(CW: Rape, mental health and body image problems)
I have decided to (try to) defy my anxiety, and write transparently about something I’ve struggled with for as long as I’ve known. I’m writing this because there’s not much discussion on the matter, which makes me feel very alone in this struggle. It feels rather invalid and unimportant for this reason, but the truth is that all struggles are valid and important. I assume that this is something not many people talk openly about as it may seem superficial, first-worldly and generally problematic, as it is centred around appearance. Though, I reckon there’s always good in honesty and transparency. I am hoping to confront something that’s very overlooked, however am aware I may be perceived as superficial for it.
Revealing this about myself, I hope to provide a sense of validation and understanding to anyone else who may be struggling with this issue. Because this is not openly spoken about often, I’m constantly questioning myself and discarding this as a problem, there not being many resources to refer to. So, hopefully this will open up a new discussion on the matter and my questions will find answers.
A disclaimer, I titled this ‘Body Dysmorphia‘ however body dysmorphia is an official anxiety disorder and as I have not spoken to a professional about this, I have not had any official diagnosis for it. The truth is, I am hoping to come to a greater understanding of my terrible body image and in doing so, figure out if it is BDD.
Throughout my life I’ve always disliked the way I look, even at a young age my ‘flaws’ and insecurities were all I saw when I looked in the mirror. I was always a fully healthy and able-bodied child, and have just always been somewhat insecure within. I do regard the way I was as a child to be very beautiful, just as I can easily admit that the way I looked several months ago is beautiful, however in the present moment, I am often very insecure and unsatisfied with the way I look.
Therefore, while it may be pleasant for my rational mind to see the beauty in my old pictures, it is ultimately destructive, as it always leads to comparisons, as if it were someone else in the photos. It’s this insecurity – of having changed, being less pretty now than I was before – that holds onto me the most, and that makes it obvious to me I have a morphed vision of myself. I’m not that different to how I was a year or two ago, and yet I compare myself to then as if I’m a completely different person. I’ve always done this.
It’s almost as if time passing makes me someone different which in part it does, I am constantly changing as a person, but my shell generally stays the same. Perhaps weight fluctuates, my figure changes, my hair lightens, or my skin ages, but my face will always be my face. Though, even just writing that, I doubt myself. The truth is (in my worst moments) I convince myself that my appearance is decaying and that I’m totally unattractive. This unfortunately escalated significantly during lock-down – as my anxiety took off and my mood plummeted, my self-esteem and body image inevitably suffered too. Though, while lock-down has magnified this problem, it has been there for as long as I can remember.
I am one to change the way I look rather often. While, in part, this is me just playing about with my appearance and getting bored easily, the truth is it’s a way of dealing with my insecurities. I impulsively change the colour of my hair or cut it and change my style because I feel so unhappy with the way I look, and see it as a way out. Though, it usually leads to me regretting the changes I make, and looking back at old pictures scorning the way I’ve changed and ‘worsened’. The past year, this has gotten out of my control, and as many times as I promise myself (and my mum) that I’m growing out my hair, I’m incapable of doing it. My impulses to cut it are constant and much stronger than my patience to outgrow it. It’s a cycle of impulsively acting out my insecurities, feeling momentarily satisfied, before being gripped by my self-deprecation, thinking horribly of myself and repeating the process.
My biggest insecurity is my weight. When I was younger, I was so sporty, and was as fit as anything, yet I managed to derive so much unhappiness from a mole I had on my forehead. I was so insecure of this little birthmark, it was the centre of my worries. Though, I was always aware of my weight even then, since I was maybe 11, despite being the healthiest I could possibly be. But my main insecurities at the time were the many moles that covered my body. When I was around 13 or 14, I got a fringe to hide my mole behind. I was so afraid that someone would see it, convinced they would be totally disgusted by it.
Eventually, I was able to get it removed. To be honest, this was quite a very weird moment because for a while this mole had identified me (in how much I disliked it) and there it was, cut off forever. It was around that age that I started becoming very concerned with my weight, despite being very healthy. I remember distinctly setting out to lose weight as I didn’t like the way I looked, and instead aspired to look like Cara Delevingne or the Victoria Secret models, at just 14 years old.
As much as this is superficial and may just appear to be a typical teenage phase, it quickly began to take up all of my thoughts and energy. I only cared about losing weight and eating the minimal amount of calories I could. A good day would be one in which I eat the least possible, and almost everything I did from day to day, I did with weight loss in mind. I began feeling that my worth was exclusively based on my weight and my looks, despite being a child full of life and interests. The truth is, that feeling never really went away.
Of course, as my life started to take shape during my final years of high school, I started to focus my time on more rewarding and positive things such as my university prospects. My admiration shifted from super skinny models to personal achievements – such as my grades – though this did not mean my vision of self-worth ameliorated entirely – despite having a generally renewed sense of achievement. In fact, the stress that I was enduring throughout my final years of high school to attain optimal grades in my exams merely aggravated my body image problems. I found stress to be the worst direct aggravator of body image issues. During this period I was my thinnest, however, was very miserable and had no social life, and based most of my feelings of accomplishment on eating the minimal amount I possibly could. I avoided eating at school, noticing many of my friends doing the same – and likely going through a similar problem. And at home, I dragged my mother and other loved ones down. All I cared about was not eating – which inevitably interfered with my relationships.
Luckily, this phase ended quite quickly, mostly because I acknowledged what I was putting others through, but also because I realised how much such a futile thing was dominating my time and thoughts. Once I finished my second last year of high school and gained the necessary qualifications to get into university, I started caring less about my studies, and coincidentally started socialising more. This was ultimately a good thing, as it was something I was in need of for these crucial years of my adolescence.
My final year of high school was a pleasant one (in the sense that I had a lot of fun and was rather care-free – a little too care-free as I didn’t take school very seriously anymore). However, this was a phase in my life in which I was exploring and enjoying the thrills of alcohol and rebellion, going out to ’empties’ every weekend with my friends, and getting very inebriated. I don’t and will never disagree with this whim I went on, and wouldn’t deprive any teen of having fun times such as these. Having said that, I very quickly started getting in with the wrong crowds and not being careful when I went out.
Towards the end of my final year of school, I was raped at a house party whilst having a blacked-out from drinking a suspicious (spiked) drink. This happened at a party where I barely knew anyone – except for the few friends I went there with – and the people were generally older than us. I was given a suspicious drink (a can of Redbull with a horrible tasting, unknown ‘spirit’ in it) and shortly after I blacked out. The next day I was clueless of what had happened and my friends told me I’d slept with someone. Keep in mind, we were all silly and not totally aware of the gravity of the problem. When they realised I didn’t remember what happened, they were in shock. But my reaction to the situation – looking back – was terribly indifferent. Essentially, I didn’t really realise that I’d been raped – I thought I’d just slept with a guy whilst having a black out (which in itself is non-consensual sex, i.e. rape) and that this was a common thing that happened on nights out. In fact, for a while I didn’t think anything of it. The morning after it happened I messaged the rapist, whom I’d never met before that night – and asked him if we’d had sex, to which he said yes, and so I proceeded to get the morning after pill and forget all about it. If there was anything that caused me distress, it was the possibility of my being pregnant, which tormented me for quite a while.
It was only once I’d started university, and opened up to one of my flatmates – who was maturer than I – had explained to me how that was definitely rape. Until then, I’d kept it to myself and to those who were present on the night, not having told any of my family. But the stark reality of the situation only made me feel more ashamed, and to this day haven’t told many friends or family. I still fear the shame of being identified as a rape victim and the terrible connotations that society gives it. Alongside that, I feel guilt for not having exposed the rapist, who may well have gone on to do similar things to others.
Ultimately, I keep this information from most people as I don’t want to reinforce the contorted stereotype of queer people being rape victims – which I abhor saying or giving absolutely any meaning. But this shame that I (shouldn’t) feel is robbing a common awareness on the matter that I feel obligated to bring forth. Keeping it to myself all these years – for fear of it changing people’s minds about me, and for fear that it would dictate my identity – is only fuelling this unreasonable shame further, and allowing it to fester. And I know for a fact that many others have gone through similar experiences and may possibly feel a similar shame which is debilitating them from coming forth about it or talking to someone.
In reality, this is one of the biggest topics that need more attention drawn to them, and of course, it’s not the victim’s responsibility to do so, but the victim should not feel absolutely any shame. So it’s for that reason that I include this story, not only because it affected me in so many ways, including my body image, but also because I feel it is important to share. It might be obvious that I am struggling to find the right words to talk about this, as it is such a fragile topic (in which I fear saying anything harmful) which is a reflection of how foreign a topic it is for me to be openly confronting.
I started university not long after this happened. and continued going out, with a heightened sense of cautiousness of course, aware of the fact I was often unsafe as a young girl in a big city. This didn’t put me off going out or getting drunk around new people, however my body issues grew bigger and I began starving myself out of feeling unattractive and worthless. Despite becoming aware of my rape, I never processed it the way I would’ve expected, I never felt trauma or fear. In fact, I don’t think there is a ‘normal’ way of reacting to these things, in reality they damage us mostly in ways we’re unaware of, such as our mental health and our self-esteem.
Throughout university, my low-self esteem was always reflected in the way I perceived myself. As I mentioned before, I based most of my worth on my appearance. I thought that this was what people predominantly based their opinion on me on, although was also very self-conscious about being shy and quiet. I still very much did things with weight-loss in mind, seeing things merely as distractions from eating or means of burning calories. Don’t get me wrong, this was not all I cared for, for there were many really exciting things that came with starting uni, but I was not looking after myself and didn’t acknowledge how harmful the way I viewed myself was.
Despite joining the university’s football team and meeting many new people, I struggled to make any friends. Football training and socials were the thing I looked forward to most every week, but the dynamic of team was rather exclusive, especially for shy and introverted people like myself (as sports are often known to be). Although this sport was a positive thing for me during first year, the fact that I didn’t make any friends – not really knowing how to – I very quickly spiralled into a depressed state.
Of course, there were other factors which led to this, such as; the transition from home to living on my own; not knowing how to look after myself; my terrible body image; regular alcohol consumption; as well as living in prison-like student halls, and coming to terms with – and hiding – my sexuality. These were many things that summarise the average first year university experience and equally all resulted in my terrible mental state.
It was during this difficult time in which I started journaling. I wrote about how terribly lonely and sad I felt – and following the advice of some Youtube videos (about the law of attraction and about mental health) I wrote about how I could actively fight this sadness and loneliness. As much as I’d like to delve further into the impact journaling had on my mental health, I mostly wanted to mention it as a turning point. Writing as a means to reflect on and express the way I felt – even if it was just to a sheet of paper – became a very healthy habit. I began acknowledging unhealthy tendencies/beliefs, which ultimately allowed me to make changes in my life. It was then that I started becoming aware of my terrible body image and the subsequent effects it had on my eating habits and general quality of life.
In all honesty, it took me a while to write anything (about my eating habits) other than how out of control my binges and appetite was, and how I desperately needed to go running (something you’ll find throughout my diary). I was much more interested in being a certain weight and looking a certain way than being happy and healthy. And, I’m not writing this introspectively from the end of my journey, as I still have bad days in which I’ll write how badly I need to lose weight. And on most days I still look at myself in the mirror and only notice my imperfections and the things I want to change.
In fact, I only recently realised that my worth is not based off of my looks, nor is it based on other’s validation. I only recently realised that people’s opinion on me is unrelated to my weight. I only recently started eating breakfast and allowing myself to eat all three meals. And the fluctuation of my weight still makes me insecure. And, in realising all these things, I ultimately realised that all this insecurity is internal, and a mere construct of my own mind. All insecurities, not just regarding body-image, but any negative feelings I may have towards myself, are just internal. And lastly, I realised the importance of inner confident as opposed to external confidence and how deserving I am to admire myself just as much as I admire others.