If I had to give my relationship with my body a Facebook relationship status I would say, “It’s complicated.” But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of my very complex relationship between me and the only body I’ll ever have.
My earliest memory is standing in front of the floor-length mirror in my bathroom, looking at my toddler legs and thinking to myself, “My thighs are too big.” I was 4 years old. I’m 24 now, and things haven’t really changed.
I was diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (Or BDD) when I was 20, the same time I was diagnosed with anorexia. BDD is a fixation on one or more body “flaws” that leads to extreme mental distress and an inability to function socially. It affects about 1 in 50 people.
My body dysmorphia shows up in the morning, when I have to avoid looking into the mirror or run the risk of being late, caught up in examining myself. It shows up when I burst into tears in a dressing room because I cannot handle how my body looks at that moment. For me, having BDD means I feel both hyper-aware of my own body and entirely disconnected from it.
Body dysmorphia isn’t just seeing a distorted version of yourself, it’s also a powerful, overwhelming feeling that you are trapped and constricted in your own skin. Wanting desperately to unzip out of your body, just to breathe for a few moments, but knowing it is impossible.
The issue even makes its way into my sex life, where I could be turned on — until my partner touches my stomach in exactly the wrong spot, making me conscious of an area I have major issues with.
Sex is supposed to make your body feel good, but when you don’t feel good in your body, sex can be deeply uncomfortable and triggering. Once, in the middle of sex, I accidentally looked down at my body and got so freaked out about my thighs — of all things — that I had a full blown panic attack.
I love sex, but I don’t love seeing my naked body during sex, or getting triggered in the middle of sex because I suddenly remember I’m naked and everything about me is bad. I also don’t enjoy my partners feeling rejected or worrying that my hangups are a reflection on them.
My BDD is the worst kind of cock block. It makes me feel so disgusted with my body that I have to stop in the middle of sex. Or I dissociate during sex, where I mentally check out of my body. I might put on an act of moving around and moaning, but internally I’m no longer there. I’m somewhere far away, waiting for everything to be over.
As you can imagine, dissociating during sex, bad-mouthing my body constantly and engaging in eating disordered and self-harming behavior has not led me to a happy relationship. I am deeply ashamed of my illness, afraid partners won’t be attracted to me because goodness knows I don’t feel attractive like this. So instead of being open, I lash out.
Yes, I’m currently single.
In 2017, my body dysmorphia became so bad I ended up totally isolating myself from friends and lovers alike, choosing instead to spend all my time with the mean, cruel voice of my BDD. I became increasingly touch-starved, my depression and anorexia worsened and I lost a dangerous amount of weight. Yet nothing I did, no matter how much weight I lost or gained, was ever enough for my disordered thoughts.
After more than a year in self-imposed exile, I decided enough was enough: I wanted to enjoy sex again. However, bringing sexy back wasn’t as simple as the Justin Timberlake song suggested it would be. I dove headfirst into reading books, blogs, even Googling “How do I feel sexy in a body I’m not comfortable in?” That effort did not yield many results.
While I was researching how to feel sexier I found mostly things about self-love. But being told to simply cherish flaws and find the confidence within didn’t really fit my very estranged relationship with my own body. It’s hard to love the flaws my brain spent so many hours obsessing over. Calling myself a “sex goddess” or whatever empowering buzzword may be helpful in theory, but it’s hard to internalize when I’m lying spread eagle on a bed, fighting the urge to tear my skin off. There’s so much pressure to just love your body that I felt like a failure when I couldn’t.
Finally, I broke down to a friend about my struggles with feeling sexy.
“I just don’t know how to love my body. There’s just so much wrong with it that I can’t get past,” I told her.
Instead of telling me I was beautiful, or that it was all in my head and that my body was indeed worthy of love, she said something that completely blew my mind: “So don’t.”
I was in shock. Don’t love my body? Had she even been on Instagram?
“You don’t need to love how your body looks in order to accept it. You just need to agree to make peace with it.”
That was the lightbulb moment. I didn’t have to love my body in order to create some inner peace and a decent orgasm. I just have to try to accept my body, no matter how bad I think it looks. Cured, right?
Wrong. This was still really hard. I had spent my life trying to “fix” myself. That if I could just lose a few more pounds, create a gap between my thighs, and get a new nose; I would finally feel good. But that’s not how it works. My body isn’t the problem, my brain is. Some days the only thing I can do is look down at myself, say, “This is just how my body looks right now” and try to go about my business. It’s not easy, but with mindful meditation, online therapy, and a hell of a lot of tenacity and hope, I don’t suck at it as much as I used too. There’s a victory in that.
I learned that it’s important for me to keep myself grounded before, during and after sex. I easily get wrapped up in my downward spiral of negative thoughts that I forget that I’m about to get lucky. I have to ground myself in feelings that are not negative: my partner touching me, me touching them, the music playing, anything that keeps me in the moment and focused on pleasure, not self-doubt. It may not be self-love, but something is always better than nothing.
I learned that it’s important to discuss my BDD with my partner, going over what makes us both feel comfortable and uncomfortable during sex. This may not be your typical “pillow talk,” but it is as necessary as consent.
When I finally began to express my feelings and my condition, I felt like I was taking the power back from an illness that made me feel helpless. I set up ground rules: Do not touch my stomach, make eye contact with me, etc. I learned to say “stop” when I felt overwhelmed and ask to continue when I felt better again. From there, my confidence started to grow.
Eventually, I became comfortable enough to tell my partners what helps me feel sexy: compliments. I crave praise. I need to be told I’m pretty, sexy and desirable — Lord knows my brain won’t tell me these things. I need verbal proof that someone is actually attracted to me. I used to feel embarrassed to ask for this, because it felt like I was fishing for compliments or needed my ego pumped. Men want women with confidence, right?
But while I was obsessing over what men wanted from me, I neglected what I needed. A mistake I’ll never make again. If someone doesn’t want to shower me with praises or doesn’t respect my limits, they don’t deserve to have a place in my bed.
So has my relationship with my BDD become less complicated? Yes and no. I am nowhere near as self-destructive as I was a couple years ago, but I admit there are days when if anyone touches me, I might have a panic attack. It comes and goes, and I am learning to accept the things I cannot change. I’m learning that my body holds more value then just being pretty: It keeps me moving, breathing, thinking, and, thankfully, these days, orgasming.