At the vehement recommendation of my nutritionist, this week I am seeing a Body Dysmorphic Disorder specialist. My nutritionist believes that my insistence that I am fat, huge, and enormous (because this is how I feel) indicates there is more than just distorted thinking involved. Maybe she’s right, but I can’t help but point out that this is how I’ve always felt--I have never been at home in my body, whether it was too skinny or too fat—so I’m not sure how my thinking, my perceived comfort level with arms and legs and belly and butt will change.
According to information I’ve pinched from the Mayo Clinic site, this disorder is “a type of chronic mental illness in which you can't stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance — a flaw either that is minor or that you imagine. But to you, your appearance seems so shameful and distressing that you don't want to be seen by anyone. Body dysmorphic disorder has sometimes been called ‘imagined ugliness.’”
Okay. Perhaps I meet some of the criteria: I do obsess over my body’s size. But this stems from a vow that I made to myself that I would never be a body that anyone could call fat. Why? Up until college, I’d always had crazy high metabolism. When I was much younger, I remember my best friend Erin and I would have Binge Wednesdays. This was the day of the week when our Catholic School let out early—before lunch—in order that the CCD students from the public schools could come in for religious education classes. So Erin and I would head to the local deli and order sandwiches (mine was always a salami and provolone stacked high), buy a bag of Doritos, a tube of Pringles, a can of Spaghetti O’s, and a bag of Starburst. We’d go to her house, sit at the kitchen table, and chow down for the next two hours straight. Happy, gluttonous eating.
Fast forward to college and all that free beer and the dining hall with its bagels and hash browns and then midnight pizzas. When I came home at Thanksgiving, I’d gained precisely fifteen pounds. My dad, not knowing what to say to this puffy faced, chubby daughter, said without thinking, “Well, you’ve certainly put on the pounds.”
I wanted to die of shame.
Instead, I spent the next several months exercising like a maniac and subsisting on frozen yogurt. I lost the fifteen and then some.
That vow also has its roots in an incident with my mom. I was watching her play mixed-doubles tennis one afternoon, impressed, as always, by her ferocious serve, her quick, slicing backhand, her willingness to dive for balls. My mother has always been an athlete and it is from her that I learned to enjoy sports and competitive play (starting at age five, she’d haul me out on the tennis court and we’d practice forehands and backhands and lobs and serves for hours!). But as she came off the court that day, her partner, not my father but some macho country club jerk, tapped her butt with his racquet and said, “You’d move faster if you lost some of that ass.” My mother is not someone who loses her composure, and so she laughed him off and poured herself a glass of water. But she had to have been hurt, had to have felt ashamed. Or maybe not. Maybe she did really just laugh him off. Maybe she could give a fuck what he said. Maybe she thought, “Screw you, asshole.” Or maybe not. I don’t know because she never mentioned it.
But as I watched the exchange, I was embarrassed and ashamed for her, for me, for the me that might one day have some guy comment on the size of my ass. No way, I remember saying to myself, no way will anyone ever say something like that about me.
Now? Even though I know, objectively speaking, that I am not Jabba the Hut, I look in the mirror and that’s all I can see. Someone who is too big; someone who takes up too much space. I want a body that is whisper thin, a body that is beyond notice. That’s why it is so difficult for me to look in the mirror, a chore made doubly hard by our mirror which is only ¾ length, so my head and feet are chopped off. Which makes it possible, I suppose, for me to look at that headless body as a thing, like some discombobulated mannequin chucked in the back of a storeroom. Arms, legs, breasts, belly, butt. Not me, but an assembly of parts. Shin bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone….Which makes it easy for me to zero in on the parts of my body (all of them except my shoulders) that are shameful. As I regard those limbs, that torso, I can feel myself detaching: What I see before me, what I hate, is not a ME but an IT, and an IT that is NOT MINE.
I learned to do this a long time ago when I was in an abusive relationship. During sex, I would will myself not to feel, will myself to detach from (my) that body that was under assault—I can’t feel you, I would think over and over. You can touch that body, but you can’t touch me.
So it is nearly impossible for me to regard (my) that body as part of me. It’s what makes it easy for me to starve that body, to purge that body, and to cut that body. Not me, not mine. I can’t feel the pain. I can’t feel love for it.
So THAT BODY must somehow become mine, a body that I can love and respect, a body that can feel good as well as bad, a body that occupies space, a body that says I am Here.