Your day starts off like everyone else’s. Your alarm goes off. You groan and hit snooze and turn over and return to the peaceful land of slumber. A second ring. You get up with a shiver and take off your favourite cosy pyjamas and have a shower and stumble downstairs, sip coffee and a bowl of porridge and throw on your favourite tunes to remove yourself most kindly from the oblivion of sleep. So far so normal. You look like everyone else before 9am. You are normal.
Or at least that’s what you keep trying to tell yourself. You are normal. You are okay. Nobody is going to stare at you today. Nobody cares what you look like. Nobody is going to notice.
Then a small, insidious voice creeps out from the fringes of consciousness:
“Are you though? Are you really? I think you better check…”
So you edge towards the mirror, bleary eyed and lightheaded. A sick feeling rises in your gut and you clench your stomach and pray, pray that today will be a good day. That today you will look at yourself and deem yourself passable… That today you won’t see the beast staring back at you that petrifies you to your very core…
You swear those few anticipatory moments before the reveal are the most terrifying seconds of your life so far, every time, even though you go through this tens, maybe even hundreds of times a day. Every mirror, every camera, every reflective surface violates your soul with the cruel reveal of reality. The second before the curtain lifts is a familiarly sickening cocktail of trembling trepidation served with a bitter aftertaste of trauma and shame.
Because when you look in that mirror you know what you’ll see. You see a monster. A demon. A beast. Something so hideous you couldn’t have dreamed it up even in your worst nightmare – something so awful it shouldn’t be allowed to exist beyond the innermost gates of hell itself. It’s as if someone took your face, the normal one you should have and cruelly twisted it, like a clay model that the sculptor almost finished but then grew impatient and slammed his fists into it because he found that was much more satisfying. The monster is quite asymmetrical which makes it twice as terrifying to compute because once you have got accustomed to one half you glance sideways and a whole new wave of repulsion rolls over: Two eyes that are drowned by heavy overhanging lids; A squashed up nose that took full impact and is dented and slanted from its proper place; Thick rubbery cheeks that drown out everything like flabby black holes drawing everything in towards their enormous, hideous gravity. You want to run, run so far away you can forget such a repulsive being ever existed. Then you make the terrible mistake of looking down and remember you can’t run away, you can’t ever escape because this beast, this intolerable, nauseating abomination… it’s you.
That’s when you start to scream.
You scream and scream and scream until there is no air left in your lungs and the blood rushes to your cheeks and your throat burns and you’re shaking like a leaf. You scream until you realise that when you scream the beast is screaming too and then you both fall silent and collapse exhausted on the floor, helpless.
Breathe, you remind yourself. There’s things you can do to make the beast go away. You could eat less. Get thinner. Get rid of the cheeks that way. You can lift weights and get stronger so the shape of you limbs doesn’t remind you of four flappy raw rashers of bacon or a flat rubber glove waiting to be filled with the shape of a firm hand. You could wear makeup (or you could if you could stand to stare at the beast long enough to watch it transform). If things get really desperate you could get plastic surgery. It’s an option.
But none of that can change the fact that right now you are staring at Satan himself.
You know, rationally, that you are more than your body. You aware of the separateness of your soul and you know that it is beautiful – you only wish your outside might reflect that at least a little. You don’t deserve to be cursed with this ugly prison – because that’s what it is – a prison with walls that follow you wherever you go. How could anyone love this body you wonder? Never mind love, tolerate it even? Nice people don’t judge others by how they look but even that has a limit – it’s human nature to avoid that which repulses us and what you see is repulsive. If you came across someone as ugly as yourself you wouldn’t be able to be their friend even if you felt sorry for them. Maybe that makes you a horrible person – you aren’t sure. It’s just that you can’t think of anyone you’d like to look at less. You are so ashamed and disgusted that this is the only thing you can truly call your own – the first thing you have to show the world – their very first impression of you. You don’t belong in this body, you decide. Like a transgendered person, almost, except you have got the insignificant comfort that at least God or Nature or whoever got your gender right. Not that that silences the fear of course.
You may hate yourself but you still have to eat so you get dressed the same way you showered: eyes closed and fast, so as to have the ordeal over with as quickly as possible. You hurl yourself out of the door before you can change your mind and sigh with relief when you see that there are few people on the street today.
Then you glimpse in the periphery someone jogging past you and you look up. She is tall and limber, her face angular and feminine. She runs with grace that makes your heart sink and your head hang as you mentally catalogue the inferiority of each curve and line and feature of your own compared to this beauty. It seems absurd to even consider yourself the same species as this perfect being. You wonder if she realises how lucky she is – she has everything you wish for. Everything that would make you want to live when your own vessel makes you want to die. If you had her body you could do anything, be anything. You’d settle for someone far more ordinary of course… Anyone really, because even the people others label with cruel remarks like ‘fat, ugly, scrawny, spotty, plain’… They all look a damn lot better to you than you look. You clock every person that passes as you fill your basket with items. Neat hair. Symmetrical face. Curvy hips. Shapely legs. Broad shoulders. Smooth skin. Plump lips. Angular nose. Almond eyes. Better than me, check, check, check.
You feel bad when you have these coveting thoughts… You know some people have it much worse. You can’t be that fat because you run five miles without stopping. There are people so large they are bed-bound! People would definitely look at them! And you can’t be that ugly – you have never been in a horrific accident or had acid poured on your face…
Maybe if you remind yourself of these facts when you catch your reflection next you’ll find it a little less intolerable…
*glances in car reflection *
Nope, won’t be doing that again for a while…
But five minutes later you know you’ll go back on this promise because somewhere deep within you lives this sick, masochistic voice. He isn’t silent for long… and when you’re alone chants at you with every step:
‘FAT. UGLY. FAT. UGLY. FAT…’
He reminds you that honestly, he is doing you a favour because you wouldn’t want to get any worse, would you? You know you look vile now but you still remember how grossly malformed you were before you lost those forty pounds? You might have thought the beast of the present was the worst thing you could encounter but the voice reminds how wrong you are. This you that you saw today isn’t Satan, just Beelzebub. Satan is the body you defeated. You’re still disgusting but nothing compared to the hell of before. This thought gives you hope and that is why you let the voice stick around. He’s cruel but he keeps you safe. You trust him when you don’t trust anyone else. Everyone else will lie to you, tell you that you’re not the hideous creature you see, maybe even that you’re pretty. Of course they would say that if they know what the voice thinks – nobody wants you to listen to him! They think he’s your enemy but really he’s just that brutally honest friend that keeps you in check. He keeps you out of trouble. Keeps you in control. Nobody seems as caught up as you by the Beast so maybe by some bizarre miracle they don’t see you as you do. You’re grateful for this of course but they’ll never understand. They’ll never see the truth through your own eyes, the truth that stares back at you every day. Only the voice does that.
You think to yourself how unfair it is that you have been cursed with this. You know everyone has their struggles and their problems and you feel their pain, you really do. But at least they can distract themselves with work or films or friends or lovers and transcend the pain for a few hours. Nothing can make yours disappear – you only see beautiful bodies wherever you go. Your shame is heightened by the presence of even the most long-standing and well-meaning friends. You are apologetic for your very existence so you try to exist as little as possible, to as few people and in as few places.
Most causes of shame, most insecurities, are much more easily masked. Don’t think you’re clever enough, funny enough, popular enough, rich enough? There are lies and methods for avoiding those issues so not everyone has to know. But to carry your biggest vulnerability on the outside like a signpost above your head? You may as well have ”I’m ugly and I know it’ scrawled across your forehead. That might make things easier actually, if you got it tattooed on or something then maybe people would begin to be able to understand why you don’t want to leave the house or see your friends, why you can’t work, why you just took down all the mirrors again, why you have panic attacks each time you can’t find your trusty tape measure after conferring for the twentieth time just fifteen minutes ago, why your life is on pause whilst you watch everyone else’s rush by. You have so much potential, with a mind like yours. You are passionate and determined and smart and you know all these things but without a safe home to host your soul all these things mean nothing.When will you learn how to live again?
It’s night time now – time for bed. You like sleep because you can be beautiful in your dreams. You are happy there. Your bed is a sanctuary with its thick quilt that covers every inch of your malformed physique and you feel safe alone there… until you notice the monster crawl in with you. You close your eyes and pray it will go away tomorrow. You have lived today too many times.
Author’s note 2016: At the time of writing this post, I was suffering with BDD. I’m recovered now and it’s so bizarre to look back upon this time of my life and no longer relate to the thought processes I was depicting. If you or a loved one is dealing with BDD know that recovery is possible – I am a living, breathing example!