I Didn't Realize How Severe My Body Dysmorphia Was Until I Was Pregnant

Photo: Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock
woman inspecting stomach
Self

Since a very young age, I've always been overly critical of self-diagnosed "flaws" within myself.

At 13 years old, I remember borrowing my mom's magnifying make-up mirror and looking for "lines" around my eyes, convincing myself I had some, and immediately going to Walgreen's to purchase anti-aging under-eye cream — at 13.

My loathing of my "bad" skin — I've suffered from cystic acne my whole life and only got it under control when I went on Accutane before my wedding — would eventually spiral into my attainment of "perfect" skin — coupled with a "perfect" body, of course.

The catch is, though, most people who meet me would never even think I had "bad" skin or a "bad" body because I've come to realize, through a lot of therapy and self-reflection, that it's all in my head.

I have body and acne dysmorphia: what I see in the mirror isn't what other people see.

In fact, most people who meet me would likely never, ever guess I suffer from any sort of dysmorphia at all — at 5'3 and 125 pounds, I'm what most would consider petite, and most of my acne is clear now, save for a few leftover acne scars that are noticeable, of course, only to me. 

I eat fairly well, exercise fairly regularly, and the most my weight has ever fluctuated is when I was 10 pounds heavier in college. Oh — and when I got pregnant.

RELATED: How To Change The Way You Think About Body Image Issues

At 35, I gave birth to a healthy, beautiful child, who gave my life a joy, depth, and purpose I didn't know was possible. While pregnant, my baby bump was "small" — most people couldn't believe I was nine months! — which made me strangely inferior, like my body somehow failed to provide, no matter how many times my OB assured me that baby bumps come in all shapes and sizes.

My son was small — five pounds — but there were no other health issues, and I'm thankful, in retrospect, that his tinier size made my delivery easier. My husband and I took him home, deliriously exhausted but elated. 

I lost the postpartum weight fairly quickly and without much effort —but today, as of this writing, I'm still about 7 pounds heavier than I was pre-baby. And again, just typing that out — seven pounds  — I feel deep shame that such a minuscule amount of weight sets off a furor of self-hatred in myself.

I'm not naivë to realize that many people would love to look like me — and it's that knowledge that makes my admission of harboring horribly negative thoughts about myself even more embarrassing. I feel an overwhelming amount of guilt and shame that I'm unable to be content with what society would a thin body and pretty face.

And yet. My dysmorphia never stops nagging at me: It's been a year since he was born, why can't you just lose those last pounds? Maybe if you didn't pick at your skin so much, you wouldn't have pockmarks on your face. 

Because here's the thing: Rationally and scientifically, I know it's normal for women's bodies to change after they have babies.

Rationally and scientifically, I know my body falls into a "healthy" weight category.

I can even summon a bit of pride that my small frame carried and delivered a healthy baby to term.

RELATED: Why We Need To Change The Way We Talk About Body Image, Health & Wellness (Like, Now)

And yet, whenever I see a photo of myself — even if it's a cute one with my son and me — all I can think of is how "fat" my body looks and how terrible my skin looks. (That mindset, by the way, has robbed me of capturing copious beautiful moments because unless it's a selfie where I have full control of my image and can crop my body out and add a filter, I usually hate seeing photos of myself.)

My body dysmorphia came to a head on a trip to Jamaica with my family recently. I refused all photos of myself after seeing photos taken of me in a bathing suit in harsh sunlight. My self-loathing, yet again, ruined what should have been a perfectly happy time., I could tell my husband was growing weary of me.

"Babe, this has to stop. What you see in photos and in the mirror is not what everyone else sees. You are way too critical of yourself, you look incredible," he'd say. Bless him, of course, there's a reason I married him — but I could tell his constant need to reassure me was wearing on me — and did very little to make me feel better anyway.

After that disastrous trip, I knew I needed to do something about my body dysmorphia.

I did not want to live the rest of my life hating what I looked like over invisible flaws that I created in my own head —  and more urgently, I didn't want to unknowingly pass this unhealthy attitude down to my son.

So I sought help.

Here are a few things that helped me along my body dysmorphia journey:

RELATED: I Hated My Own Body So Much It Almost Killed Me

1. I sought therapy.

Therapy was something I had been avoiding for years — lack of time, feeling like my problems weren't 'big' enough to warrant it — but when I finally carved time in my life to address the root of my body issues, I realized that so much of my dysmorphia stemmed from perfectionism. 

As the oldest child and daughter in a large family, I suffered from serious 'golden child' syndrome which spiraled into debilitating fears of disappointing anyone or not being the perfect daughter, wife, and mother. Perfectionism has so many proven costs: procrastination, stress/burnout, and mental health issues — in fact, it's often a risk factor for anxiety disorders like OCD, depression, and eating disorders.

I realized seeking therapy is a sign of strength, not weakness, and it has allowed me to connect my childhood dots to learn what triggers my perfectionism, and find coping mechanisms and strategies for my disorder.

Advertisement You deserve to be happy! Get help today from the comfort of your home from BetterHelp, the largest therapy service, to change your life for the better.

2. I ask people to take photos of me without permission.

This was actually a suggestion of a good friend who noticed I was never in any of the photos I posted on social media of my son.

"You're going to regret not having any photos of yourself and your son when he's young," she accurately advised. "Even if you don't look at them until 10 years down the line, ask your husband and family to take them and not show them to you immediately."

In fact, I've gotten this advice before — and it worked. Once, on a cruise with a friend who was a professional photographer, I begged her to not take photos of me. She refused and instead let me know she'd continue to snap shots — but wouldn't show me them immediately.

Instead, she let the images sit and revisited the photos with me a year later. Turns out, the cruise photos were not-at-all terrible — in fact, they were beautiful. It's kind of like having your 40-year-old self look back at photos from when you were 30: time makes everything glow. She was right.

3. I learned to find peace with my imperfectly perfect body. 

I've always scoffed at health and wellness resort-type places, assuming they're only for the rich and privileged, but when my therapist recommended that I try to establish healthier long-term eating, exercise and mental health habits, my husband and I sought out our first babyless weekend away at Hilton Head Health, a fitness resort that helped me come to peace with my body.

There, I learned how to cook simple, healthy meals and grab-and-go snacks for my family. I learned that regular exercise combats my dysmorphia in a wonderfully beneficial way, and I learned from the fitness coaches on staff how to establish 20 to 30-minute routines I could do at home and fit into my very busy days.

But most critically, I met other people who struggled with body image issues, like me. While our journeys were all wildly different, it made me feel so much less alone. Nobody judged anybody and the simple notion of radical self-acceptance did wonder for my self-esteem.

These days, I'm still a work in progress. Body dysmorphia is not something that's curable; it's something to manage over a lifetime.

And managing, I am.

Yes, I still use filters on my Instagram photos, but I can now appreciate the beauty of my jawline and the unique color of my eyes when I look in the mirror without makeup. I still cringe at certain unflattering photos — who doesn't? — but now have a full album of iPhone images of my son and me during his first year of life.

And the best part? I didn't even have to wait a month to look at them.

Alex Alexander is a Yourtango psuedonym.

Get breaking news & relationship advice delivered to your inbox daily!