My Mental Health: Body Dysmorphic Disorder

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about my experience with eating disorders, and briefly mentioned Body Dysmorphic Disorder (also known as BDD or simply dysmorphia). Through my own experience with it, dysmorphia is like walking through a very long corridor of funhouse mirrors, and every mirror shows you something different, depending on how your dysmorphia is affecting you that day. It might be your teeth, or your nose, or your thighs, or even something that’s never crossed your mind before. That’s too large, that’s too small, that needs covered up – the list of grievances seems endless.

As it is a mental illness, Body Dysmorphic Disorder can go hand-in-hand with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. As I suffer from or am in recovery from most of these, I’ve found that they do try and feed off of each other. For example, if I’m having an anxious day, I may have a harder time keeping my dysmorphia under control.

The NHS’s page on dysmorphia defines it as follows: Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance.

I found this website to be particularly helpful during the early stages of research. It includes a list of symptoms, possible causes and treatment options. Further research brought me to the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation’s website. Here I found a more detailed insight into dysmorphia, including stories from people who suffer from it and are now in recovery, a questionnaire that may help you figure out if it is dysmorphia that you have, as well as an FAQ about symptoms and help available.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this disorder, but having had years of experience with it, I know first-hand what I’m talking about. That being said, how it affects me or my own coping mechanisms may not help you, and you may need to take a different route through recovery than I have.

Listed below are a few self-care tips and methods that I use to cope with my dysmorphia on a day-to-day basis. As dysmorphia can be tricky to deal with, like any mental illness, some days these methods may work better than on others.

1. Music. I find that music helps me a great deal, especially when I’m getting ready for the day. Right now, I find that Fall Out Boy is especially helpful to listen to, particularly their song I Don’t Care. Sometimes when I am suffering from sensory overload (when my senses are being bombarded by sound, or too much light), I find instrumental music, such as Trip Hop, very helpful and there are a number of bands and songs to be found on YouTube. n e v e r by palence is one of my favourites.

2. Water. This may seem like a very obvious one, and it’s one that you’ll find plastered everywhere, but there’s a reason for it. I find that if I’m not well-hydrated, I’ll have a harder time performing the most basic tasks, especially decision-making, and this is where anxiety often finds its opening. Decision-making during an anxiety attack is a nightmare, and for me it can very quickly lead to confusion, panic and abandonment of whatever plans I was making, from going out to see friends to even making food. With my history of eating disorders, this can be a particularly dangerous problem, and I won’t be able to eat until I’ve calmed down, which can take a while. To combat this, I try to make sure that I always have a bottle of water with me, as something as small as a few regular sips of water can save me a lot of trouble.

3. Food. Like water, food plays an essential role in keeping anxiety at bay. Of course, as dysmorphia is a physically based disorder, it may try to convince that you don’t need to eat, and I’ve found that this has happened to me a fair few times. When this happens, the best thing to do is to eat something small, such as a banana or a breakfast bar to stave off any oncoming anxiety. I’ve found that once I do this, food isn’t as much of a big deal as it was a few moments ago.

4. Be Yourself. In a world dominated by social media, Photoshop and editing apps, and magazines filled with make-up and dieting advice, it can be very easy to get caught up in it all and let it take over your life. We’re told from every angle that we need to be prettier, we need to be thinner, have clearer skin, better hair, straighter teeth – it’s exhausting. Living with dysmorphia only serves to heighten this problem. Many of us like to wear make-up, or style our hair in a specific way, or wear corsets or heels or push-up bras – a never-ending list of products to make us look taller, thinner, more pristine, as close to perfection as we can possibly push ourselves. As great as these can be – I personally adore vintage styles and experimenting with different looks – it is vital to your own mental health, as well as coping with dysmorphia, that you take time to be yourself. No make-up, no fancy hair, no corset – just regular, bare-faced you. I find that the longer that I spend all made-up and “perfect”, the harder a time I have adjusting to what I actually look like underneath it all. To make this easier, try and schedule in some self-care around this time – a hot bath, or a good book, or whatever you do to take care of yourself – and you will begin to associate being yourself with nice things.

5. Mirrors. With dysmorphia, mirrors are both a blessing and a curse. I’ve found that on my bad days, I can spend over an hour throughout the day looking at myself and trying to fix my perceived flaws with my fingers or make-up, or taking photos of myself to see how I look to other people. As hard as it is, when bad days come, for me, it’s best to stay away from mirrors and photos, because I know that I won’t be happy with what I see no matter what. On good days, when I’m more relaxed, I like to spend a little time looking at myself and deciding what I like about myself. Now I know this sounds very cliched, but I’ve found that it does help. Realistically, when your anxiety is calling you names and telling you that you’re any number of horrible things, what do you actually gain from it, other than more self-loathing? Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m not saying within a week you should be shouting how much you love yourself from the rooftops (if only it were that easy!), but even starting with the smallest things can help to make a big difference. For example, I’ll start with “I like the shape of my collarbones” and maybe I won’t get any farther than that, but it’s a start. The important thing is not to push it. Don’t force yourself to say nice things if it begins to make you anxious and upset. Some days I’ll have something as tiny as “I may not like the shape of my stomach, but I like that it lets me enjoy my favourite food and helps keep me alive”. It might sound silly, and your anxiety may scoff, but it’s helped me countless times.

I hope that this has been helpful in even the smallest way, and if I can provide any further help or guidance, I’d be more than happy to. Unfortunately I don’t know how to get rid of dysmorphia completely, but having some control over it is an incredible feeling, and I hope to keep gaining back control, just as I hope the same for whoever may be reading this.

And just remember:

You are not vain.

You are not shallow.

And you are most certainly not as alone as you might think.


My Mental Health: Eating Disorders

When I first started thinking about creating a blog, I wasn’t sure as to what theme I would have – would I keep it strictly vintage fashion as originally intended, or would I branch out? I then thought that while this blog is personal to me and supposed to be something to be enjoyed (and hey, if it leads somewhere bigger, that’s a sweet bonus), it’s also out there on the internet for anyone to read. So in this regard, I thought it would be a good platform to write about my own experiences. It’s a good exercise for myself, and if there’s a possibility that reading my blog could help someone else, then all the better.

(This post will be discussing my experiences with eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and BDD. If you are in any way triggered by this, please stop reading here.)

For a long time, I’ve lived with an eating disorder. My first recollection was when I was around 8 years old, I had been dealing with a sudden move to a neighbourhood that I hated, which also meant a new school, and a lot of things in between. I spent a lot of time alone, and found myself eating a lot, and it wasn’t until years later that I realised that I was depending on food for comfort in place of people. This continued on into secondary school, and around the time that puberty reared its bloody, acne-riddled head, I developed anorexia, being 100% convinced that I needed to lose weight and I needed to lose weight now. In hindsight, I wasn’t especially overweight, I’ve always been tall and a lot of my weight was ‘puppy fat’ that left in its own time. But as anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder will know, it doesn’t care what size you are – it only cares about whittling you down to nothing, both physically and mentally.

Anorexia is a great deal about control, often sufferers will have difficulty with aspects of their school or home lives, especially as it is so common in teenagehood, when you’re losing the freedoms of childhood, but haven’t yet gained the freedoms of adulthood. By no means am I claiming to speak for everyone in this regard – everyone’s experiences are different – but it certainly applied to me. I didn’t have a lot of control in what was going on around me, and when I first started cooking for myself at around 14, working out what I could and couldn’t eat, it felt amazing. Finally, I thought, something I have total control over. That’s how it starts. It takes a long time before you realise that you never had any control at all.

So I began cooking for myself. I’d make a routine of it – I’d come home from school, put on the radio and make something like soup or pasta. Small portions, but not so small that it would be noticeable. It started well, I felt more grown-up with this new responsibility, and I began losing weight fairly quickly. I started feeling happier. Of course, this only lasted a short time. Anorexia is like a loan shark, you start “paying your debt” and you feel good, and then it gets greedy and wants more and more from you until you can’t control it anymore. At my worst, I was living on a handful of crackers and 2 little pots of custard each day. I dropped from 10st (a healthy weight for a 5ft 8 teenager) to 8 1/2st in a disturbingly short amount of time. I was always tired, my school work suffered, my friends were concerned about me, and I was forced to face it when one of them sought out the school counsellor. To my anorexia-controlled mind, this was a total betrayal of trust – there was nothing wrong with me, shouldn’t someone with actual problems be here instead of me?

It took a while for anything to change, and it wasn’t until my mother found out that I was now making myself sick that I started getting better, however slightly. I was brought to see a dietitian and was told the risks of what I was doing to myself involved.

But I’m not ill, I kept telling myself, I just want to lose a little weight.

Occasionally I would wake up, the real me, and realise what I was doing to myself. I’d try to eat a little more, and that little more would be quickly thrown away or flushed with the rest of it. It was as if I was living with an evil stepmother who didn’t want me to be happy. It would probably have been easier to process that way, if it were someone else making me do it.

Eventually that small part of me realised that I had to keep pushing myself to wake up to the reality of what I was doing to my body and that I was going to kill myself if I kept it up. I moved schools after suffering a near-breakdown, and this helped immensely. I felt a little more at ease and made new friends, and eventually I put the weight back on.

When I had finished school in my late teens, I had no idea what to do with myself next. I ended up sitting around the house a lot alone, and as a result, fell into depression. It was around this time that my eating disorder reared its ugly head again in a new form – chewing and spitting. Let me be clear that my eating disorder had never fully dissipated – I had stopped making myself sick and I wasn’t restricting my eating as much, but the thoughts were still there, the negative, harsh thoughts towards both food and my own body. This new routine sounded great – I could buy all the food I wouldn’t ever allow myself to eat – chocolate, cakes, anything not too messy – and chew and chew until I’d gotten all the satisfaction of the taste, then I would spit it into a bag and throw it out. No one would be the wiser, it sounded perfect. My only concern was my teeth, but I reasoned that I’d just brush more often. This worked for a while, but chewing and spitting has a similar effect on your body as chewing too much gum – eventually your stomach is going to start expecting that food to come down so it can be digested. I started feeling very sick, and my digestive system certainly didn’t thank me for it.

I realised that if I didn’t start doing something with myself, I would be stuck in this cycle forever, so I started thinking of what I could do with myself. My impulsiveness can be both a blessing and a curse, and on a whim, I found an old sewing kit and pillow case and clumsily sewed a little plush doll. Within a few days I had a pile of felt fabric and different colours of thread, and this took me away from depression and eating disorders for a short period of time, distracted me enough to start getting better. I was gifted a portable sewing machine and began taking my new hobby further, making hats and parts of costumes. Within a few months, I had found volunteer work with a theatre company, and working there on a regular basis really helped to keep me motivated and distracted.

I wish I could say that I found the miracle cure and magically got better, but unfortunately it often doesn’t work that way. Thanks to bulimia, there are certain foods that I used to enjoy that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat again, a restaurant I used to love visiting with friends that I can probably never sit comfortably in again. For me, it’s been a lot of hard work and trial and error, and I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t had a few relapses, but I don’t beat myself up like I used to, I use them as a learning experience and I keep moving forward. Thankfully, they’ve gotten less and less frequent over the years.

It was only a few years ago that I found out about Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD. A lot of me began to make sense. It’s like looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror, and seeing all of these weird versions staring back. It’s the belief that something about you needs to be fixed drastically and that everyone is staring at you because of it. It often goes hand in hand with anxiety, which is true in my case. Although it’s not something I want to have, knowing that this is a real condition and that I’m not the only one that lives with it has helped a great deal in my recovery.

I’m certainly not in love with my body, but I don’t want to cause it harm anymore, and honestly that’s the best thing that I could ask for right now.

If anyone has any queries or comments regarding their own experiences, please feel free to leave them below.