Since we’re on the topic of freedom, I thought I’d be amiss if I didn’t tell you about my own struggle with insecurity – or at least one of them.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t overly preoccupied with the way I looked. It just seemed that everywhere I went people were continuously pointing out the ways in which I differed from everyone else.I was either too skinny, or too fat, or too tall. My cheeks were too big, and my clothes never fit right. I’d spend hours searching the World Wide Web for ways to get the awful and ginormous birthmark off of my face (we didn’t have google back then lol), and began to dislike the shade of my skin as my family made fun of how I was too dark – the literal black sheep of the family. I was always plagued by the thought that I never looked ‘right’. That I was abnormal.
I think I began to be more aware of my preoccupation with my image when my father began scolding me for always looking at my reflection. It was then that I noticed how routinely I did it. It didn’t matter if it was in a store window or in the mirrored background of the family china. If I could catch some glimpse of myself in it, I’d take at least a glance to reassure myself that I passed for normal. And if I didn’t look normal, I’d make a mental note to myself: wear more mascara. Try a different hairstyle. Wear looser clothes. Go run 4 miles. Anything so that people don’t see how different-looking you are.
And while my close friends and I have always joked about my preoccupation with self-image, it was only last year that I truly accepted the reality that what I was dealing with was, in fact, Body Dysmorphia.
The problem with recognizing this type of dysmorphia is that it often masquerades as vanity, and so we often misdiagnose it as such. I have always been accused of being vain, and I often played it (and still play it) off as such because it’s a much easier ‘sickness’ to live with – but there is a stark difference.
While both signal an obsession with self, vanity is the excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements. It is a desire to go above and beyond to set oneself apart from the pack; to look better, be smarter, and be more appealing than everyone else.
Body dysmorphia is not about wanting to be better than everyone else or about admiring one’s looks – it’s actually quite the contrary. It’s about a desire to meet the norm. To fit in and be normal – after having decided normal is everything you are not. But here’s the big catch with dysmorphia:The problem is never how you look, because how you look can change or be changed. The real problem is with how you think you look. Your flaws are either perceived or grossly exaggerated, and even when you do meet that standard of ‘normal’, you still feel like it’s not good enough.
It’s never good enough.
Normal for me was a size 6 with C-cups, a 26-inch waist, and a perfectly made up face. As close as I got to my ‘normal’ (I’ve never managed to get below a 27-inch waistline, and I will never be a C-cup… lol) it was never good enough. No matter how skinny or toned or glow-y I got, I always felt I could do more. That I could be skinnier, or more toned, or get my glow up even further. Body dysmorphia makes it so that you are consistently under the delusion that you are flawed, and spend hours preoccupied with trying to hide, overcome or compensate for said flaws.
And like every other psychological illness, body dysmorphia began to affect the way I interacted with myself and the others around me. I spent more money on clothing and makeup to either hide what I felt was wrong with me, or to make up for what I thought I didn’t have. I wouldn’t take photos with others because I never thought I looked as good or looked small enough. I wouldn’t go out if I felt bloated or my clothes didn’t fit right. I spent 2 hours in the gym every day trying to get to my ideal size. I found it hard to trust that anyone could love or be attracted to me because I could never see what it was that they saw in me. It was a never-ending journey because nothing I ever did was good enough.
But I have found freedom in recognizing now that nothing ever will be.
For those reading this who are maybe neither bulimic nor anorexic, and so have never been able to put a real name to your body insecurity, I will tell you that being able to put a name to something is the first step to overcoming it. You cannot begin to call something out if you do not know its name.
Recognizing and accepting what I was dealing with became the first step in being free from it.
I do not profess to be free yet. But I am freer than I was yesterday, because freedom is a process.
How do I know I’m freer?
Because I only went to the gym once this week and I haven’t had a panic attack.
Because today I Facetimed my friend Darin with only a head scarf on – and no makeup.
Because I went to NYC last weekend and hung out with many friends in public instead of staying cooped up at home even though I felt bloated and less than attractive.
Because now, when I look in the mirror, I actually like what I see. I don’t know if I’m in love with all of it yet, but I am OK with my baby bump and my thick legs. They are growing on me. They are finally becoming a part of me.
Because I am currently eating fried wontons and only feeling half of the guilt I usually do lol.
Does this mean I’m going to stop working out and feast on McFlurrys? No. I still believe my health and fitness are important and also directly tied to my spiritual growth. Allowing my health and physical fitness to deteriorate will only worsen my dysmorphia. Finding freedom from body dysmorphia – or any type of insecurity – is about loving yourself as you are, where you are, even if there’s room for improvement or you’re working on improving. It’s about loving the flab while you’re waiting for it to disappear, and loving it if you’re not or it doesn’t.
So here’s my advice for you men and women who feel like you may have a similar battle (yes, men suffer from body dysmorphia too – check out ‘muscle dysmorphia’):
Understand that once you suffer from dysmorphia, there will be no ‘end point’, and stop trying to work towards one. Forget the scale and the dress tags. You will never be happy with an ‘ideal’ figure or size – you will always want more. So stop wanting. Stop placing a figure on your happiness. Happiness comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s yours for the taking.
When you look in the mirror, instead of looking for what you don’t see or criticizing what you do, choose to see everything about you as beautiful. Begin to redefine what is beautiful to you. It is a slow process, because we have been conditioned to think some things aren’t, but beauty is as arbitrary as time. In the grand scheme of things, it has no boundaries – only what man has put on it from place to place. There is only day and night, and both are stunning to behold.
Stop comparing yourselves to others. You may never be that skinny or that tall or have those boobs or muscles, but in living in comparison to other you will never ever be able to fully realize the beauty of YOU. You will never understand who you are and how you are wired and how that fits into God’s perfect plan for you and for His creation.
Do not rely on others to affirm your beauty. When you cannot see your beauty for yourself and rely heavily on your image as a measure of beauty, other people become your mirrors. You can fall into the trap of relying on others to define your beauty, and become solely dependent on their affirmation. External affirmation in the form of the opposite sex is the insecure person’s drug of choice. Men use their body count, and women use how many compliments they get, but the addiction is the same. The thing about mirrors is that they are often not reliable. They lie. They distort. They break. They cut you. And mind you, a mirror that is broken itself can never show you an honest reflection.
Be patient with yourself. Yes, you will do more detoxes and cleanses than anyone cares to. And people will consistently remind you of how insecure you are with their comments about your obsession with your image and try to tell you how beautiful you are and how silly you are for not seeing it. Ignore them. They mean well, but they will still never understand, try as they may. They will stress you out and only cause your to dwell more on your insecurities and how you are not enough. Take as much time as you need to learn to love yourself. It is not a race. It is a journey. And it is yours.
And my final piece of advice to you is this: To understand the true beauty of a thing, you must ask its creator. In similar fashion, the only way to find freedom from body insecurity of any form, is to see yourself not the way man sees you, but the way God does. I have never found as much security in who I am than when I began to dwell in His presence and see things from His perspective – because His perspective changes everything.
Like David did in Psalm 139, learn to affirm how breathtaking you are because the hands of the One who created you do not falter:
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous–how well I know it.