It took trying on four sizes of jeans to realise something had changed. Despite significant weight loss, I still struggle to reconcile my mind and body due to a battle with body dysmorphia (or BDD). The nature of BDD is that it completely distorts the picture I see in the mirror to the point where I still see ‘obesity’ despite being perfectly healthy.
Body dysmorphia, like many other mental health disorders, is silent. It can turn a celebratory day into one of irreverent fear.
It churns around my mind on a daily basis, echoing in conversations to confirm that, “Yes, I have spent the better part of two years fighting a battle with my own body to shed 30kg and achieve the perfect Kim KW silhouette”. The number on the scales changed, but my perception of myself never did.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a constant obsession that there is something inherently flawed about ourselves and how these flaws appear to others – real or not. In fact, it can be the complete misjudgement of one’s appearance, and it currently affects about 2.5 per cent of Australians.
Despite being formally documented as far back as 1886, BDD is so rarely talked about that sufferers are more likely to seek help from a dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon, than speak to a psychologist or psychiatrist. The problem with seeking these other services, and not solving the root issue, is that most patients have no emotional response after surgery. Some recalled their dysmorphia symptoms worsened, according to psychologist Ben Buchanan, who specialises in BDD treatment.
I speak with Chloe Wickham, who’s 23 and has gone from being an ambassador for fitness programs to an ambassador for supplement stores. Wickham has decided to play by her own rules and drop affiliations which she says impose too many restrictions and expectations on her training, affecting her own wellbeing. After a nine-year battle with anorexia nervosa, she still suffers from body dysmorphia symptoms.
“The best way for me to describe body dysmorphia is an unbearable obsession with a particular flaw. It’s definitely exacerbated with a negative belief system,” she said.
Wickham takes me through a workout tailored for a back injury I suffered a few weeks ago. She’s calculative and considerate in the way she mindfully chooses low impact exercises that still drive results, demonstrating what she’s learned in her studies.
Let’s suppose for a second that Kim Kardashian-West is, in fact, telling the truth that her hourglass features are au naturale – and thus achievable. What’s the method?
I ask Wickham how she would train me to achieve the Kim KW silhouette. She hypothesises a meticulous routine of faultless nutrition, caloric deficit, accessory lifts and glute isolation. Surgery not necessary.
But body dysmorphia is often the price to pay for these stringent rules, causing a disconnection from our bodies.
Wickham came out of her nine-year battle with anorexia nervosa only two years ago. “I joined Goodlife and had no clue what I was doing nor any muscle. I actually bought a few ‘booty guides’ and tried to do it myself,” she said.
She has spent the better part of those two years educating herself to create a healthy relationship with health and fitness; trawling reddit and bodybuilding.com articles and working with several coaches to learn proper form and nutrition. Her personal experience with BDD is ongoing which can hinder her ability to complete daily tasks.
The lean and shredded mentality is one Wickham struggles not to subscribe to as the fitness industry is inundated with it. The shocking reality of this for women is that it can result in amenorrhea – the absence of a menstrual period. It’s the body’s wise but brutal way of saying life cannot thrive there.
Wickham says that “training for aesthetics always leads to disaster” and credits a change of mindset for restoring her own personal body image.
“Making strength gains the main focus does help a lot,” she advises.
I do what Wickham suggests and I scroll through bodybuilding.com and find a particularly interesting article on why meal plans don’t work. Joelle Cavagnaro lists lack of variety, risk of disordered eating, inability to sustain the plan and that it teaches you nothing about nutrition.
I reflect on my own fitness journey and recall the first six months following a strict meal plan set by a personal trainer. As I read the article I tick off similarities with my own relationship with food resulting in food intolerances, binge sessions and an enormous plateau.
All of these experiences are a showcase of an over-controlled, joyless life in pursuit of a redundant goal. I think about the effort to control physical ‘imperfections’ that led to gross mental dysfunction – and in comes body dysmorphia.
The paradoxical nature of BDD is that it steals the joy of the results. The perceived or real flaws do not go away even when they do. I still feel ‘fat’ even when the BMI says ‘normal’, when measurements change and when my endurance and fitness is peaking.
So how do we reconnect with the real state of our bodies?
Wickham reiterates that education is paramount. “Educate yourself and surround yourself with knowledgeable people. I’m lucky to have contact with some strong figures in the industry and it is through them I learn as much as I can,” she said.
Dr Buchanan adds, in his research, that cognitive therapy and exposure can be helpful. Ultimately, learning more about the BDD mentality as well as putting ourselves in the situations that we are scared of.
While health is at the forefront of the fitness industry, fierce obsession to correct flaws can take over our lives with staggering consequences. Dr Buchanan warns that BDD can result in severe social isolation – I reflect on the fact that I would often skip out on socialising because it might ruin so-called ‘progress’. Wickham comments that she broke an ambassador contract as she was prohibited from exhibiting a ‘party lifestyle’ on Instagram, an opinion she felt promoted that you can’t be a fitness influencer and also go out and socialise.
Living a healthy lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular with infinite access to information. But with this, it’s easy to lose sight of the reality of our health, like Wickham and myself. Wickham is an important testament to retaking control of our perceptions of ourselves, reclaiming our mind and body and overcoming BDD.
If you identify with any of these symptoms strongly, please speak with a body dysmorphia health care professional.