In my twenties, I grappled with body dysmorphic disorder, wherein patients have a distorted perception of their appearance. I often hated how I looked and I went to huge lengths to cope with it. I wouldn’t go into a bathroom or any room with a mirror with a light on. I wouldn’t leave my house without makeup. It became my armor. And, counterintuitively, I refused to exercise, because that kind of connection with my body felt too intimate and risky. It was easier to stay detached.
It’s not just unpleasant to feel this way—it can be dangerous. A negative body image can lead to depression and eating disorders. I didn’t suffer from an eating disorder, luckily, but my stomach was often in such knots that I barely ate anyway.
Body image is often framed as a “women’s issue,” but that could not be further from the truth. Men aren’t immune to this kind of negative self-talk. In fact, they’re just as likely as women to be dissatisfied with their looks, according to one recent study published in Body Image. Let this sink in: 15 percent of men and 20 percent of women labeled themselves as “very, extremely” dissatisfied with their weight. That’s a lot of self-loathing.
I got help with therapy and through an affiliated support group that dealt with self-image and appearance. Fast-forward: These days, even after two pregnancies and some graying hair, I take my appearance in stride. Here’s what I learned:
1. Accountability matters. For so long, I took my unhealthy patterns (refusing to look in the mirror, constant makeup) as a fact of life. Gradually, I tried to step out of my comfort zone with little nudges. I’d count it as a win every time I left my room without makeup, even if it was just to have dinner. I’d flip on the light switch to go to the bathroom and saw it as progress even if I just glanced in the mirror. By challenging my behaviors, I began to challenge and change my internal narrative.
2. Positive self-talk goes a long way. In the nineties, Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley said, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, gosh darnit, people like me!” He was cheesy, but he was onto something. Whenever I found myself going into a negativity spiral, I’d “change the channel” by fighting back and shifting into positive thinking. I began to keep a log of times when I’d done something praiseworthy (gotten good feedback for a piece of writing, landed a new job, etc.). Whenever I started to feel that sense of loathing creep in, I’d refer to my list.
3. Be realistic. Through my support group, I also realized that I was buying clothes to fit the body I wished I had, not the body I actually own. I am short and busty. No way around it. Of course, buying clothes designed for a six-foot-tall person was going to make me feel down. I went into my closet, weeded out things that just didn’t fit, and invested in some basics that made me feel good (and didn’t require acrobatics to zipper). Making peace with my shape set a foundation for better self-esteem—and easier mornings.
4. Exercise. A recent study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise showed that exercise enhances body image through improved self-perceptions of body fat and strength. Basically, if you exercise, you believe you look better—even if your appearance doesn’t change. I’m never going to run marathons, but by taking on manageable exercise (yoga, swimming), I began to reconnect with my body, which made me feel more compassion towards it.
In the past, I wouldn’t talk to another human being the way I spoke to myself. Over the years, I slowly became a friend to myself—and treated myself accordingly. My body (shapeless belly, gray hair, and all) thanks me. And so does my mind.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist who writes about food, health, well-being, and lifestyle for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Women’s Health, and AARP’s Life Reimagined. She’s also the author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know” (Random House). Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin