Here's How I Improve My Body Image
Trigger warning: The following blog contains discussions about body dysmorphia and explicit descriptions of body dysmorphia itself. Some readers may find this distressing.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is something I have battled with for two and a half years, and at many points in my life, I thought it would never get easier. Thankfully, I am here to say that it does get better, as corny as the phrase is. Whilst BDD is experienced by roughly 0.5% of the UK population, so many still suffer from body image insecurities.
The NHS defines BDD as “a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. These flaws are often unnoticeable to others.” The ‘flaws’ are different from person to person, but each case of BDD is a difficult as the last.
As a student, coping with BDD whilst taking exams and studying sometimes became a real struggle. So, I decided to start writing published pieces, to help others who may be struggling just like I was. BDD started to really affect me during my GCSEs when I was 15 — coincidently the same age I started writing. In fact, parts of it were so traumatising that I can’t remember a lot of that year. As I progressed with my recovery, I found that writing about my experiences and emotions really helped me come to terms with what I was going through. Now, as I plan to go to university in September, I feel I understand how to balance my mental health and education.
Over time, I have learnt what helps me personally combat my body dysmorphia. This is a discussion of my personal experience and does not reflect the experience of everybody who struggles with BDD.
Everybody’s experience with Body Dysmorphia is personal, and I do not speak for every person who has ever suffered from BDD. But if I were to describe the experience in one word, it would be terrifying. It is unnerving to not recognise myself in the mirror, to have my perceived ‘flaws’ exaggerated by my mind.
One way I try to describe it to people is this: imagine everywhere you look is like the hall of mirrors in a circus, where your reflection is heavily distorted. The ones that make your face droop, and make your body look spherical. That’s what I would see every time I looked in the mirror.
I look back on photos of myself where I cried because I thought I looked horrible. Now that I’m in a much better, and healthier space, I can see that I look perfectly fine. BDD takes so much away from those who have it. I almost missed my best friend’s birthday party because I cried for an hour straight thinking I looked hideous and that I could not possibly go. Some of my favourite memories with my friends are from that night. What if I’d given into the disorder?
Understanding the illness
The one thing I have found crucial to overcoming my body dysmorphia is understanding the illness. BDD is so rarely talked about, that I didn’t even know what it was until I had conversations with mental health professionals. Once you start to understand that it’s a mental illness, and not a literal physical change to your body, you gradually become more rational when dealing with body image issues. But whilst physical features of your body aren’t changing like you may perceive, evidence suggests that BDD does have neurobiological effects. Research has shown that BDD can cause abnormalities in areas of cognitive functioning and may cause visual memory deficiencies.
But how do you understand the illness? Well, therapy was what worked for me, but that’s not always accessible to everybody. Doing research on websites such as Mind.com and the NHS’s website, amongst others, could also be useful and help you grasp what’s potentially causing these thoughts, and how you can combat them.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, also known as CBT, was one of the crucial factors in helping me overcome my BDD. The NHS describes CBT as a “talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave”. One of the main problems with BDD is that you get trapped in a cycle of negative thinking which perpetuates unrealistic and negative body image perceptions. I found that when I was in a negative mindset, I would perceive my body as ‘worse’ than I did when I was in a more positive mindset.
Taking on CBT allowed me to talk through my thought process with a professional, who could then help me recognise the irrationality of my views, whilst also offering ways to help break the vicious cycle.
Now, if I catch myself looking in the mirror, and can sense damaging ideas creeping into the back of my mind, I walk away and occupy myself with something else that isn’t harmful, perhaps reading, or watching a favourite movie. By cutting off the negative thoughts before they can even start to affect me, I begin to take control of my own mind, and weaken the damaging effect my BDD can have on me.
Like many illnesses, there are moments where I find my BDD completely overwhelming. In fact, at the time of writing this, I had moments like this only a few days ago. It’s a lot harder to try and fight against the disorder, than it is to give into it. Trying to muster up the energy to implement therapeutic techniques, and challenge the thoughts in my head, can be exhausting.
Whenever my BDD starts to become challenging, I feel almost ashamed, like I should be fine now, that the disorder shouldn’t be able to affect me. But sometimes I just have to accept the thoughts, not believe them, but accept them. Accept the fact that I do not feel okay at that moment, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Instead of trying to bombard myself with positive thinking, I will make neutral comments about my body, such as “I have a stomach that allows me to digest food”. I may cover up the mirrors in my house, to avoid any self-scrutiny. In these moments, I have to become bigger than the illness, and nurture myself. Because even if I don’t feel amazing all the time, I still deserve love and happiness, to feel as comfortable as I can in my body, and you do too.
If you are struggling and are in need of support, below are a few incredibly helpful organisations that provide both resources and direct help:
Shout Crisis Text Line — you can text Shout to 85258 if you are experiencing a personal crisis, are unable to cope and need support.
Talk to the Samaritans — they offer 24-hour emotional support in full confidence. You can call them for free on 116 123
Mind — find out more about Body Dysmorphic Disorder on their website — you can call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393 / email@example.com, the Mind Legal Advice service on 0300 466 6463 / firstname.lastname@example.org
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) offers a chat and hotlines service from 5pm to midnight 0800 58 58 58