Do We All Have Body Dysmorphia? Reflections on Society’s Ridiculous Standards for Weight

    “What message do you want to get across to your audience?” That question is really difficult for me, because there are many messages I want to get across. Sometimes, though, I am so passionate about an idea that I can’t even get the words out. My platforms are about “healthy living,” I guess – but also not really. That is oversimplified. It’s about mental health and physical health. It’s about tuning into yourself, tuning out the media, and getting rid of unhealthy relationships – with others and yourself. It’s about fighting for yourself and your health, and always being your own biggest advocate. It’s about the fact that you deserve to feel your best, and you’re not destined for a life of physical or emotional pain. You can be happy.

I’ve told “my story” quite a few times recently. I was featured on Delish.com, was a guest on the Mind Pump Podcast, and was also on a few other podcasts that haven’t been released yet. It also came up again on my recent interview with Liz Anthony on the Actually Adultish podcast, since her story is similar to my own. Talking about my history always makes me reflect on exactly what I want my audience to get from my blog and podcasts. While there are many different messages I hope to convey across my platforms and to my clients, there is one that’s been on my mind the most in the past few weeks – how distorted society’s perception of the “ideal” body type is, and that it really affects all of us in some shape or form at some point in our lives.

I am so passionate about this because I truly believe it is something that everyone can relate to. I do not know anybody whose body image, at one point or another, hasn’t been affected by the images or words they see/hear through the media, whether or not they know it. As I get older and meet more people, the more I become aware of the fact that most people have disordered behaviors and thought patterns when it comes to food and exercise, most people have body image issues, and most people have unrealistic standards of what they “should” look like.

I know I have talked about this before, but I’m going to talk about it again and again until everyone catches it somewhere on one of my platforms. It took me almost dying from being too skinny for me to realize it, and I do not want anyone else to have to experience that in order to understand it for themselves. You can reach happiness much sooner if you learn from my mistakes, and those of so many others. That is why I share everything I can – please learn from my mistakes.

A few years ago, I dropped a lot of weight when I started eating a “cleaner” diet and exercising. As my digestive problems worsened and I struggled with a number of different bacterial overgrowths and malabsorption issues, I dropped even more weight. Malabsorption issues coupled with a growing exercise addiction and a restricted diet to help with my digestive problems was a recipe for disaster when it came to my weight, and my health. The two are not synonymous.

Anyways, when I first started losing weight, I felt great. I didn’t even realize that I had weight to lose. I always hated “the pooch” on my lower belly, but I still felt like I was a naturally skinny person. I had gotten used to being somewhat self-conscious in my body because I knew that other girls were thinner than I was, and I grew up in a world that told me that thin was pretty. The thinner the better. The girls on TV didn’t have a lower belly pooch. That being said, I wasn’t self-conscious enough to actually try to change it, and I never felt like I had a weight problem. Like I said, I still felt like I was naturally thin despite eating whatever I wanted and never exercising. I liked being lazy.

When I started losing that weight, though, I thought, I guess I do have weight to lose. And now I’m doing it! I loved the feeling. I went down a pant size, and all of my clothes fit looser. It made me feel like I was achieving something. I started to see muscle, and I felt like I looked more like the girls I saw on social media and in magazines. Before I thought I would never have a body that looked like those other women no matter what I did, but suddenly I was getting closer. It felt achievable.

When I realized it was achievable, I stuck with it. I felt better about myself. People started to notice the weight I was losing, and they were treating me differently. People told me I looked great, and they wanted to know what I was doing. That outside validation assured me that I was finally doing something right. Other people were looking to me for body advice, and that had never happened before. I liked that I was no longer just the “smart girl” for once.

While I saw my clothes fitting differently, I didn’t really notice a huge change in the mirror. I felt like I had enhanced my body, though, and I wanted to maintain that. I never weighed myself, so I didn’t realize I wasn’t actually maintaining my body – I was dropping more and more weight.

While people at school were telling me I looked great, I got a different response when I went home. I was excited for people to see me – I was proud of my new body. But I didn’t get the validation I expected from everyone. Instead, I got looks of worry, and some of disgust. I got a few comments from people that I had gotten too thin, but I was defensive. I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I assumed they were jealous. Sadly, some of them probably were. But most were genuinely worried. These comments were from family and family friends, though – the people you kind of brush off because they’ve known you forever. They were used to the way I looked my whole life, so of course they wouldn’t like it if I had changed that. I shook off the comments by telling myself that they just didn’t realize this is how thin I was meant to be when I was taking care of my body through diet and exercise.

I went back to school, and things continued. I got weaker and weaker, mentally and physically. My GI issues were getting worse and worse. I didn’t notice a change in my body on the outside, though. Over time, I got incredibly thin. Too thin. But I did not see it in the mirror. I saw myself every day, and I didn’t notice the subtle changes. I had body dysmorphia and didn’t realize it.

I got sent very mixed signals. I was asked to model multiple times by different L.A. photographers. My boss at work asked me to share my meal plan and exercise plan with her so she could copy it. Girls at school would ask me to help them lose weight too, because I looked so great. People at the gym asked for tips. Some of my old friends texted me or messaged me, asking what I was doing because I looked great and they were having trouble losing weight.

All of this validated my behavior. Based on those comments, I must have been doing everything right, right? I must have looked good – why else would people want to copy me and look like me?

At the same time, I was incredibly self-conscious. When I tried to take photos, I didn’t like what I saw. I was confused about why photos didn’t portray what I saw in the mirror. I felt like all of my clothes were too baggy, despite wearing the smallest sizes I could find. My bones stuck out, and I had wrinkles on my face.

Meanwhile, other people were sending me the opposite message from those encouraging me. My parents were worried about me. My friends from high school thought I looked too thin. I got weird looks on the streets. Like I was a zoo animal. I caught people whispering about me. Strangers would yell at me to eat a cheeseburger. Someone ordered me food at a restaurant and sent it over to my table because he said I was “too skinny.” People from high school were sending each other photos of me, saying I was anorexic. A woman at Starbucks offered to take me to her group therapy session for eating disorders. I felt like I was on display.

I was so confused. Were people just jealous? Why were some people telling me I looked great and asking me for advice, while others told me I looked too thin? I didn’t know there was such a thing as too thin. I had been taught that everyone wanted to be thinner.

I became obsessed with asking people what I looked like. Most of my friends told me that I looked great and I had finally lost my baby fat. My mom told me I looked beautiful, but also that she wished I would put on some weight. What does that even mean?! I asked people over and over again, “Do I look anorexic?” Definitely not the most eloquent question, but I was desperate to figure out what I really looked like. Did I actually need to be concerned? I had some doctors tell me to put on weight, and others told me to keep exercising every day and eating the way I did. One doctor told me to work out even more to build muscle. Who was I supposed to listen to? I didn’t get it. I finally looked like the girls in the magazines….didn’t I?

My body dysmorphia was very real. I could sense it, but I wasn’t sure, so I depended on others to tell me the “truth.” But they didn’t have an accurate perception, either. I just didn’t realize it. I didn’t know who to trust.

I felt like a piece of shit. I had no energy, was always in pain, couldn’t think straight, had no social life, and felt like everything was falling apart. I knew I needed to gain weight, and I had upped my calories by a lot, but nothing was changing. I wasn’t allowing my body to heal while I was still overstressed, overtraining, and dealing with gut issues. The moment that my nutritionist told me I had to stop exercising because I could die from being so thin was the moment I felt like I was slapped in the face with reality. She had just told me that my body fat was at 6%. When she told me that, I was confused. I had read on BodyBuilding.com that that was a great body fat percentage and only people who worked really hard could achieve it. I had finally reached a body goal that not many others could achieve!

I am crying as I write this. I was so misguided. Lesson 1: Don’t trust random articles on the Internet. Lesson 2: Don’t apply bodybuilding advice to your life if you’re not a bodybuilder.

After she told me that my heart could stop, though, I had to take a real step back. It took me a few days to really process everything. I went back to the article online about body fat percentage, trying to convince myself that she was wrong, even though I knew she was right. It was right there — it said that 6-8% was a great body fat percentage to have. It said the lower the better.

Maybe for a bodybuilding competition, but definitely horrible for health and well-being and sanity. I just didn’t notice it.

I spent a lot of my time researching body fat, weight, and the dangers of being too thin after that. As I dug into it, I realized how stupid I had been. How could I have let it gotten this bad?! I knew I needed to gain weight, but I still didn’t want to give up working out. At the root of things, I still cared what I looked like. I didn’t want to get fat.

I honestly can’t even believe myself.

I was in so deep. My journey to recovery was a long one, but I was forever changed for the better, in my opinion. In order to cope with the weight gain and quitting exercise, I read a lot, researched a lot, and did a lot of internal work. What I eventually concluded is that society’s perception of the ideal body size is really, really messed up.

The images we are shown in the media are often those of people who are photoshopped  in some way or another. They are often of people who work out and don’t eat enough, for a living. They are often not healthy. They probably don’t have proper menstrual cycles, if one at all. Their digestion is probably really off track. They probably don’t actually enjoy their lives because they are so strict with their diets and exercise. They are probably hungry all the time. They probably live with a constant headache. Maybe they’re losing hair, so they wear extensions. Maybe the effects of what they’re doing to themselves haven’t shown up, yet. Hormonal imbalances tend to kick you in the butt years down the line. If none of those things, then the person is the small percentage of the population who genetically looks that way.

The media shows us these images to make us believe that is what we should want. Because then we will probably buy their products. We are striving for a “look” or a “weight” that is unachievable for most people – but they don’t want us to know that. They want us to think that we can achieve it and feel good if we follow their workout or diet plan or buy their product. Because they know we will fail, and keep coming back for more. Guess what – if you have to fight your body that hard to look a certain way, maybe IT WAS NOT MEANT TO LOOK THAT WAY! Or maybe they just want to sell us their “look” as ideal in order to make themselves feel better about the fact that they have sacrificed true health and happiness to be skinny.

All I know is, it’s bull shit.

I know that it’s hard for people to understand this. We are so used to seeing a certain body type on Instagram, in magazines, on TV, and in movies that we have taken that as the norm. Once again, we mistake what is commonly on display for what is “normal.” Sometimes it’s hard for me now to watch certain TV shows and movies, because thankfully I notice it. I notice that I’m looking at a group of people who don’t look healthy, but it scares me that most of the population thinks it is. 

I don’t care what you see around you. It’s usually filtered in some way – if not through photoshop, then just filtered information. Maybe Sally has the perfect body and says she feels great and shows her beautiful meals and great workout plan – but is that really true? Does she really feel great? Is she exhausted and hungry? Has she sacrificed relationships to look a certain way? Does she take photos of her meals and then throw them away? Does she count her calories and try to fill up on water? Is she lying to herself?

Looking back, I can see now that I was at a very unhealthy weight for my body. When I looked sickly thin, people were still telling me I looked great. People were asking for my workout routine. This scares the shit out of me. What has our world come to where we want to look sickly thin? Where people don’t care about actual health or feeling good, but moreso about superficial looks? Where we think that people will like us more if we are thinner? Where thinner is always better? I’m just going to say it – our world has body dysmorphia.

If someone says their body image has never been affected by what they see around them, I do not believe that. It’s human nature to judge and compare. That doesn’t mean that everyone has done something to try to change their bodies because of it, but I’m sure a thought has crossed your mind. Man or woman, young or old. When I was 6, I was self-conscious because I didn’t have big boobs. All of the women I saw on TV had huge boobs. I WAS SIX. Little did I know I would never have them, but that’s beside the point. I hope that made you laugh, but it’s also true. We live in a world where we are constantly told we are not good enough – often subliminally. Through images and messages and marketing, through the people featured in magazines and on TV. We are a superficial country.

I just want to drive this point home: I was basically as skinny as it gets, and it still wasn’t enough. I was sickly thin, and people were telling me I looked good and offering me validation. And I am DEFINITELY not the only one who has had this experience. How sad is it that some people idealize being that thin? That people thought it looked good? That should not be anybody’s idea of a “good” weight. There is a difference between being thin and being so thin that it sacrifices your health.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting and trying to lose weight, or wanting and trying to gain weight, when it comes from a place of pursuing health. The problem lies in society’s unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of what an “ideal” body type is, and what people should do to get there. I promise that you can lose weight in a totally healthy way, and you don’t have to destroy your health to get there. You can gain muscle and burn fat if you want, in a totally healthy way, but you also don’t have to. You don’t have to care what society has said is “skinny enough.” Worry about your health, not a number on the scale.

I don’t think that any specific body type should be idealized, but definitely not one that sacrifices your health. If any body should be idealized, it should be the way you look when you’re healthy, but that looks different on everyone. In the past 3 years, I have gained over 50 pounds. I don’t get those same “compliments” I thrived off of when I was 80 or 90 pounds, and I’m not being asked to model, but I am healthier than I have ever been. Mentally and physically. And I’ll never let society’s standards take that away from me again.

1 Comment

  1. January 23, 2018 / 6:47 pm

    An amazing post as usual, Christina! Thanks again for sharing your story; I definitely relate to some parts. I also was thinking today about how prevalent “weight loss” and “lose belly fat” articles/ads are and how damaging that is to body image (without some of us even noticing). Definitely, something that should be changed.

    xoxo, Nancy