Reckoning with my Body Anxiety
Being content with my body starts with exploring the formative experiences that shaped my body anxiety
Once every couple of months, I’ll spend the day avoiding work and doing research on the plethora of anxiety disorders I might have. I know I don’t have social anxiety — I love meeting new people, performing and entertaining them, and I’m a people pleaser at heart. I know I have Trichotillomania — I’ve been pulling hair out of my eyebrows, eyelids, beard, and chest since High School. But I spend a lot of time reading up on Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
I grew up fat and ugly. Ouch — melodramatic much? This was at least, what I thought growing up. I have a few key memories from my adolescence relating to my body image. I remember very clearly going shopping with my mom and her asking the sales person for the “husky” pants. Unfortunately, these weren’t pants modelled after a cute, cuddly dog — but rather pants shaped for fat boys. I remember asking my mom what “husky” meant and why I needed them. I can still see the smile she gave me, a supple mixture of warm and sympathetic. “It means they’re for extra strong boys like you.” I wonder now why this memory is so vivid to me, if I could understand the white lie then.
The first time I realized the way I looked was important was at sleep-away camp. As a child I never worried about taking my shirt off. I had been on the swim team as a kid and didn’t yet understand the concept of shame. I remember the first time the other boys in my cabin told me I had “pepperoni nipples” — I had never thought that nipple size mattered, let alone other sizes of my body. Later on, when I was 14, I remember reading a girl’s letter she wrote to a friend who couldn’t join us at camp that year. It read “You won’t believe how bad of acne Aaron has now — it’s horrible.” I read the letter over her shoulder while she was writing it, she never knew I saw it and never intended for me to see it. I knew I had acne, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I didn’t think other people noticed me in that way.
I look back at these formative experiences as guide posts to my modern psyche. Maybe it was these moments or others that made me feel this way, that prevented me from seeing myself as beautiful. The most funny of these experiences I think, is that I started to workout with a preteen personal trainer, so I would be in shape for my bar-mitzvah. I tell people this as a joke, but when you imagine a 12 year old waking up at 5am, 3 days a week to go to the gym before middle school, it loses some of its humor. When I entered my first relationship, I kept on repeating to my boyfriend I’m so lucky to have you or I’m so lucky you like me — I genuinely didn’t believe myself capable of being attracted to.
The crazy thing is I look back at pictures from middle school and high school and am shocked to see is that I wasn’t fat. My acne wasn’t even that bad. Dare I say I was even cute. At that age, I had already internalized the way I looked. Fat and ugly was a state of mind and I was treading in the deep-end of it— I hated going shopping for clothes because I was afraid of what the sizes would say, I worked out incessantly, dressed in baggy clothes to hide my fat, had bi-weekly facials for my acne, and I binge ate, a lot. Stuffing my mouth at 12 or 1am, after my parents had gone to sleep. All of this before the age of 18.
I am both a big advocate of therapy and a dissuader of self diagnosing. I’ve now been in therapy since I was able to afford it on my own, for about 6 years, and I’ve been able to work towards a much more in-depth understanding of myself and my psyche. I wouldn’t have been able to list off these pivotal moments and memories without it. And yet, I still spend my time searching for diagnoses and understandings of what is going on with my brain on a regular basis. I do not currently have Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), and self diagnosing myself doesn’t do anything other than make me more anxious about the what-ifs.
It’s really important for me to make the distinction that BDD is characterised by obsessions over your body, and often the compulsive action one takes around it. It is not just disliking the way you look, or spending time wishing you were skinnier. Just like depression is not equivalent to being sad, this disorder is much more than the generic, so please don’t practice saying you have body dysmorphia without real cause or diagnosis, as it creates a dilution for those suffering with the disorder itself. Dealing with our body image issues and body anxiety is not easy for anyone, by any means, but it is important to leave the space for those suffering with BDD and create that distinction for them. Perhaps I had some sort of body dysmorphia when I was younger, but unfortunately I can’t take that boy to a psychiatrist now and get him help, I can only help the boy he became.
Part of that help comes from therapy, and part of it comes from changing my habitual practices. I, like many other young adults wake up and check Instagram. I’ll be frank, most of my instagram feed consist of two things: posts from friends and a lot of hot, sexy, attractive menseses (no that is not a typo). At first when I started following these instagram Adonis-es, it was because they posted good exercises and workout tips I could use at the gym. Then it was because I enjoyed looking at hot guys (I mean they’re putting it out there so the least I can do is like their posts and occasionally pinch zoom on their abs. Really I’m doing them a favour). Finally, I spent far more time looking and falling into a melancholic hole of longing. Not for the man himself, but for the body he had. For the physique I figured I’ll never have.
Following these guys on instagram made it so much harder for me to look in the mirror and be content. It started slowly, and then all at once my visual proximity to their hot and sexy body buffet made me so very sad. This isn’t anything new: visual influencers have been talked about as giving unrealistic expectations for some time, I just never realized how triggering it could be.
So I removed myself from the all-you-can-eat and returned to the regular meals of tv and media exposure. The small things make a big difference — it’s a good day when I can look at myself in the mirror and not let bad thoughts in; appreciate my body for what it can do for me, rather than what it can’t or isn’t. There was a lot going on in the place I grew up — I grew up gay with a lot of internalized homophobia in a household of externalized homophobia. I grew up with a lack of belonging seated so deeply in my core — I did not belong in my house, my family, my city or my body.
There are some things you can’t help, but I can, and did, remove myself from as many toxic situations and people as I could. In that same way, I took myself away from on the onslaught of abs and glutes to try to help with my day to day body image, but I can’t take myself away from my body. It’s the one I’ve got and I try, every day, to be content with it. Some days are worse than others, some days I’ll venture towards being happy with it. But all days, I’m in it, so I try to treat it the best I can.
If you think you might suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder or any other type of anxiety disorder, I strongly urge you to seek help — in the form of a therapist/psychologist or a psychiatrist. You don’t have to go it alone, I know I couldn’t have.