TW/eating disorders, body Dysmorphia and abuse.
“According to the NICE guidelines, it is estimated that approximately 0.5-0.7% of the UK population have BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder). Clinical samples tend to have an equal proportion of men and women across all age groups. In children and young people, body dysmorphic disorder usually has an early-adolescence onset at about age 13.” – OCD Action.
The above is the official information we are given. In my own work and life, I’d say about half of the people I speak with share experiences about poor body image and body dysmorphia – once they know they are in a safe space to do so, where they will not be judged. My guess, and it is a guess, is that this stuff affects over 50% of the population.
A bold statement? Probably. But then, it’s the bold statements that wake people up. And I’ve never been a shrinking violet, so bold it has to be. The majority of women I speak to about this, who have experienced it, tend to be those who don’t fit the mould of what ‘feminine’ should be – slim, smaller featured… and the men I speak to about it are usually those who don’t fit the mould of what ‘masculine’ should be – strong, tall, muscular.
I can only tell my own story and experience on this, so I will, in the hope that it can help others not to feel so alone with this horrific combination. My own ‘early-adolescence onset’ came at age 8 and a half. Usually when I tell people this, they tend to audibly gasp. But here’s the thing – there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with early-adolescence onset or precocious puberty, as it is also called. What’s ‘wrong’ is society’s reaction towards it. What’s ‘wrong’ is society’s narrative. But that’s another article. Today, I want to talk about the impact of it all.
When you are judged, teased, sexualised and/or shamed endlessly at a very young age, for whatever reason relating to your appearance, it creates a crippling self-consciousness. As an adult one can make sense and put things into perspective. As a child, one has nothing else to go on and so accepts all of these responses as a true reflection of who he/she is. And that reflection equals ‘objectified’.
To be objectified by the outside world is bad enough but the lesson that is learned during such tender years is that the things to do is to objectify oneself. When that objectification of self becomes intensified, that is where Body Dysmorphic Disorder kicks in, and in the case of body objectification it usually becomes entangled with eating disorders.
All eating disorders – whether anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating disorder or non-identified eating disorder – are the sufferers’ deep need to eradicate, or at the very least, numb the pain and the shame that they feel around their own body. Addictions can also play into this equation for the same reason. There’s nothing like drugs or alcohol to shut those goddamn tormenting voices up for a while and give sufferers a little peace.
Lockdown has provided the biggest open stage for such tormenting voices, especially for those of us who live alone, who have had more time than usual simply with our own voices in our heads. For me, it has been compounded by the fact that I was still healing having left an emotionally abusive relationship last year and settling into a brand new home town, then a lot of my work disappearing overnight due to Covid 19; the pressure had suddenly become enormous in my life and sometimes unbearable in my head. A friend suggested that I gave these episodes a name to make it easier for me to reach out. They are now my ‘emotional migraines’. That helps me a lot. It also helps me to remember that they will pass.
Some of us are tenacious enough to have found coping strategies over our years of torment, but not all. And even for those of us who are ‘high functioning,’ a lot of time home alone has led to an intensification of these past traumas. A resurrection of old patterns and a desperation for the recurring ‘emotional migraine’ to just go away for good.
On a bad day, the first voices I hear when I wake are the taunts in my head and the last voices I hear before I fall asleep are those same taunts. Distraction in the morning comes in the form of exercise (the gyms have been closed, I am forever grateful to those who have launched online Zoom classes and have met up at a social distance to simply lift heavy things with me – my own drug of choice!) Distraction in the evenings is harder. A large glass of wine or two has historically been my drug of choice, although increasingly I am finding my solace in books again instead. I love to read. When your taunting voices are loud, it is often hard to locate any headspace in which you can absorb the beauty of new knowledge so it must be a good sign that I can read again. Finally.
It’s not easy to write about this topic. I’m a little nervous about sharing all of this. But the reality is that many, many people struggle with these demons and yet never talk about them. There is a shame and silence that comes hand in hand with this complex and deeply rooted trauma of both body and mind that is carried around for so many, day after day after day. There can be a real lack of understanding and empathy from others too, which really doesn’t help.I’ve put together a mini-manual below which I hope is helpful.
Here are things not to say to someone who is struggling with the demons of BDD and/or eating disorders:
- “But you look great” – this is a pointless thing, however well intended, to say to someone who struggles with BDD and/or eating disorders. On an extremely good day they might be able to ride this wave for a short period of time. But mostly they won’t. And it will actually make them feel worse. Don’t ask us why.
- “Pull yourself together” – we really wish we could. Honestly. We are doing our best. It’s tough.
- “How much weight have you gained/lost recently?” – Just no! Do not ever say this! Never, never, never. Thanks.
Here are some things that might be more useful:
- Reach out to listen and talk, without judgement or any attempt to fix. Say something like “I’m here to listen and hug you when you need.”
- Engage that person in a (currently online) film, piece of theatre, art exhibition, comedy – something they enjoy that acts as a distraction or catharsis or both. The arts are wonderful for our mental health (shame they have been so obliterated recently… again, another article…).
- Read more about these issues to educate yourself and understand better (online or via independent book stores who currently deliver).
- Help them to get involved in some online workshops that speak to their interests or passions.
And for those who personally struggle:
- Read the book ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ by Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk – I have found it life changing.
- Practise Self Compassion (Dr Kristen Neff offers really good advice and resources on her website and in her book).
- Mindfulness and meditation – I find guided meditation better in getting past the voices of the ‘emotional migraine.’
- Move – anything. Just move.
- Take care of your nutrition as best you can with what you are able to handle that day. And if you can’t take care of it on any given day, it’s okay too.
- Know you are not alone and that you are not broken. You got dealt a crap hand early in your life in one way, shape or form. It’s not your fault. It really isn’t.
- Gender conditioning is the root of all evil. I am so glad we have way more people speaking up and writing about how damaging it is.
- Find ways to laugh if you can. It’s the best release.
Written By Dannie-Lu Carr
About the writer: Dannie-Lu Carr is a coach who helps people to find their courage, strength, confidence and purpose. She is also the founder of several programmes including Creative Wavelengths ™, Flaming Leadership, Warrior Women and 28 Days of Defiance. As a creative, Dannie is a published author, award-winning theatre director and singer/songwriter. She is outspoken and passionate about many issues around human rights. For fun and sanity, she lifts heavy things like barbells, stones and logs and she lives in St Leonards On Sea with her little dog, Nancy.