I want to preface this with stating that nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice. I am simply sharing my story, and providing perspective as someone who has dealt with both body dysmorphia and depression in the past. My reason for sharing these details is to help anyone who might be going through similar experiences see that there are others out there like them. If you are dealing with these issues, I do highly recommend seeking out the help of professionals in this specific field.
With all of that out of the way, here are two images that I have never shared before, besides with my staff at Achieve Fitness during a presentation I gave them about a month ago:
When I first went back into my medical records, I actually wasn’t thinking I would find anything regarding either of these two topics. My original intent in going through my records was to look up what my body weight was during this time, because the point I planned on making was that even at 133lbs (which is what my records show I weighed during this time period) I was going through an extremely difficult time with negative thoughts about my weight.
When I came back across these records, I had a flood of emotions. At first it was surprise.
Was I really that bad? Was my doctor just overreacting? My friends always described me as one of the happiest, most smiley people they knew, so I couldn’t have really been “depressed” right?
And then the reflective process began. The memories of isolating myself, uncontrollable crying, and breakdowns in dressing rooms came flooding in. I realized that sure, I’ve referenced things like, “having a tough time with body image” and, “thinking negatively about my body” before, but I have only scratched the surface of what these experiences were actually like. Today I want to share some of these very real experiences with you, and I hope that by doing so I can continue my own healing process, as well as help others who might be at various points along a similar journey.
I’ll start with the ADAA’s definition of Body Dysmorphic Disorder:
“Most of us have something we don't like about our appearance — a crooked nose, an uneven smile, or eyes that are too large or too small. And though we may fret about our imperfections, they don’t interfere with our daily lives.
But people who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) think about their real or perceived flaws for hours each day.
They can't control their negative thoughts and don't believe people who tell them that they look fine. Their thoughts may cause severe emotional distress and interfere with their daily functioning. They may miss work or school, avoid social situations and isolate themselves, even from family and friends, because they fear others will notice their flaws.”
Reading this confirmed to me that no, my doctor was not overreacting with her diagnosis. I have never read a more accurate description of what I was going through between 2007-2010.
Reading this also helped me to realize why I sometimes downplay my experiences or don’t go into great detail about them. It’s because it’s too hard to pick specific instances or examples, when every moment of every day was consumed by overwhelming thoughts. Instead of choosing a specific occurrence or moment, I’ll walk you through what a typical day would look like in my head. Most of this was happening during college, so here was a standard day:
Wake up: Immediately go to the mirror and lift my shirt to look at my stomach. Confirm that I was still fat, grab at whatever skin/fat was there and tell myself I was disgusting.
Get dressed: Go through my entire closet trying on an outfit, looking in the mirror, telling myself I was disgusting, ripping it off, trying on a different outfit, looking in the mirror, telling myself I was disgusting, ripping it off, and so on until deciding on the baggiest shirt I could find to hide myself in.
Breakfast: Limit to as few calories as possible. Commit to myself I would only eat between 1,000 – 1,200 calories that day.
Go to Classes: Walk in wondering who is judging me for my weight. Spend most of the time thinking about food (because I was starving.) Taking notes in class was my distraction from thoughts about my body, so I took really, really good notes! (My college roommates can attest!)
Lunch: Eat as little as possible. Remind myself that I’m fat and need to lose weight. Try to make sure I’m alone so no one is judging what I’m eating. If I’m not alone, make sure I make lots of excuses for what I’m eating (for example: “I hardly ate anything for breakfast” or, “I’m going to work out after this and burn it all off.”)
Go to the Gym: Start by weighing myself in the locker room. Cry. Put on my headphones and attempt to burn off everything I ate, plus all the fat I had on my body. My typical go-to was the elliptical because it told me how many calories I was burning so I could make sure I burned more than I had eaten for breakfast and lunch combined. While at the gym, thoughts were generally about how unfair it was that I was fat and all the other girls at the gym were thin.
Dinner: Absolutely starving at this point. If I was in the cafeteria or around anyone else, I would eat a salad. Then I would leave to go get a burrito, calzone, or the equivalent once I was by myself. I would devour it (and anything else in sight) without thinking because I was so hungry I just didn’t care anymore.
After Dinner: Shame, regret, sadness, tears. Tell myself I have no self-control. Commit to doing better tomorrow.
Repeat: over and over and over and over again.
This might sound like an exaggeration, but if anything, it’s an underrepresentation of the amount of emotional distress I was putting myself through daily. The pervasiveness of these thoughts not only affected me, but it also strained my relationships. Preparing to go out with friends was an absolute nightmare because I didn’t want to have to go through the stress of picking an outfit I didn’t feel horrible in. Intimate relationships were affected, family relationships were affected.
The hardest thing about thinking back to this time is that I can’t escape feeling like I was being so selfish. Of course now I understand that I was experiencing a very real disorder that I didn’t understand was a disorder at the time, but I still struggle thinking back to how much of my days I spent thinking about myself and my - seemingly to everyone else – very small issue of wanting to lose a little weight.
To everyone else in the world, a 133lb young woman who is outwardly healthy and happy, doesn’t need to be worried about losing weight. It did seem like a very small issue to them. In fact, most people called me “ridiculous” or “crazy” or “insane” and would tell me I wasn't fat and didn't need to lose weight. Of course, this never helped.
I guess the main thing I want to say today, is that I get it. If the day I outlined above sounds eerily similar to your days, I want you to know that I get it.
I think those three words were what I was craving all those years. I didn’t want someone to tell me I didn’t need to lose weight, or that I looked fine, or that I was skinny. I just wanted someone to look me in the eye and say they got it.
I know I didn’t offer any solutions in this article or explain how I went about healing myself from these issues (spoiler alert, no one is ever fully “healed” from something like this) but I’ll save those things for another time. For now I’ll leave you with this:
It’s okay, and I get it.