I am a Body Dysmorphic.
In scientific terms, that means I am “characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in my appearance.” It means I struggle with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thoughts about the way I look.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, it means I have a chronic mental illness.
(That should probably bother me, but it doesn’t really… I always knew I was a little bit crazy.)
In layman’s terms, Body Dysmorphia means “I don’t like my body.” There are parts I would even say I hate. I don’t hate all of the parts, just some. And, those parts I hate, I spend a heck of a lot of time thinking about them. They’re always there. Whereas most (normal) people exist in their skin without giving their body much thought, I think about my body all. the. time.
As far as life goes, you can see the disorder manifested in my strict refusal to wear shorts or skirts that show my legs above the knee, or shirts that show my stomach, even around the house, even for bed. I haven’t worn a swimming suit in public since I was 18. I don’t wear snug clothing. I HIDE in my clothing. (Jeans out of the dumpster that are two sizes too big are just right.) The disorder tells me “You’re fat,” even though I’m not. I have not looked in a full length mirror in years. (I have one, but it’s hidden behind the door.) I hate, hate, hate dressing rooms, with the stark, show-every-flaw, overhead lights and mirrors at every angle. (Like I want to see my own butt?) Last time I was in one of those rooms, I cried off and on for two days and starved for three. I haven’t tried on clothes in a dressing room for almost 20 years – I buy them, take them home, try them on, and if they don’t fit I make the extra trip back to the store to return them.
My disorder manifests itself in a very specific way. Every body dysmorphic has (at least) one part of themselves they obsess over; for me, it’s my weight. And my waist. My midsection, and the direct correlation the size of my middle has with the number on the scale.
High scale numbers are “bad.” Low scale numbers are “good.”
High scale numbers mean “ew and oh no, who would want to look at me, no one wants to touch me.” It means no sex, “because GROSS how could he want that,” and lots of self-inflicted punishment through calorie restriction, giving up favorite foods, and way too oh-so-much exercise.
Low scale numbers mean, “I know when I sit down my stomach won’t pooch out over my pants,” and I’m confident that I won’t muffin top in my jeans. It means I wear a snug-ER shirt (but still not tight. no no tight clothes.). And I’m happier, and I feel confident and light and unburdened and free.
…well, not TOTALLY free.
Because when you’re a body dysmorphic, “free” is a fleeting feeling. It only lasts for a day or so, or until you get back on the scale.
Once you’re back on the scale and that number tells you “this is how much you’re worth,” you’re not free anymore. Not if the number has moved UP. Not even if the number has stayed the same.
For a very long time, I lived alone with my obsession. I felt alone in my disgrace. My disorder attached shame to my outward appearance, so I hid it. From EVERYONE. I hid physically and mentally. I isolated myself from others. I did not make friends. I did not let anyone in. The people who knew me knew only the tiny bits I would relinquish, nothing more. Every relationship I had was held at arms length.
As though my feelings for my body (and my body itself) were ugly, horrible, physical deformities, I hid the shame and the shame hid me. I lived intentionally alone in the dark. I did it to save others from the horribleness that was my existence. I hid my body and my perception of my body from everyone,
but mostly I was hiding it from myself.
I couldn’t deal with it, myself.
About a month ago, I joined a crossfit group. I’ve done a lot of mental recovery over the last year or so, and for the first time I am taking steps to make progress for the sake of TAKING STEPS, not for the sake of progress. Not because of or out of spite for my disorder. Not “because I have to,” but because I want to. Not out of fear, but out of strength. I’m working out and sweating three times a week for me, because I can, not “because if I don’t I’m worthless.”
I have also not been on a scale for almost two months.
As a recoverING body dysmorphic and a recovered anorexic, this is a huge, huge deal.
Yesterday, at the gym, I decided to use the toilet in the women’s locker room before my workout. It was the first time I’d used the toilet in that particular place; usually I use the bathroom right next to the treadmill (because without fail every time, 30 seconds into my warm up and I have to pee).
I walked around the corner, and there, like a big, glorious, terrible, horrible, wonderful alter, was a scale.
And not just ANY scale, but a BIG ONE. The kind they used to put next to the gumball machines at the grocery store, or right beside the Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken at Farmer’s Supply.
In that moment, I cannot explain to you with words how hard the pull was to step onto that scale.
So, so, so hard. Like, “black hole, gravitational pull of eternity” hard.
I didn’t do it. Not right away.
Not because “I’m so strong, look how much I’ve grown, I don’t need that,” but because I really had to pee. And, as any woman who has ever had a love-hate relationship with her scale will tell you, “You weigh yourself AFTER you pee, not before.” (also take out your hair scrunchie, and get naked.)
I hurried into the stall to do my business, so I could hurry to get on that scale.
Then something happened.
While I was sitting there, as my ran through pre-scale check “how much does pee weigh again?, did I drink a ton or eat a lot of salt, will I pee enough, or am I still holding onto water,” I heard another woman come into the bathroom and step on the scale.
She stood there for a few seconds, then stepped off. I heard the door shut behind her.
Moments later, another woman did the same. Enter the bathroom, step on the scale, stand there for a few seconds, step off, leave the room.
I flushed, pulled up my pants (because I can’t pull up my pants before I flush, it feels weird), left the stall, and washed my hands.
While I was washing, one more woman weighed herself.
Mind you, when I used the toilet I was only peeing. JUST NUMBER ONE. Not number two, not even girly issues. From start to finish, including hand washing, I was in the bathroom for a total of two minutes.
Two minutes. Four women. And the gym wasn’t even that busy.
As I stood there drying my hands, I looked at that scale. For the first time in probably forever, I looked at it like I had no idea what it was. Like I was an alien from another planet, and this weird thing was something I’d never seen before.
I looked at it with objective eyes, an open mind, and a detached heart, and the hazy, misty thought that had started to form in my head as I sat on the toilet, listening to the parade of women hop on the scale, came together in one, brilliant moment of clarity.
Something in my brain went **click.**
“I was right… THAT IS AN ALTER.”
“…and it’s not just me who worships there.”
See, worship isn’t just for Christians. We ALL do it. My very favorite pastor told me, “Humans are creatures of worship, regardless of religion.” Whether you believe in God, karma, Buddah, the universe, Mother Nature, Father Time, the flying spaghetti monster, or just yourself, we all worship SOMETHING. We’re made to do it. Every single one of us.
Many people in our current culture look at “those religious nutjobs” and judge them for what it is they put their trust in. We judge their faith. We see them as weak and stupid, because they rely on approval from something outside themselves.
“How dumb can you be, trusting an imaginary deity that you can’t even see? You trust something whose worth is built up in your own mind, to determine your own value and worth. LAME.”
…and yet. There I was, standing before a piece of gears and metal, springs and glass, waiting for it to save me. Waiting for it to tell me that I was worthy, waiting for it to set me free.
If worshiping an unseen God is thought of as dumb, this has got to be worse.
In that moment, I understood what the Israelites were doing when they worshiped the golden calf. I understood why Hindus worship statues of Kali. And why the ancient Greeks worshiped at the foot of Zeus’s statue.
In that moment, I UNDERSTOOD THE REASONS BEHIND WORSHIP. I understood that people just wanted SOMETHING, anything, whatever they can find that is tangible, to make their efforts and suffering and struggle REAL. To make all the angst and tension that consumes their guts worthwhile. To feel like they are making PROGRESS. To reach out and touch what they hope for, what they’ve longed for, for so, so long.
My relationship with the scale, I realized, is my form of horrible, awful, as-close-to-religion-as-you-can-possibly-get, worship. I WORSHIP that thing. Once a week, every week, I kneel down at its feet to hear what it has to say. I bask in its words to make me feel better. I live my life to please it, and to hear rewarding things. If it is unhappy with me, I punish myself for misbehaving. I live according to its will, demanding of myself whatever it takes in order to gratify it, to bring the number down, to manipulate the outcome in a positive way.
I hate that effing scale.
I love that effing scale.
Almost all of my life, I have worshipped that effing scale.
And, in this country, MOST of us women worship that same, false god.
Like I said, worship isn’t just for Christians. Everyone does it. Worship is “reverent honor and homage paid to a sacred personage or to any object regarded as sacred.” It’s the formality and ceremony of such honor. It’s adoring reverence.
…or, according to the American Psychiatric Association, it’s a mental illness.
I know I’m making a pretty big stretch, suggesting that my body dysmorphic tendencies are a form of worship. But not really… they are the same. The way my mental illness manifests itself and religion, they are the same. I tithe into my religious worship of choice just like any other devout disciple. Not only have I given time and money to my object of worship, I have given focus. And attention. Thoughts. Words. Actions. Energy, passion, creativity, choices.
And 38 years of my life.
I know the road to recovery is long. I know that I’ve got a long way to go, before I think of my body as “not gross.” I know I will slide backward, I will the same person I was a week-month-year ago, even if only for a moment.
What I will not do anymore, is worship that scale.
I have recognized with full clarity where I have unintentionally put my focus for almost all of my life, and I vow to never, ever do it again.
I will no longer prostrate myself in the dirt, clawing at the foot of an alter made of glass and metal and springs and dials.
I know a lot of women will read my story and think, “Wow, that’s bad. I know I worry about my weight, but not like THAT.”
That’s good. That’s WONDERFUL. Your heart is closer to as it should be.
For the rest of you, you’re not alone. You’re not the only one that has struggled with shame and self-hate. You’re not the only one that has been led astray by concerns of flesh and bone. You’re not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you.
Not with your body, not with your mind. You, WE, just have a few things to sort out in our heads.
We need to learn true worth.
We need to remember that true worth cannot be measured by any unit of size or weight.
We must accept that we need not be victim to our emotions.
We must be confident that no habit can hold us, and “the way things have always been” does not dictate “the way things can be now.”
No deity, man-made or otherwise, no expectation of our own or someone else, has power over our lives.
Not unless we allow it.
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