By Stuart Graham
I will just start by saying that all of what I say about this disorder is personal experience and speculation based on what I have gone through.
I will also say that I have never been medically diagnosed with this disorder.
However I think everyone knows the feeling of reading or seeing something descriptive and being struck with the thought “This sums me up perfectly” and so, for a moment, you are taken aback by how you can see your complex emotions just summed up in a paragraph of writing.
This was me when I first looked up BDD on Wikipedia. This was when I started to feel less alone with my problem.
BDD is an acronym standing for Body Dysmorphic Disorder. The NHS define BDD as “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.”
This definition is a bit clinical for me. In my opinion BDD is a life altering confidence hoover.
At its worst point, the disorder can put you in danger. You feel like that at every minute of the day everyone you meet is looking at you.
And not just looking generally at you but at your feature; that one part of you you can’t stand to think about. Yet can’t think about anything else.
For me, it was my hips. No matter what anyone else said to me, no matter how many compliments I received I always thought my hips were too fat and too round.
It sounds trivial, I know. And I know that every now and then everyone thinks they look fat some place or another.
But my fixation on that specific part of the body went past simple insecurity; it became an obsession (and one I couldn’t really control).
I mean it started of small, as these things always do. I had just started high school and my body was doing a whole load of crazy shit.
I couldn’t explain any of what was going on but as I was in a state school in urban Scotland- no one really talked about it.
So over the years the thoughts became more than thoughts, they became worries. The worries then became anxieties and soon I couldn’t go through a day without looking in a mirror and hating the way I looked.
Then the mirror became such a big part of my life. In all I’ve read on blogs and articles about the disorder mirrors seem to crop up a lot.
The mirror enables the unavoidable action of viewing ourselves; and further than that, the action of judging ourselves.
When we stand there in front of ourselves we pick the tiniest part of our appearance and fixate on it. This action however is so often misinterpreted.
When people see someone looking in a mirror, too many of our society jump quickly to vanity, thinking “Oh, look at them enjoying the sight of their own reflection, someone loves themselves!”
People see vanity in the action of looking in a mirror when actually, what people are seeing is a person looking at themselves and being disgusted with what looks back at them.
The notion of a person being concerned with their appearance is so quickly taken as a character flaw and trivialised as vanity.
This inescapable truth is part of the issue surrounding BDD.
Sufferers of the disorder need professional help, but by being brushed off by everyone in a person’s life as simply being vain means they begin to believe this and don’t receive the help they need.
In my experience help just isn’t in place for those suffering and I continue to put it down to the disorder not being taken seriously due to this association to vanity.
My experience with “the vanity link” goes back two years to when I was in 5th year of High School.
It had got to a point where I would spend absurd amounts of time staring at myself in the mirror.
Getting into the shower I would stare at my hips. Getting out I would stare. Passing a mirror in an empty room I would lift my shirt up and stare. Before I took a snapchat when I was alone, up comes the shirt and a stare.
This built up over a summer and a long crush I had on my skinny best friend who didn’t know I was gay. Seeing how his body looked and thinking mines wasn’t the same eventually got to me.
I became vegetarian and also went on what I called a ‘diet’. Both these details were so important to the facade I was to put on.
Being a vegetarian hopefully meant that my family wouldn’t always cook for me so I could ‘cook for myself’.
This actually meant I threw ingredients into a pot for half an hour, chucked them in the bin, then told my parents I made something but made too much- thus explaining the amount in the bin. Smart right? No, well at the time I thought I was a genius.
The diet wasn’t as clever- I simply told family and friends that I wasn’t eating ‘certain foods’ because of my new diet and in fact wasn’t eating any food at all.
Two months into possibly the most academically important year of my education and I was anorexic.
This continued until Christmas then things got a bit scary.
At the start, people didn’t see a difference in my appearance- I wore baggy clothes so no one knew that weight was falling off me.
But time went on and it became more obvious, my face became bony and my eye looked “sunken into my skull” as my dad put it; so occasionally when I wore clothing slightly more fitting people began to see the difference.
I had to do a semi-nude shower scene for a film I was involved in (I was wearing swim shorts on my bottom half out of frame, before you worry) and after the scene was done I looked back at the footage and was shocked by the fact that I could now see a clear outline of every one of my ribs as well as the bones in my shoulder.
This realisation came along the same time as people were beginning to say something: teachers were taking me out of lessons and asking if I was okay; friends were taking me out for meals to try get me to eat; my parents were doing everything in their power to get me to eat at least one whole meal a day.
Seeing the worry I was causing it hit me that this wasn’t the solution and it was time to stop.
But I still had BDD, the anorexia didn’t make it go away. It was there at the start, through the middle and it was waiting at the end of it all.
So I then moved on to another extreme, I got myself a gym membership and became as addicted to that as I was to starving myself just months before.
I would be at the gym two and a half hours for seven days a week. This went on for six months.
With going to the gym this much, it clearly took up a lot of my time, as well as my attention.
When I didn’t eat people began to notice, but this time the reaction wasn’t as sympathetic; instead this became my personal flaw.
I was vain and I was narcissistic.
That’s what I was being told- that my obsession with my body image was my personality flaw. Our good friend vanity.
So I had to choose, either I was vain to my friends and could deal with the sight of my body or it was the opposite. This is how it continued for me for a long time.
I would get a hold of my thoughts, exercise and let my confidence grow, then be met with backlash about having body confidence and would revert back to before.
But I consider myself to be lucky. My BDD related to my weight and proportionally to my fitness.
Yes, it was always there and no matter how much I exercised the anxiety specific to that part of my body stayed constant; but at least occasionally, when I worked out, I fell into thinking I was doing something about it.
Some people aren’t as lucky. Some body parts can’t be changed, at least not cheaply and not without great personal suffering.
Imagine for instance having a fixation with the shape or your nose, or the size or your lips, or even the colour of your skin. Such things aren’t as easily covered up as hips.
The Telegraph states that 1 in 100 people suffer from BDD, meaning it is likely that every day, your eyes will fall on someone who can’t stand the thought of eyes falling on them and are crippled by the thought.
People who suffer from BDD need to face the terrifying thought every day of people staring at their ‘feature’, laughing at it, pointing, doing their best to hide a smirk or full out making a harsh joke about it.
Obviously, most people would never think of doing anything like pointing or laughing but when your brain has trained itself into irrational fear for so long, logical thinking and reason are often crushed by paranoia.
Not everyone has access to procedures that can make their ‘features’ better, nor do they have the money required for some of these procedures.
So what is the answer?
Our society says something like “Just try ignore it” or “Don’t worry so much, no one is looking”, like this will solve the problem.
But what about making this issue more of a recognised issue? Having more of a safety net in place for those who suffer, with information readily available for those who want to help loved ones?
More so, people should be made aware of the issue from the get go, meaning those who suffer are never ever shamed with claims of self-obsession.
Bringing the issue into the spotlight and having it discussed will give people a clearer understanding of the roots of mental disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Lessons throughout schooling could devote time to educating people in such disorders, and from this promote a difference in how these things are dealt with in the future. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.
End Note: I would finally like to include that it is because of my family and my friends that I am physically healthy and happy today. I am not by any means saying I am better, I still fixate on my appearance and it still causes great levels of anxiety but it is thanks to the people who surrounded me at the hardest point of my life that I made it to university and had the confidence to come out. It is thanks to them that I am still standing today.
This very well may sound dramatic but with the path I was heading down two years ago I think it is fair to say that these people saved my life.