I saw him as soon as he walked into the bar: As he towered over the crowd at 6-foot-4, I was sure he was a model. When he looked at me, I clumsily turned away, blushing that a perfect 10 had glanced in my direction.
He must have felt my laser-focused stare because later that night, he introduced himself. He didn’t tell me he was a model until later, but it was obvious that he could profit from his face: With soaring cheekbones, deep-set eyes and glossy skin, he belonged on the cover of a magazine. We made small talk as I reveled in his silky Southern drawl.
“What brought you here tonight?” the stranger, who I now knew as Ashton, asked.
What the hell could he possibly want from me? I wondered.
He wanted my number. Soon after, we had Japanese food followed by a movie, where I kept my arms glued to my sides, mortified that he’d think I was trying to hit on him. It wasn’t until we shared our first kiss, five tequilas deep at 2 a.m., that it hit me: He was actually attracted to me.
Then, just as quickly, my stomach dropped: If this was going to turn into something serious, would people think we were compatible based on our appearances?
I am no stranger to sabotaging potentially healthy relationships as a direct result of my crippling anxiety. In the days after Ashton and I met, I typed his full name into every search engine I could think of.
On YouTube, I found a video of him walking at Fashion Week the same year that I lost patches of hair to alopecia. On Facebook, I dug out 5-year-old clips of him singing in a theater: The crowd went wild. I needed to find something wrong with him so that his attraction toward me would feel more real.
On subsequent dates, people came up to Ashton to compliment his outfits, initiating one-on-one conversations with him as if I wasn’t there. Commuters stared at him from across train platforms while he scrolled through his phone, oblivious. I pretended like I was unbothered, but I was fuming.
I had struggled my entire life to accept my appearance and the fact that some people were effortlessly attractive had always seemed unfair to me. Growing up, I created an entire identity around being an awkward outcast and resented the popular kids who were so aloofly beautiful: Now, I was now dating one of them.
Six months into our relationship, I confessed to my therapist that I was still obsessed over the discrepancy between Ashton’s looks and mine. More than anything, I feared being “outed” for what I truly was: ugly. I was still terrified that Ashton would wake up one day while the light illuminated the bad side of my face. Then he’d discover I was hideous.
“Oh, my God,” my therapist said, recognition filling her eyes. “You have body dysmorphia.”
It turns out that body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, is a condition that affects 1 in 50 Americans, according to the International OCD Foundation. It is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which someone obsesses over how others perceive them. Symptoms can include spending too much time in front of mirrors or avoiding them altogether, consistently seeking plastic surgery and hiding one’s face for fear of shocking strangers.
After I was diagnosed, I began to appreciate the severity of the problem: I thought back to all the parties I had avoided while thinking that people would be shocked at my ugliness. By the time I got to high school, I wanted to change the shape of my nose and my eyes. At age 18, I sought plastic surgery and was flabbergasted when the surgeon told me I looked fine. I was convinced I was deformed.
After I dug deeper into my dysmorphia with my therapist, we realized that my diagnosis had a lot to do with my upbringing: Growing up a half-Asian, half-Latino awkward queer kid in Texas, “weird-looking” and “dainty” were the adjectives people used to describe me. I was first made aware of my deviation from the standard of beauty in kindergarten.
“It’s OK to be ugly,” my best friend once said in a tone he must’ve thought was reassuring after I complained that none of the 6-year-old girls in class seemed interested in me.
I reached high school only to be compared to my older brother ― taller, stronger, with hair that didn’t stick up like porcupine quills. Anytime a character on TV looked vaguely like me, he was the butt of the joke. Now, dating Ashton, I felt like a punchline.
I became excruciatingly aware that my obsession with Ashton’s looks was about something much deeper and more sinister than just him being attractive: I believed that I was hideous and, by extension, unlovable.
For several weeks after that, I kept the diagnosis to myself, certain Ashton would break up with me if he found out.
In other weird ways, being diagnosed with something was a relief: I was finally able to rationalize years of deep, irrational insecurity. But after decades of creating a negative idea of myself, getting rid of those thoughts proved extremely difficult.
A few weeks after I found out I had BDD, I went out after work to get drinks with co-workers when my supervisor asked if she could see a picture of Ashton. I nervously handed her my phone and she passed it around the circle. My colleagues oohed and aahed.
A few drinks later, she took the seat next to me.
“Just for the record, I think you’re making it up,” she said, as she placed a hand on my knee. “I don’t think he’s your boyfriend.”
My worst fear had materialized: I’d been outed as ugly. I called an Uber straight to Ashton’s apartment and sobbed as I told him what had happened and that it was all because he was too good for me.
Then, I told him what my therapist had said. He held me steady as I shook and asked me how he could help. I said just loving me would be enough. We sat in his living room, limbs entangled, and he held me while I cried.
For the first time, I felt safe in telling my truth: Having BDD was extremely difficult to admit, but once I did, it allowed me to be vulnerable and honest.
I still battle with BDD on a weekly basis; sometimes I feel like I look good as hell and other times I have to summon every logical bone in my body to convince myself that I am not Shrek. But I am also kind to myself and acknowledge that the worlds I lived in never affirmed queer Asian boys like me.
Years of childhood microaggressions took their toll and the last thing I need now is to pick myself apart for not always liking how I look. Loving Ashton or anyone else in a functional way starts with affirming myself and acknowledging the damage done to me as well as the damage I unleash on myself.
Now I try to make sure not to question or waste my energy trying to figure out if I am worthy of the good things that come into my life: I take them with gratitude, and run.