When I was eleven-years-old I was “pantsed” by kids I thought were my friends or the kids I pretended were my friends so I would feel accepted and therefore better about myself. Having my pants pulled down and torn by my peers was the most humiliating experience of my young life. While we were walking home with these classmates, they started making fun of my shiny gold disco pants and how tight they were on my fat body. My older brother, my role model, my friend had given them to me. My gold, satin disco pants were special for that reason. One kid yanked them down over my underwear and tore them off me. The others joined in ripping my gold disco pants into rags that were thrown into the street. They laughed at me and taunted me about having to walk the mile home on a busy street in my underwear. I gathered up the remaining shreds that were displayed in the street. I tried to cover myself up for the walk home that, at that point, seemed like a cross country trek of shame. I cried tears of humiliation on that long walk home as many drivers passed and gawked, but no one stopped to help me. The message was loud and clear. My classmates viewed me as the fat kid who needed a bra. Although some may think the incident was a funny rite of high school passage, I was never able to move past the experience.
I wish I had been able to compartmentalize the taunts and bullying as kids’ stuff instead of letting them build into a bigger presence in my life that constantly reminded me of my inadequacies. The shattered image grew into the presence labeled “Body Dysmorphic Disorder( BDD) that later manifested itself in various destructive behaviors, such as anorexia, bulimia, alcohol abuse, cocaine and steroid consumption, and clinical depression. Each experience that helped shatter the image acted like a brick to tear down my self-esteem and to create a wall between me and the mirror so that I no longer could see the truth of my condition. Years down the road, when I was running up to twenty miles a day, thoughts of throwing up after binge eating, getting drunk, shooting up anabolic steroids, or sniffing lines of cocaine would flash through my mind. I was not reflecting on one particular experience, but I was reliving the cumulative effect of all of the abuse and destruction. It has taken years of therapy, medication, and trial and error with various coping mechanisms to repair the shattered image and to help tear down that brick wall hiding the true reflection from myself.
Of course, not all aesthetic self-criticism is labeled as BDD. Because we are visual creatures, however, we worry about weight gain, acne, wrinkles, cellulite, crow’s feet, sallow or pale skin, or less than perfect breasts. Imagine worrying about such conditions as “defects” every single minute of every day. The true sufferer of BDD will obsess over each flaw to the point that the condition can lead to depression, cancellation of social engagements, or refusal to interact with others socially, and remediation through medical or surgical procedures. I admit, I have had four medical/surgical procedures to correct perceived defects in my body, I am uncomfortable in social crowds, and I even feel conspicuous in unorganized crowds because I sense people are staring at my real or imagined body defects. There have been numerous occasions where I have looked in the mirror as I was getting ready to attend an event, was horrified by what I saw, and either cancelled at the last moment or simply did not show up for the scheduled event. The numerous unhealthy and often self-destructive behaviors I have tried run the gamut from self-consciousness to paranoia. My unhealthy self-image has its roots in my childhood that grew in relative proportion to the pressures I perceived in acquiring a perfect image as a route to being accepted. I wanted to look like the popular kids I saw at school every day, the kids and teens on television and in glossy magazine photos, and like the airbrushed models in larger-than-life billboards, laughing and interacting with the opposite sex in carefree, companionable activities.
The pressure to look perfect to conform to our sense of sight is probably more intense than at any time in history because we have so many forms of immediate visual communication. Because we live in a brave new world of social media, intense scrutiny and immediate gratification are heightened for everyone, but the person who suffers from BDD internalizes comments, comparisons, and criticisms. The discrepancies between the allure of picture perfect models created by modern technology and the aversion to the reflections of a real-life person staring from a mirror can be disconcerting to the sufferer and make life seem unbearable for people like me when I was at my bleakest point.