Imagined Ugliness

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

This post is about the subject of body image and eating disorders and so may include content that may be difficult to read. 

I believe it is very unhelpful, to those who struggle with these issues, to use numbers and sizes, because I know from my own experience that we can distort what we read to turn it into new challenges and/or standards for ourselves to strive toward.  Accordingly I will not be using either.  It simply doesn’t help anyone.  If it does anything it just satisfies curious minds.  And I’m not going to do that in case it causes someone else to stumble.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

It doesn’t take much to go from a child who has little idea of how she looks, and desperately wants to look like her friends, to an adult who is unsatisfied, still doesn’t know how she looks and eager to learn any of the latest weight loss tips.  One thing leads to another and before you know it is completely out of control… and you still don’t know how you look. 

This not knowing how I look didn’t come from not having a mirror in our home, and I’m not suggesting that it was the definite reason for difficulties later, it’s just that now, I can perhaps see where things might have started.

There is a photo of me as a seven year old, with my brothers, kneeling in front of the Christmas Tree.  Nothing unusual about that except I had no idea that I looked like the little girl in the photo.  My school photos from the same time are similar.  I can’t remember what I thought of those photos at the time but now I can see that here was a pretty, blonde kiwi girl.  It’s just that girl is not who I thought I looked like.  It may as well have been some other little girl.  I saw myself as ugly, straggly hair that was no particular colour and…

 big!!!

That ‘big’, tacked innocently on the end of the sentence is really important to this story because I always thought, actually I knew, I was big.  And what I meant by big was fat, overweight, and different from my friends.  Enormous! 

I wasn’t any of those things in reality, but my mother would regularly tell me I was a big girl.  Those exact words.  Right through my childhood I would hear those words and I grew very quickly to hate them.  I didn’t want to be ‘big’.  I wanted to be small and petite, like at least a few of my friends.  To give my mother the benefit of the doubt, I did end up 5′ 10″.  I wasn’t really tall as a child but I guess I was at the taller end of the class.  But if she meant ‘tall’, why couldn’t she have said ‘tall’?  And if she meant I was older, then why not say that?  ‘Big’ did some damage that I still struggle with today. ‘Big’ is like a red rag to a bull.

The thing is there could be lots of explanations for what Mum told me but what matters is that even as a young child, body image was clearly an issue for me.  And as I grew, the issue grew into a problem.

For a minute I need to talk about body dysmorphia and I chose the journal I did to get a definition, because the title of the article is “Body dysmorphic disorder(BDD): recognizing and treating imagined ugliness.” (1.)  I had a laugh to myself because I have never seen it described quite as accurately as I experience it.  Imagined ugliness. 

But really, it’s no laughing matter.  And to me, it is not imagined.  It is my reality.

“Individuals with BDD obsess that there is something wrong with how they look,
even though the perceived appearance flaw is actually minimal or nonexistent…”
(1.)

That’s what the journal says, but what it means for me is that when I look in the mirror I don’t see what other people see when they look at me.  Actually I have very little idea of how others see me.  I just don’t get what they see.  I can look at myself in the mirror for hours (actually I don’t let myself do that anymore) but can not for the life of me tell whether I am big (like Mum said), small, fat, thin, short or tall.  I just don’t know.

I did this exercise today as I was preparing to write this post and it was almost as if the image in the mirror was constantly changing.  I have lost a little weight recently.  I stay away from scales now (well as much as I can make myself) but a friend mentioned I was looking good and said  I had lost a little weight.  I knew she was right about the weight loss because my jeans are loser, but I literally can not see it.  From when I was of an anorexic weight to an obese weight (and yes, that happens more often than anyone admits – more about that later), the image in the mirror looked the same.  How accurate is it?  I have no idea.  I just don’t see myself how anyone else sees me.

I hate photographs.  They are always a surprise to me because I just don’t know what I am looking like.  Of the last photo I saw of me (taken a couple of years ago) all I could think was that I looked pregnant.  And that was not a good thought.  I choose not to use photographs of myself on any social media because of security issues I have expressed previously, but actually I’m glad I don’t.  Because I hate what I see in the photographs.  Maybe what anyone else can see is different but I am not game to trust anyone on that.  I’m sure that the real truth is that my mum was right… and I am simply big (still).

To be continued…

“. . . hell is wanting to be somewhere different from where you are.  Being one place and wanting to be somewhere else . . . .  Wanting life to be different from what it is.  That’s also called leaving without leaving.  Dying before you die.  It’s as if there is a part of you that so rails against being shattered by love that you shatter yourself first.”

 ―    Geneen Roth,
Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything

References

Phillips, K.A. (2004). ‘Body dysmorphic disorder: recognizing and treating imagined ugliness’  World Psychiatry. 2004 February; 3(1): 12–17.

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12 thoughts on “Imagined Ugliness

  1. I do that myself now that I am older and the meds have reeked havoc on my body. I don’t look in the mirror. I do things like brush my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror ect. But when I do that, I don’t really look in the mirror at myself. I have always had this feeling that I was weird looking. I mean when I was young, everyone complimented my looks, but I thought my face was shaped different than anyone else

    1. It’s interesting the affect that age has on how we see ourselves. I avoid the mirror too and can look at my hair enough to part it without having to look at my face now. I guess that’s a lot of years of practise. 😉

  2. “I hate photographs. They are always a surprise to me because I just don’t know what I am looking like.”

    Wow!!! I can’t tell you how perfect the timing of your post as a whole, and this quote in particular is for me. I see myself in this a great deal. I stay away from photos as much as possible. Since I rarely leave the house, I don’t have much of a reason to have my photo taken anyway, so that helps. However, for my birthday this week, my picture was taken, and well… it eventually (after much obsessing) helped to push me into tears that were already on call for flowing this week. I hope this doesn’t sound narcissistic, but I haven’t been able to stop looking at the photo. I keep pulling it up on my computer over and over again. It’s not because I can’t get enough of myself (definitely not that), but rather I can’t get over how horrible I look. I can’t delete it as it is taken with a few family members who I love so much, so it is there for me to just view and obsess over.

    I already knew I was overweight and not great looking at all. But this was the first time in a very long time that I saw just how awful I look. I have been told by my doctors and some of my family that I look ill due to my extremely pale skin. But, I look in the mirror and don’t see it. I used to have a nice tan, but I have watched my color drain over the last few years. Due to that gradual disappearance of my color, I just don’t see it when I look at myself in the mirror. As a hermit, I don’t get out in the sun, even at home. I keep the curtains drawn at home, as I prefer the dark. But, this photo was taken in a brightly-lit room. The others in the photo have a nice healthy color to them, while I sit there… large, sickly-pale, and unaware of the real me. There’s something about photos that bring home the truth that mirrors don’t always reflect. As you say, I don’t know what other people see. However, I now know what I look like as I view that photo, and that is all that I can imagine others see too.

    1. Hi Summer and first happy birthday. I actually find birthdays really hard so I hope you found it ok with people there. Ahh yes, photos. No I don’t see you as narcissistic at all but quite admire that you were able to look at the photos. I know that if you struggle with body image like I do that would have been so hard. So be proud, even if you don’t like what you saw. I think the most frustrating thing for me is that I proably will never know what other people see. The person in the photo is different from the one in the mirror as well as being different from the one in my head. Sometimes it’s quite scary just to not know what and who is telling the truth. After reading this post an old friend of mine posted by my FB page that she had always thought I was gorgeous. It totally threw me because while I appreciated her saying it and I know she would just say it to make me feel better, I have never in my life felt gorgeous. It makes me wonder who is this person my friend sees? Then again, I also tell myself that she hasn’t seen me live for a long time so either her memory is fading or I have changed. But again, who knows. Thanks for your comments Summer. I really appreciate them. 😎

      1. Aw thank you for the birthday wish! 🙂

        I know what you mean when you say it’s scary to not know when someone is telling the truth about what they see. One of the family members who was in the photo with me that day, said I didn’t look bad at all, but I feel like she was just saying that for the same reasons you stated about your friend. She just was trying to be nice and not hurt my feelings. I appreciate that kindness, but it does make me feel more confused ’cause I’m not sure whether or not who she sees is truly reflected in her comments.

  3. The good thing is there is SO much recognition and treatment for this right now, at least locally in the US (Boston, MA – entire programs just focusing on eating disorders and body image issues, because they’re so closely related with depression. I am I think about 10 pounds overweight right now, but also will not do photos for the most part, I HATE the way I look, despite what other people say. Sorry you have to live like this & SO sorry that your own mother didn’t have the foresight not to project like that. Parents!

    You are perfect however you are and all you can do is work at shaping your image into what you would like for it to be (which will probably never be perfect for you) and if there are treatments or specialists in your area who are qualified to treat the disorder, run for it!!!

    Hugs,
    Jill

    1. Thanks for that Jill. We have limited resources in NZ for treating ED’s and body image issues. I have used some in the past but because of the cost involved was not able to do enough. Now I work on myself, with the aid of a therapist and for now that is working but I think you’re right, I will never be completely satisfied. I guess acknowledging that is a good place to start. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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  5. fallingoutofthefog

    I could have written this post. So yeah, I can relate. I tried explaining it to someone once as looking into a fun-house mirror. In some ways, being ‘huge’ is a defence because hey… I see myself that way anyway, so why not be that way? I hate going out in public because I am convinced people are looking at me because I am so horrible (in truth, I am aware that people are rarely aware of anything outside of their own sphere, but the fear is there) Every time I walk past one of the very thin women at the office, I am convinced she’s thinking, “Man, what a cow, I could never let myself be like that”.

    The thing is, I though the same things when I was under 100 pounds.

    Anyway, once again, I can relate.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. You and I sounds like two peas in a pod (unfortunatey for us both that we have to live it this, but nice to know someone else gets it). And I was the same when my weight was so low, it made no difference to what I saw in the mirror. So thanks. 🙂

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