I’m male. Hopefully you can tell that from my pictures. When younger I always felt that I was underweight. From age 14 to 18 I weight trained every day, then twice a day until aged 24. I’d watch my diet, take weight gain supplements (no steroids) and I even visited my doctor to get help to put on weight. I drank maybe 8 pints of milk every day on top of my regular food intake.
At 5′6′’ and weighing in at nearly 14 stone of solid muscle with rippling abs and a 28 inch waist (I’d love to have that back), my doctor — female — when I went to see her at age 19 or 20, swooned when I took off my top, held in a giggle and said I had nothing to worry about. Her saying that did not help. Not one bit. I felt skinny. I felt self-conscious. I felt vulnerable.
I had a figure people loved to look at. I had the looks that attracted people to me. I felt bad about myself because of all the attention I received. I always believed that attention came through pity. I never understood why girlfriends always accused me of cheating, were always jealous of the attention I received, never trusted me, or why men were awkward around me, or even why women always smiled at me. i felt embarrassed about the attention.
Worst, I didn’t know how to handle the attention. Few people teach boys how to cope with being attractive. Whether they believe they are attractive or not.
People commented on the size of my pecks. People accused me of using steroids — which I never took. Accused might be too strong a word. People asked how I got my shoulders so big. I remember two girls on a bus, one telling the other “It’s only a boy!” when she swayed in her seat.
I never understood why that happened.
Bit by bit…
When I was 24 I stayed with a girlfriend in her brother’s house for a night. He was away from home and she was guarding the house. I woke up in the early hours and caught a glimpse of someone in front of me. Someone with a lot of well defined muscle. It was me. My own reflection. Up until this point I had no idea how others saw my physical profile.
You would think I would have ‘got it’ after nightclub doormen had taken delight at comparing muscle size and getting upset that their’n were smaller than mine. I never fully noticed the size difference.
It was only a glimpse that I caught that night, one that vanished as soon as my mind recognised who the body belonged to, but it was enough to give me an idea of how I looked. I didn’t train so much after that night. My affections went elsewhere for a couple of years.
I am quite a few years older now. I still suffer the same, well, similar problem but the opposite end of it. Now I see fat everywhere. Before you think to ask it, I’m not anorexic. I do have a belly. It is no way near as big as my mind shows it to me but it exists. I still struggle to see my muscles but I know they exist.. from the odd glimpse I sneak ahead of my mind’s attention.
What I have is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) with an extra kick. It is not that I see myself as others see me then get mentally or emotionally caught up on specific features. No, I literally do not see myself as others see me.
Even guidance notes published on official health websites such as Mind (linked to above) and the UK’s NHS website discuss Body Dysmorphia as though people with this specific mind-over-matter superpower — let’s call it that, a superpower — talk about this as though the sufferer sees but then ignores and gets hung up on minor points of their appearance like its some kind of choice to imagine and stress about a delusional perception of one’s bodily appearance. That’s not what happens to the sufferer at all. It is like a dyslexia but one that affects a person’s perception of his or her own body.
As soon as I begin to recognise myself in a picture or reflection my features morph into a blob that I recognise as myself with a couple of defined features but with most features appearing to my eyes to be not as formed as others see them.
If I think my skin looks nicely tanned I suddenly see overly white skin. If I think I look nicely untanned my skin suddenly appears very dark. It is all, or mostly, in my mind. I know this.
Stood next to someone in front of a mirror I get a clearer view of my physical attributes. Like hearing the musical notes of a piano and recognising them but not necessarily being able to recognise them without other musical notes to give them context (I do recognise notes in absence of others but I don’t necessarily know their names).
BDD is socially disabling. It has impacted my ability to build romantic relationships.
BDD is something no one truly understands unless they suffer it too.
Since I was 24 I have caught glimpses of my real physical self only a couple of times. I have to trick my mind into seeing me. I only realised the problem after I caught that surprise glimpse of my reflection nearly 20 years ago.
Gradually, my mind is beginning to let me see myself properly. Now I’m older and less likely to fancy myself I get a flicker of my true reflection every once in a while when looking in a mirror. The irony. The mind truly does have a great sense of humour. it pulls off the longest of practical jokes.
Once the mind is set on tricking your conscious self it is hard to unset it without tricking it back.
I don’t know if reading this has helped you at all but I hope it has. Body Dysmorphia, or Body Dyslexia as I will call it in the future, is a horrible hindrance socially but a great superpower to use for introspection and to learn about the processes of the mind.
If you suffer from BDD, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. You are not the first afflicted. You won’t be the last to bear it. But you can trick your mind into accepting the truth of who you are.
I feel sorry for the other poor sods that have the other form of it. The ones who suffer from World View Dysmorphia, or maybe better described as World View Dyslexia.