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With Body Dysmorphic Disorder, I Have No Idea What I Look Like — But That’s OK

“I had a chance to look at the pictures you sent over and I have to tell you that I’m at a bit of a loss.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Actually, I failed to see how this procedure could help you. I don’t want to sound insensitive, but I couldn’t find an issue here.”

“It’s probably just the pictures I sent. I’m a photographer. I probably just accidentally shot them to make myself look better.”

“There’s nothing we offer that can correct a problem that doesn’t exist.”

This was my second conversation with a plastic surgeon in two weeks.

The first, a seemingly amiable man with a fondness for appearing in local infomercials, had offered a minimal amount of Botox to address my concern — but noted, dutifully, that he also failed to see it. He stopped short of suggesting the problem might be in my head, however, and left things somewhere within the realm of, “but I’ll take your money if you insist on spending it.”

I deleted a third inquiry after composing it. This obviously wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Sighing, I pulled open the pocket mirror that I keep at my desk and took notes on my face — there it was, plain as day, the glaring problem. It was so obvious. How could doctors, especially ones who specialized in correcting cosmetic issues, not even see it?

Classic bad Body Dysmorphic Disorder day me.

Classic me on a bad Body Dysmorphic Disorder day. Photo by Sergey Turzhanskiy.

“I want to have this fixed. Do you see what I mean?” I took my glasses off and leaned in close to a friend’s face. I wanted to close my eyes. Being this close felt too intimate and besides, looking at her perfect features would surely just breed my unwilling insecurity.

“What am I looking for, again?”

“Just look a little bit closer. Like, forget what you think I look like and really look at me.”

“You look fine. What are you talking about?”

“You really don’t see it?”

If the roles had been reversed, if it had been my friend with the adorable spattering of freckles and big brown eyes hemmed in by bluish-grey lashes, insisting to me that something was wrong with her face, I would have taken her hands and cried. I would have denounced the whole world. I would have hoisted the banner of body positivity as high as it could possibly go and even then encourage myself to push it higher, to break through whatever barrier prevented it from creating space for her within the love and safety of its shadow. I would have made it my life’s mission to make sure she never again thought that her understanding of self merited taking an inventory of flaws, as if we were all transactional goods being looked once over before being shipped to their final destination.

Yet, myself, my own flaws — those were just facts, and I couldn’t rally. I believe in all bodily autonomy, including cosmetic surgery — full stop. But for me, it wasn’t about choice, it just seemed a given, a natural conclusion, the only way forward. There was no banner ever to be hoisted in my name. I looked down and quietly thought to myself that she was just too kind to be honest, or maybe she thought the whole conversation too ridiculous to bother with. I was deeply embarrassed. Palpable relief poured over both of us when the topic turned to something else.

Self portrait, 2012.

Self-portrait, 2012.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is usually characterized as an obsession with flaws or distortions in one’s appearance that the mind has either exaggerated to a tremendous degree, or that simply do not exist. It shares traits (and is also often partnered with) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. It’s common in people who have at some point or who currently struggle with Eating Disorders. It’s more common than most people realize. My BDD first crept into my life with the onset of bulimia as a preteen. It has ebbed and flowed ever since.

Related: I Thought Making Jokes About My Eating Disorder Helped My Recovery. I Was Wrong.

People without BDD take a number of things for granted — that they have an accurate understanding of their appearance, for one. Being able to look in a mirror and process that information, for another. People without BDD can have their picture taken and have a reasonable expectation of what might turn out.

I, on the other hand, have no idea what I actually look like. The mirror is a source of constant confusion. Compliments are like smoke bombs going off, leaving me disoriented, lost. Getting tagged in photos is the emotional equivalent of the chainsaw guy popping out from some dark corner at a haunted house — you know it’s going to happen, but how and when are the primary sources of dread the whole time.

I know that my hair is whatever color it’s been dyed. I know my eyes are a nice shade of light brown and that sometimes they shift to a murky green if the lighting is amenable. I know that I burn before tanning and that I’m shorter than most of my friends. I know my general size, but the distribution is hazy. When clothes fit me, the sizes are always a surprise (and, given the nature of plus sizes, vary tremendously, which is no help at all). I’m often shocked by what will and won’t fit. A top I couldn’t possibly fill out is tight. A dress that will spill past my ankles in a hopeless mess stops just where it should. Shopping is a game of roulette. Getting dressed in a way that makes me feel like I can present myself to the world is like defusing a minefield.

When I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself. I see a shape, clothing that I either really like or really don’t, a hairstyle that was either successful or not, and a long list of flaws and “areas of interest” that all appear independently and in spite of a comprehensive figure. For a whole year,  I might feel like the shape of my jaw is always changing. Sometimes it’s the proportion of my fingers or the location of my cheeks. Sometimes it’s the lines traced by my muscles as they drag a smile over the pale canvas that I try to understand as my face. And it’s not as though the rest of my face passes my inspection. Instead, the areas troubling me are literally all that I can see. Instead of my face, I see a Cubist’s portrait that has been ripped to shreds and then the pieces rearranged and magnified.

Rare photo including my back on set, giving some direction. Photo by @bethanytate

Rare photo including my back — on set, giving some direction. Photo by @bethanytate

For years now, I have chosen a career that focuses on helping other people celebrate their own unique beauty. I love my job, but more than I love any of the technical aspects, I love helping people to feel amazing and empowered. To me, photography can be a wonderful means of giving power back to people that society attempts to take from them, and also a way to force the concept of “beauty” to be broader and less constrictive in the world in general.

Yet, for all that fine sentiment, last winter when a colleague asked me for a photo that was not a selfie, I realized in horror that I had not allowed anyone to take any pictures of me in several years; or, if they had, the proof was hidden immediately, banished to the ether. One poorly lit photo might have existed for every five months. It was as if I were a friendly ghost. I was a name, a credit, a good memory, but nowhere to be seen.

And all of the magical places that I’d been for work, or with family and friends — there stood the mountains of Utah, proud, sure, bright red. Or Texas during the rainy season, with its lonely hills, crouching and painfully blue. The flowering vines that fell so easily from a California balcony in the summer heat and the way the coastal breeze shook them like a dance — that was all preserved and understood by me to be of value. But never the one who had seen them and been so moved. My BDD has altered my experience of myself for years, but I had allowed it to go further still and physically remove most evidence of my existence in my own life. For someone so passionate about representation, that just wasn’t OK. Something had to change.

Photos like this were all I had to remember months and years by.

Photos like this, though nice, were all I had to remember my life by.

At a friend’s suggestion, a few months later, I made a new Instagram account, separate from the one filled with trembling highway signs, friends showing off their fashions, and midnight starlit snows. For its sake, I made an effort to ask people to take my photo when we were out. I tagged and hashtagged these photos, too, (though that somehow was the most anxiety-producing part of the process). When I liked my outfits, I made sure to post them, even if it took three hours to vacillate between shots to find the one I felt the least bad about. I posted selfies, too. I was rarely smiling — (I still don’t like my smile) — but gradually, seeing this new account fill out with photos of my life, with me in it, seemed to curb some of the more self-destructive tendencies that BDD had led me to believe were normal, or worse, what I deserved.

Related: Lessons From Black, Queer Love: “We are Wrapped up in Each Other’s Liberation”

Finding so many other wonderful people, otherwise total strangers, living their lives, appreciating their bodies and mutually celebrating each other’s insistence on claiming space was incredible. It didn’t heal my BDD, but it gave me the courage to stop letting it control my life. Seeing myself, face and body, out and about in the world, encouraged me to actually try some of the things I had wanted to do but had been too afraid to.

I started taking body-positive dance classes — amazed by how little my appearance had to do with how well my body could remember steps that, frankly, were really, really cool! I started going to the gym, swimming, walking and using my body in other ways that felt great but weren’t at all focused on what I look like. I started training to eventually learn to kayak — a dream I’ve had since childhood. After making some strides in these things and having positive results, I decided to push myself further and began life-coaching sessions with an amazing coach whose insight has helped me to cut through some of the pollution in my thoughts.

Living the crop top life.

Living the crop top life — significantly less fucks given.

I still don’t really know what I look like. Maybe I never will. But my life, for the most part, is full of joy and love — and now I have a way to see that. I’m becoming OK with that being enough to fill in the missing pieces. Whatever I look like, or even just as the shifting, spinning palette of shapes and colors and sizes that I am always chasing in my reflection, I still have a right to exist and be happy. I have a right to remember myself in my own story.

The fact that we are all entitled to relief from patriarchy and its racist, sizeist, ableist beauty standards, the gender binary and a whole host of other terrible oppressive ideologies doesn’t change, no matter what we look like, even if we don’t know exactly what that is, or see something wildly different every day. The happiness that internalizing these ideologies robs from us is real and tangible. You don’t have to love yourself or even like yourself to feel validated in taking up space in this world and enjoying the things that make you happy. You deserve better than to allow those things to erase you from your own life. Make people take your picture if they don’t offer to. Post it everywhere. Be proud that you are here. Be proud of yourself, no matter how hard it is, or especially because it is so hard to feel OK in this world.

If you’re struggling with BDD, support is out there — maybe in places you haven’t considered. Don’t give up on yourself. I’m rooting for us.


Suma is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker in her 20s. Her work focuses on body politics, intersectional feminism, and alternative art forms. She's had her photography featured in places like the Huffington Post, Bustle, The Daily Mail, Metro UK, Der Spiegel and more. She is married to a former political prisoner and has a lot to say about the criminal justice system. In her free time, she's really into archiving amazing/horrible pop music from the 60s-90s, collecting music videos about space, driving cross-country, and vegan cooking.

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