talk to a loved one or professional about your situation. You can find resources here.