I grew up in a happy home. I was cared for. I was spoiled. I was loved. I was the type of kid who shouldn’t complain — who honestly couldn’t complain. I should have transitioned from a carefree child to a well-adjusted adult with relative ease. I should have come away unscathed. But I didn't. Loving parents and a loving home can only do so much. And though I don't know whether societal pressures, or genetics changed me, something changed me. Before long I was self-conscious about my body — hyperaware of my thighs, my breasts, my stomach, and short-yet-swollen frame. I began counting calories, eating less, and working out more. I was struggling with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
I lived with my brother, mother, father, and our family dog in a fenced in ranch-style home just outside of central Florida. We spent our days in the streets, racing PowerWheels or playing tag, red light, green light, and follow the leader, and our nights floating, splashing, or swimming under the stars. I had the kind of upbringing that makes people often think, this can't happen to me. This won't. But it does. It did. And now, decades later, I have every intention of talking to my daughter about my body dysmorphic disorder.
Despite the fact that today, years later, I am physically, mentally, and emotionally better — able to eat without fear, without remorse, and without counting calories (at least for the most part) — and able to step on a scale without freaking out, it wasn’t always this way. I felt sexier in my body during my pregnancy, and am stronger and healthier because of that, but I wasn't always better. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and I kept my habits a secret. For years, I struggled in silence.
I want her to understand that a good body is a body that is loved and cared for and respected, no matter what she weighs or what she looks like.
My own distorted thinking started in high school, when I was just 13 or 14 years old. I don’t recall exactly when it happened; one day I was confident, and the next I was pulling at my stomach, poking, berating, and hiding my thighs. I stopped wearing midriff-revealing shirts, shorts, and skirts. I started doing sit-ups every morning, and more sit-ups and squats every evening. I ate salads without dressing. Without eggs. Without cheese. I essentially ate meals without consuming any of the food. I lived on black coffee and rice cakes, ice cold water and raw vegetables. I ate less than 800 calories a day. Ironically, no matter how small and trim I was, no matter what the number on the scale said, I still saw a “fat girl.” I still saw thick thighs and a disgustingly squishy stomach. I saw absurd things, distorted things. And I hated what I saw.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental illness characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with one’s own appearance, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, unlike other eating disorders, those struggling with BDD often see certain parts of their body as disgusting or deformed. They see parts of their body in a distorted manner. And they see — literally see — themselves as flawed. Severely, grotesquely, and horrifyingly flawed.
But the mind lies. Mirrors lie, and what I once saw as “thick thighs,” I now see as strong legs. What I once thought was a bloated stomach, a fat stomach, a grotesque stomach, I now know is nothing more than a well-fed, loved, and nourished body. And what I once believed to be vulgar, unsexy, unlovable, and offensive, I now know to be beautiful. My body is very much the temple it ought to be, and I am reminded, daily, of the wonderful things it's done for me. My legs have taken me through marathons. I've given birth. I care for, and give love, to those closest to me every single day. I fight harder when I feel I've no fight left in me. I know I am more than the number on the scale, or the distorted reflection in my mirror. But I was lucky because I had a therapist who recognized my symptoms. I had a therapist who helped me work through my issues, not only with my body image but with my depression. I was lucky because I had a support system already in place.
I'm going to talk about my struggles so that my daughter knows she doesn't have to struggle in silence. Because BDD is scary. It's isolating and manipulative. But I know from my own experience that if one person can listen to her without judging, can talk to hear and really hear her, I know she'll have a chance. And even if I can't guarantee talking will work, I'm going to do my best to give her the best fighting chance there is.
And it's for that very reason I plan to explain my body dysmorphia to my daughter. I don't have an exact age or time period picked out quite yet, but I want her to know that no matter what size she is, she is always exactly the right size, and the right weight. I think that maybe we'll start talking about it when she's 10 — but maybe before then. I'm going to follow her lead. And I'm going to pay attention. Beyond that, I want her to know that her body is so much more important than what it weighs or what it looks like. I want her to understand that a good body is a body that is loved and cared for and respected, no matter what she weighs or what she looks like.
However, even though I want my daughter to understand her body, feel comfortable in her body, and to love her body, I know I can't protect her from everything. I can't keep her from getting sick; I can't silence the voices in her head if she does struggle with BBD; and, much as I want to, I know I can't save her. I can do my best, but no amount of compliments or parental wisdom can save her.
But I can to educate her. I can talk to her and explain the warning signs, symptoms, and treatment of body dysmorphic disorder. I can normalize BDD by being open and not treating it as some shame-worthy taboo, and I can share my own experience and my own struggle with eating disorders with her in the hopes that, if she ever battles with BDD or any body image issues she'll feel comfortable coming to me. More than anything, I'm going to talk about my struggles so that my daughter knows she doesn't have to struggle in silence. Because BDD is scary. It's isolating and manipulative. But I know from my own experience that if one person can listen to her without judging, can talk to hear and really hear her, I know she'll have a chance. And even if I can't guarantee talking will work, I'm going to do my best to give her the best fighting chance there is.
I came from a good home and a very happy home, but I also came from a home where we didn't talk about our bodies. We didn't talk about diet or exercise, even though I remember doing Jane Fonda workouts with my mom. I'd overheard the words "fat" and "skinny," but my parents never spoke about what they meant. I learned about the "perfect" female figure from my friends, TV, and from media and magazines. I don't want my daughter to be left alone to fill in the blanks that way. I don't want her to feel shame around her body. For me, shame led to insecurity, and my insecurities — coupled with my fear and silence — led to BDD. I want to give my daughter every possible tool to arm her against that.
So we are going to talk about. I am going to be as open as I possibly can. I am going to listen. Not judge, but listen. Hopefully that will help. Hopefully she'll always know I am here: just a few feet, a few rooms, or a phone call away.