It was only talking to a friend last night that alerted me to the fact that there is a name for the physical self-loathing I have suffered from all my life: Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
I have long struggled to see myself as anything but plain, even ugly – and, for years, avoided mirrors. I have particular problems when it comes to the area of sexual attractiveness, so-called sex appeal: Have always suspected that I lacked whatever it was that constituted sex appeal and that I had to try really hard to please men – even agreeing to acts I found scary or distasteful – because I was so certain that I was not erotically alluring.
Like so many of us, I am a bundle of contradictions – but also I can see that my BDD has made me extremely vulnerable, both to men and to women. This hurts to even think about, never mind bring out into the open.
When I was in my twenties, as many of you know, I posed, nude, for a Pottery Class in Weston-super-Mare. People in the class were extremely complimentary: Said I was beautiful, an excellent model. I heard their words, thanked them – but never really owned these compliments inside where they actually mattered. It was as if I disassociated and imagined they were referring to some other Alienora Browning. I could not see any loveliness. All I could see were my flaws.
So why, you may ask, did I strip off and pose in front of virtual strangers? It is a very good question – and one I have asked myself many a time over the decades. It seems so strange: A shy, self-conscious girl, with very low self-esteem and real hang-ups about her body and her place (if any) in the world of sexuality and attraction, embracing nudity with such abandon.
Or is it?
Sad to relate, I actually think it isn’t as strange as it might appear: I needed the adrenaline ‘high’ compliments confer, even if I didn’t secretly believe a word of it. In my role as Broken Clown, I needed to show off, be noticed, make others laugh.But also I was treating my own body as an object, something of no value which could be copied, moulded, reproduced, slavered over because, in its clear (to me) inferiority, it did not deserve anything better.
But also, of course – and this, also, is bloody difficult to own up to and express – I desperately wanted to prove myself as a sexual being: Though certain every attempt was doomed to failure, or cheap ‘success’, I still wanted, terribly, to be found desirable, to be fancied, to be thought beautiful.
To be loved? Yes, of course I did. But how can an insecure girl attract love when she does not know how to express it? When she does not think she merits it. When she can only see misshapen and hideous views when she glances – Oh, so quickly and with such sick shame – in the mirror.
I have always made what I can now see is a really sad joke about those days in the Pottery Class. Because, you see, I loved it. It gave me such a high – and, maybe at some level, I felt guilty for feeling this blissful enjoyment and tiny shoots of self-worth. Anyway, this is what I say: ‘Yes, I was a nude model for a Pottery Class…until they ran out of clay, of course…half way through the first session.’
This has always provoked fits of laughter – and, I always suspected, a feeling of, ‘Jolly good show, that woman: Able to laugh at being overweight and all the rest of it. She may not be gorgeous, but she’s a bloody good sport!’
It took me all too many years to see how I was defending my own body image as best I could: By deflecting my ‘audience’s attention into the realm of laughter; by attacking myself before anyone else could; by admitting to my own physical flaws because it was too excruciating, devastating, to have them wheeled out by others, I was putting a huge wall around my own vulnerability.
I still do it, don’t I? Make very amusing fun of myself constantly: Making the parts of my body which cause the most gaping insecurity and unhappiness into stand-up comedy (which I know I am good at). Perhaps this is therapeutic and healing. I don’t know. Perhaps I have always instinctively groped for a way of dealing with my Body Dysmorphia and the utter shrinking horror it can cause me at times. Perhaps I wanted to show the world that I genuinely was completely uninhibited and jolly hockey sticks about the whole fecking business of bodies and sex and attracting others. When, frankly, I am not and never have been. I am, actually, extremely fragile about these things and, for this and other reasons, am in no hurry to ‘find a man’ (as the saying goes).
Something completely unexpected – and a trifle unnerving – has happened in recent months, and I shudder when I think about it because it is, ultimately, so disappointing. Disillusioning. Sometimes, when I take what are now known as selfies, I think I look pretty, or sweet, or at least passable. Then I look in the mirror, or catch a glimpse of a vastly unflattering photo (and they are legion!), and a pall of despair falls upon me. I feel shamed and embarrassed that I ever, for a moment, deluded myself into thinking I looked good.
It only hit me this morning, hours after publishing the post, that, when I see good photos, I am strangely detached from them – as if the creature in the image were a close relative, my prettier, more confident twin let us say. So I can easily think, ‘Yes, she’s pretty – but she isn’t me…’
Anyone else get that one?
I know, I know: Looks aren’t everything and all that. I know, I know: It’s what’s inside that count. I know, I know: All this mirror-peering and selfie-taking is pretty fucking shallow.
But, when you have BDD, how else can you judge your own looks? When your inner Censor is shrieking constantly that you are hideous, substandard and of a lower order when it comes to the Mating Game, it is only too easy to wander into very dangerous territory indeed in your desperate attempts to prove that you have worth, no matter how minimal, in life’s great Looks/Size: Sex Appeal Game.
Body Dysmorphia is not vanity. It is not attention seeking in order to be stroked, petted and endlessly complimented. It is a genuine inability to see one’s own body in a positive, healthy light.
And it is crippling.