A friend messaged me, weeks ago now, with concerns about another friend of his, about how their struggle with body dysmorphia had recently intensified. He asked my advice, as someone who has been through eating disorders and the array of their destructive permutations, and has just about come out on the other side. I understood the stomach-tightening swathes of nauseous self-hatred that he described, and I compulsively wanted to offer some sage, comforting advice — but I couldn’t find the words. And so I made my excuses and have been trying to avoid my own muteness on the matter, at least until the right words came. But they didn’t. Until, scrolling through Twitter in a dull saturated-haze, I came across the GIF of Gianni A. Sarcone’s Muller-Lyer Pulsating Star.
The Muller-Lyer illusion, developed by German Sociologist Franz Carl Muller-Lyer (1857–1916), plays with the perception of length through the inversion of segmented lines. When the arrow-head is inverted on the line, it appears shorter than when the arrow is formed in the opposite direction. This causes the parallel lines — or, in the case of the star, the dissected rays — to appear to be of different lengths, their size changing as the arrow-head switches direction. However, the straight line segments are a constant length: the only variable is the direction of the arrow.
Body dysmorphic disorder is the obsessive belief in or exaggeration of a perceived physical flaw, causing significant distress and impairment in functioning. Thoughts about this perceived flaw are obsessive and obtrusive, and can often be crippling. Its manifestations can vary from compulsive concerns about breast size or nose size — potentially leading to medical intervention in the form of plastic surgery — to muscle size, which predominately affects men, or overall body size and shape. Eating disorders are intricately related to body dysmorphia, the latter often being the fuel which ignites and continuously stokes its destructive fires.
Once, when I was working in a bookshop at the beginning of my recovery, I had to call in work sick one day as I was unable to get dressed. If this sounds ridiculous, I agree. But after an hour and a half of putting on and tearing off clothes, each new manifestation of outfit seemingly adding pounds and inches onto my frame, I sank to the floor amongst a sea of jeans and jumpers, unable to find any combination of clothing which I didn’t compulsively pull off my body.
I clawed at the distorted masses of flesh which the clothes had momentarily covered, feeling trapped and panicked in my own body, like when you get stuck in a jumper while trying to pull it over your head and there is a moment in the woolly, claustrophobic darkness in which you doubt ever getting free. Sat in my underwear, it felt as if I were wearing too many layers, the competing fabrics of my recovering body causing friction, panic. Sobbing, I curled up in the foetal position until the attack abated, then I texted my boss my apologies and got back into bed. The thought of anything touching my body in that moment invoked thoughts of meat being squeezed into skins, a sausage being forced into too-tight jeans.
There is a cliche of women having ‘nothing to wear’ despite a wardrobe full of suitable clothing. It is seen to be a particularly female affliction: silly, vapid women being indecisive and vain. And yet, this feeling, blown large, exemplifies the paralysis of body dysmorphia and the way it inhibits everyday life: and it does not discriminate. In his diary, the novelist Franz Kafka wrote: ‘I didn’t want any new clothes at all; because if I had to look ugly anyway, I wanted to at least be comfortable. I let the awful clothes affect even my posture, walked around with my back bowed, my shoulders drooping, my hands and arms all over the place. I was afraid of mirrors, because they showed an inescapable ugliness.’ It is not the clothes themselves — it is the association of clothes with the necessity of concealing a repulsive body. It is the entrapment of our selves within that ugly physicality, and the reminder of this entrapment that clothing brings about.
The prolonged state of flux brought about by recovery can mean that some mornings, you wake up with a Kafkaesque feeling of mutation, of insect-like disembodiment. The body which I had obsessively examined in mirrors, with tape measures and scales and my own encircling fingers, ensuring that my arms were no bigger than the circumference of my wrist, that I could clutch my thigh in my hands, no longer existed. Instead, a changeling body, foreign and obscene, had taken its place: one with breasts and concealed bones, with fleshy thighs and a vaguely-protuding stomach. And with the arrival of this new body, so too came my period, and its shocked hormonal counterpart: acne.
The exact day I reached my goal recovery weight, my period returned, catapulting my body into a state of second-pubescence. Dealing with acne as an anxiety-riddled 15-year-old is bad, but at least there is the consolation of commonality with the majority of your peers. At 20, living back in my teenage bedroom and isolated from my friends, the eruption of painful cycstic acne, writ like a scarlet letter in spots across my cheeks, felt like not only my punishment for getting ill, but for recovering.
During my illness, being at too low a weight to get periods — despite the risk of future infertility — felt like liberation. Free from the unsettling flux of weight and breast size, from the hormonal breakouts, the ravenous hunger and low moods, and the ebbing anxiety of an uncertain cycle, I was free of one of the indignities of womanhood. Its return validated the ever-nagging anorexic voice which told me that illness was intelligent, and recovery foolish. The addition of acne came as if retribution from the anorexia, giving me not only a distorted body, but an inflamed face to boot. While I could hide my swelling body under baggy jumpers, my acne was arrogantly visible, provoking the perception of jeering stares and judgment.
Which is why Saoirse Ronan’s acne in Lady Bird was so significant. It inverts the arrow of the illusion. The dimpled scarring on her cheeks wasn’t concealed, but actively emphasised in some shots. And it wasn’t repulsive, or ugly: it just was. The film’s beauty was in the minutiae, the way its greatest articulations resided in small things — an offhand comment, a ribbon, a line drawn through a name — yet without minimising the significance of these just because of their relative inconsequence. Acne may just be spots, but its effect on your perception of yourself, and the impact of seeing it unashamedly on screen, is radical. In Lady Bird, the ‘imperfection’ of Saoirse Ronan’s skin is edifying: the shadows of scarring don’t undermine her beauty, but embroider it.
So often, we can see this in other people, but not ourselves. Our eyes do not report to us accurately: they are overlaid with shadows of past information and biases. Our own perception is a jury that would be dismissed from court, unable to judge without prejudice. Even now, I sometimes get dressed while deliberately not wearing my glasses, or having put contact lenses in, because not being able to see the shape of myself clearly makes my new shape easier to accept. And yet other days, I stand in front of the mirror in just my underwear and revel in this newfound glory that is fleshliness and the self-ness of myself.
Sometimes, this sense of satisfaction — or even just lack of self-hatred — is accompanied by a nagging guilt, that I am complacent, indulgent, deluded. And the direction of the arrow shifts: minimising my sense of myself, my confidence, and expanding my perception of my size. We are taught that largeness and loudness are unattractive, unseemly — we must reduce to be accepted. This pervasive programming, the nagging guilt and the cruel voice at the back of our mind, inverts the arrow.
I recently moved home after lodging in a house in London. My landlady had pervasively emotionally abused me, falsely accusing me of lying and causing damage to the house, of slamming doors and having people stay over without permission. She repeatedly shouted at me late at night and deliberately locked me out of the house, came into my room without my knowledge and while I was sleeping, and screamed at me that I was unclean and an ‘embarrassment’. It was months of constant anxiety, the pervasive sense of invasion and criticism leading to regular panic attacks, isolation and the slow erosion of my self belief. I mention this because because the pattern of gradual belittlement and anxiety echoes that which had occurred my own head, eventually leading me into the pit of severe anorexia.
Instead of counteracting, I accepted it. I tried to follow her rules until new ones were established, and I tried to follow those as well. I didn’t say anything when she refused to put the heating on when it was snowing in order to save money, or when she hoovered at midnight, or when she took my post. Likewise, when I heard that voice in my head telling me I was too large, too loud, too alive, I listened, and I tried to placate it. I allowed the arrows to turn inwards, reducing the size of my body and reducing myself, and the fullness of my world. I followed ever-evolving rules and stopped going out, shrinking away from the happiness of others which I thought I did not deserve to share in. I felt so repulsive, so embarrassing, that at times I was physically unable to leave the house.
It is so commonly said that it has become a trope of its own: a middle-aged woman — often an actress, or performer — tells of how she hated her appearance in her youth, yet looking back she wishes that she had embraced her looks, worn more revealing clothes, had recognised how beautiful she was during those years of self-punishment. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to avoid mirrors and parties and the truth of myself for three decades only to look back at photos of wasted years, seeing the beauty of the flower after it’s long dead and dried.
Acceptance takes a lot of work, but then so does self-hatred. It requires an active effort to change the direction of the arrow, to unveil the repulsive reflection as the illusion that it is. It does not come naturally or immediately, and there will be times when the biased jury will raise their heads and distort your image once again. For me, it took not looking in mirrors for longer than a glance for nearly a year for me to become comfortable with my appearance, independent from that glassy gaze.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t still sometimes wish that I had an invisibility cloak to hide from the perception of others’ stares, but I remind myself: your own eyes are infinitely more scrutinising than those of any other, and things you may see as flaws, others may see as embroidery, or not notice at all. And so my long-delayed advice is that, like the Muller-Lyer illusion, sometimes your mood or your mind inverts and the situation appears bleak and overwhelming. But you are the constant, you are yourself, you just need to allow the arrows to realign.
Mind | Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/body-dysmorphic-disorder-bdd/#.WqpYXmZ0dZ0
NHS | Body Dysmorphic Disorder https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/body-dysmorphia/