There is something that is not talked about very often in the world of health, fitness, and weight loss. For many, it is always there, like an elephant in the room, but rarely is it addressed. Some people are aware that they struggle with extreme self-criticism and others choose to live in denial, or perhaps even normalise it or simply accept it. Many of us are our own worst critics; we scrutinise every part of our body and attribute imperfections to actual failures, which results in persistent feelings of inadequacy. No matter how much we work out, no matter how much weight we lose, no matter how toned we are; it’s simply never enough. Body Dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder, is something that many men and women live with and cope with on a daily basis. And it is a lot more common than you think. Lots of people think about getting a ‘summer body’ or toning up, or maybe trying to fit into that pair of jeans that are a size too small. But for some, it becomes an obsession and it completely consumes them. Every single day when they wake up and look in the mirror, every single time they go shopping for new clothes, every time they eat a meal, every time they are at the gym, and every time they are going on a vacation; it is on their mind. Body. Fat. Muscle. Food.
Recently, on Instagram, I came across a hashtag titled ‘Fear Food Fridays’ and found a culture of people who eat a certain food, on a Friday, that they feel a genuine fear of eating. For many of them, it is junk food or carbohydrates; something that they fear will make them gain weight or make them fat. In my personal experience, as someone who has been fat, there is an increased sense of anxiety around these types of foods because of what they represent, but what is worse is the extreme sense of guilt and shame that is felt after eating them. A rational person would acknowledge that the consumption of one burger is not going to make them instantly fat, but they know that this combined with the few other little ‘set-backs’ during the week could certainly result in weight gain. You may have heard the phrase, “it’s a slippery slope” and with food, it certainly is. One oreo leads to two or three, and before you know it the entire packet is gone! Come on, admit it, we have all been there!
Body Dysmorphia is characterised by obsessions about one’s appearance and one’s imperfections. These obsessions may cause significant distress and may actually interfere with daily functioning. This is hard for me to write about because I have suffered from this, and still struggle with it to a certain extent. There are certain foods that I could not eat without feeling extremely anxious, even though my brain loves to remind me of how good they once tasted. There are mornings when I wake up, look in the mirror and just absolutely hate what I see. In fact, I recently consulted with my GP to make sure that what I was experiencing wasn’t too out of the ordinary, and she told me that she’s met quite a few other people who have lost large amounts of weight and experienced very similar side effects. It turns out that when you’ve been really fat, you will always experience fears of becoming fat again. You will always deal with a certain amount of anxiety relating to food and exercise; but it is how you cope with it that really matters.
Social Comparison Theory (yes, this is a real thing) states that 50% of people compare themselves to others. But, who are we comparing ourselves to? More than likely, we are comparing ourselves to celebrities, models, actors and athletes; all the people who we see in the media and in the spotlight. A while ago, I was watching one of those ‘The Real Housewives of…’ TV shows and one of the women gave viewers an inside look at her daily routine, which included a dermatologist, masseuse, hair stylist, personal trainer, cosmetic dentist, and the list goes on. If I were to aspire to look like her, I would need an army of professionals and thousands of dollars to attempt to perfect my appearance. This is what we are striving for; perfection, and it is never enough. When you are extremely critical of your appearance, you will never be satisfied. There will always be an extra jiggle, a blemish, a spot of cellulite, a wrinkle, or something to obsess over. We are very good at picking out our flaws, and not so great at celebrating our beauty and loving ourselves.
So, is there a cure? Not exactly, except for cognitive behavioural therapy if you feel you cannot cope on your own. I haven’t tried it but I know friends who have achieved a better quality of life as a result of this “change the way you think” therapy. Through speaking to a couple of friends and acquaintances who have lost significant amounts of weight, the presence of mild body dysmorphia is pretty normal. However, there is a point when it becomes extreme and dangerous. If body dysmorphia turns into an eating disorder or causes you anxiety to the point where you don’t even want to socialise or leave your home, then please seek professional help. There are also online communities who can offer support, encouragement, and ideas, so make the most of them. Everybody is different and everybody will cope with this in a different way. Find the way that works best for you. Personally, I try to focus on cooking most of my meals so that I know what is in them, exercising a healthy amount but not over-training, and indulging in a treat meal or treat food about once, maybe twice, a week. Also, I have a bubble bath about once a week with candles, salt scrubs, moisturiser, and skin products, so that I can show my body a bit of love. This is a ‘therapy’ I would highly recommend, as I always feel like a million dollars afterwards.
So, stop comparing yourself to others, especially beauty that is digitally manufactured and unattainable. Treat your body with love and respect, and focus on the things that you love about yourself. Celebrate the little wins such as the run where you beat your last time, the workout where you lifted heavier than ever before, the hill you climbed, or the long walk you completed. You are more courageous than you think and despite the messages conveyed by the media, your looks do not define you; it’s the inner strength and beauty that matters the most.