My experience with body dysmorphia

Thin in 2020
Me in the summer of 2020 – at my fittest

Recently I’ve been a bit unhappy with my body because I’ve gained weight, lost muscle, and am not as strong as I used to be. Looking back at my body during Covid times, I wish I was still that strong and lean. But the crazy thing is that back then I didn’t value it at all. And it got me thinking: I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t think I needed to be thinner and was 100% satisfied with my body.

As women we are taught from a young age that our worth lies in our body and in our image. And before people start protesting, I know that sounds like a strong statement but it’s true! Everything from media (TV, movies, advertising, animé), to fashion, traditional gender roles and toys like Barbie (sorry) remind us of how we’re supposed to be beautifully thin, eternally young, pretty but natural, and of course the perfect wife all while being sexy.

I’m sure a version of this exists for men too except they are taught they need to be strong and muscular as well as slim, but not too skinny of course otherwise that’s not attractive or “manly”. Well hello, it’s Barbie and Ken!

The issue with these gender and physical stereotypes, is that they cause a lot of problems for young people growing up, that are looking for positive role models. Luckily nowadays we see a lot more body positivity being embraced which I hope is helping kids and teenagers feel better in their bodies. But unfortunately these beauty standards have caused a lot of unrealistic expectations, and likely have contributed to body dysmorphia, eating disorders and other mental health issues.

What is body dysmorphia?

If you Google body dysmorphia, a few pages reveal a long list of symptoms that can be quite extreme such as believing you are deformed or completely avoiding looking in mirrors. But as with most mental health conditions, I believe it’s a spectrum and it’s never as black and white as it seems. Even if you’re not plagued with obsessive thoughts about your appearance or constantly comparing yourself, I believe that even small insecurities have the potential to turn into something more, and that this general obsession with our “perfect” appearance is unhealthy. I am fortunate to have never had an eating disorder, but I can imagine how this (coupled with other issues) might develop based on the desire to meet our unrealistic beauty standards.

My experience when I was younger

As early as in my early teens, I remember being afraid to wear bikinis because I didn’t want to show my stomach, afraid that it wasn’t flat enough or wasn’t going to look good – this obsession started young. Later around 18, 19 when I must have weighed close to 55kg I still remember thinking that I could and should lose weight as I didn’t want to get too “fat”. When I came home from uni, my mom would tell me I was looking a bit fat and that I’d gained weight, although looking back now, I can tell I was super skinny and I wish I was that thin now (again, the intrusive thoughts).

Me at 20 years old, clearly very skinny

This obsession with being skinny, or the fear of not being skinny enough, not having a flat stomach, or having any other kind of shape affected how I dressed. I don’t think I ever wore tight, figure hugging clothes. Certainly not figure hugging dresses or skirts, no crop tops (or rarely) because I didn’t feel like I could and felt far too self-conscious. Already as a teenager in high school I didn’t dare to wear any “tighter” clothes or mini-skirts as I was overthinking what I might look like, comparing myself to other girls who I thought were thinner or had better figures. Looking back, I know that I totally could have pulled it off but in my mind I just didn’t have the right figure for it.

My experience to date – still not skinny enough

Me in 2009 – I remember being self conscious about my body

I don’t remember much detail about the years between university and when I first started working but I do know that I often felt self-conscious about how I dressed when it came to going out and getting dressed up. I remember having this beautiful backless dress that I was too afraid to wear without leggings (it was a phase), and actually almost never wore out.

When I started working in the agency I was obviously very stressed, and as a consequence I slept horribly and ate badly. Once more I was obsessed with the fact that I was gaining weight and what I looked like, comparing myself to all the girls at my client’s who dressed like models and made me even more self-conscious. Fitting in to my trousers (or not) was something I instantly noticed and made me feel bad if I could tell I was gaining weight. The irony though is that when I look back at those photos now I think “I looked so skinny back then” and then “I wish I was that thin now”…

Fast forward to today and as you can see by the previous statement, I’m just never happy with my body. I don’t say this to be pitied or because I am miserable, but to prove a point. Because when I came to this realization, I found it both incredible and a little shocking.

As I write this, I long for my body of 2020 when I was super strong and hiking up mountains like a mountain goat. I long for the body I had when I left Geneva. But in 2020 even though I was hiking like a champ, I still thought I was too fat and could be skinnier. My stomach wasn’t flat enough. And in 2018, I was still weighing myself and trying to get back down to 55kg (which seems extremely unachievable now). It makes me a bit sad to think that no matter what phase I’m in, I’m just not happy with my body. Almost every picture I look at in the moment, I think I look fat or I can spot places where I look fat.

Body dysmorphia is real

This may seem like an obvious thing to say but it only hit me not so long ago when I realized how fit I actually was in 2020 and how continuously obsessed I’ve been with weight loss. I wouldn’t say it’s unhealthily obsessive, but it’s probably not been reasonable either.

Like many mental health terms, I feel like body dysmorphia is one that’s used but maybe not fully understood. How many of us realize that what we’re experiencing can be a form of body dysmorphia? I certainly didn’t. Why is our perception of reality so warped that we don’t realize what we have until it’s too late? And why are we so hard on ourselves?

I really want to try to be kinder to my body, and recognize how much it does for me. We have been through a lot together! It has carried me through a lot and we have achieved so many things. For example I dance a lot, maybe 4 days a week at the moment? I’ve been dancing my whole life at varied intensity, going to festivals where I danced all day and night… I trained capoeira about 3-4 days a week when I was a student, I ran a trail race of 16km and was a runner for a couple of years. In 2020 I did an insane 18km hike of 1000+ elevation all by myself… My body has really allowed me to achieve a lot, and I’m grateful to be able-bodied and have the opportunity to do all of these things.

The purpose of this post is first of all to demonstrate that at any given time, someone could be struggling with a mental health issue you might not be aware of. Second, to raise awareness around body dysmorphia, what it is, and how it presents. And as usual, just to be relatable as perhaps you’ve also experienced something similar. As with anything, the first step is to recognize the problem before you can address it. For me, changing my mindset about my body starts now.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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