My Body Image Spiral
Trauma? Dysmorphia? Or Am I Just Spoiled?
Hello, friend. I should be sleeping, but instead I thought I’d write you. We’ve been so caught up in the brisk rush of fall fashion in this newsletter lately, I forgot that I hadn’t checked in with you on a personal level for a bit. I’m sorry about that, but I’m here now, and as it often happens around midnight, my brain is swarmed with anxious thoughts instead of sleep vibrations. I know you’ve probably had similar nights: when your eyes and body want to flutter into rest, but instead you toss and turn.
I went to a dear friend’s baby shower today, and it was lovely. It’s obviously normal to take photos at an event like this. We want to mark memories!
Or at least, other people do.
I have to tell you something I’m ashamed of: I hate being in photos. Over the years, I’ve become really good at stepping out of the frame. But at an important moment in a friend’s life, you can’t be the jackass that refuses to be photographed. Usually, I’d deftly avoid the dreaded iPhone lens at all costs. But it wasn’t an option today, because that would make me, well, an asshole. When the photos surfaced on Instagram Stories a few hours later, I felt a familiar drop in my stomach — the total despair and anxiety of meeting myself face-to-face in a photo where I thought I looked awful.
If the word “despair” sounds heavy-handed to you, I agree. But for as long as I can remember, I have hated photos of myself, because deep down I have never believed myself to be beautiful. It doesn’t matter how much verbal reassurance I am given, nothing external can hit the override button on my twisted internalized belief.
I wish more than anything I didn’t feel this way. No matter how many handsome men tell me I’m beautiful, I am still genuinely surprised when I’m hit on. No matter how often my Mom tells me, I say, oh, you have to say so, I’m your daughter. No matter how much I like my reflection in the moment, there’s a little voice in my head that says, that’s a lie. And over the years, I’ve found the best way to cope with this body dysmorphia is good old-fashioned denial: by simply staying out of photos. Because then I never have to deal.
What’s strange is that when I look in the mirror, I objectively like what I see. I dressed myself, did my hair and makeup, and walked out the door today feeling pretty good about the way I looked. But one bad photo sent me into a complete mental spiral. It will ruin the next 24 hours, because I cannot reconcile the person in the photo with the person I see in the mirror. And it makes me wonder how I really look. Rational or not, it sends my brain into a tailspin of questions. I wonder if I have Jedi mind-tricked myself into some sort of suspended reality.
It doesn’t matter if I am at my thinnest, if my hair is better than ever, if my outfit is my favorite. I can’t see myself objectively as pretty, and most certainly not as photogenic.
This isn’t to stir up pity. I am told all the time I am a conventionally attractive person. And objectively, I know this to be true. It just isn’t how I feel in my skin, it isn’t the mental state I exist in.
For example: there is nothing more grating to me than when I hate a photo of myself and my sweet friend dutifully says, “No, you look good!” As I insist she deletes it. It annoys me because I think to myself, so you’re telling me the gorilla in this photo is how you think I ACTUALLY look? I’d rather her validate my delusion, and tell me I don’t actually look that way, that it is actually a bad photo. But instead of saying that, I just become sullen and moody.
I know, I’m awful. God bless my friends for dealing with me and all my bizarre trip wires. I hope they still want to be my friends after reading this.
How does one dress as “trauma” for Halloween?
It’s the scariest thing I can think of.
I am aware I sound looney, which is why I don’t really ever try to explain this to anyone. Even writing it now, I think how insufferable I sound. One bad picture can ruin your entire mental state, Jessica? Get over yourself. But it obviously goes deeper than that. I’m not sure what made me attach so much shame to my appearance, or when I began feeling this way. I was so young when it began, who knows? I don’t remember ever feeling any other way.
What’s even more perplexing is that I consider myself a confident person. Mentally, I’ve managed to divorce the person I see in pictures from the person I see in the mirror. And I’ve managed to further divorce my physical appearance from my self-worth. As a healthy result of an unhealthy mental state, I sought my worth in other things, and derived my confidence from those wells instead of my reflection.
You could argue that it’s a good thing, not to be vain. But I’d give anything to be able to hop into a photo and not feel a sense of impending doom.
Living in an era where everyone has a camera in their pocket (and social clout is somewhat determined by a photo sharing app) is also… not ideal. My greatest fantasy is to delete Instagram, but given the nature of my job, it would be career suicide. I project this inner conflict by having intense disdain for people who assign a lot of value to the performative, or those who chase social media clout. I find it distasteful and cheap, but I think that judgement says more about me than them.
My blood (irrationally) boils when friends post photos of me on social without clearing it first. Do I say anything? Usually, no. Because I have enough self-awareness to actively not behave like a monster — and to me, projecting on well-meaning friends falls squarely into the realm of monstrous.
That said, I’ve gone to truly extreme lengths to stay away from the camera lens. I have turned down the opportunity to be on reality TV five times. I say no to every bridesmaid ask. There are no photos of me with my best friend since New Year’s Eve 2011. Every time my boyfriend takes my photo, I dive out of the frame. He tells me I’m beautiful, I say thank you, and then I think, you won’t think that if you see me through your camera lens.
There are no recent pictures of me with my Mother, my Nephew. I’ve said no to press opportunities that would move my career forward because I didn’t want to awkwardly stand for a photo shoot. I only got comfortable with selfies a year or so ago. I dread bridal photos to the point that I am going to ask for a smartphone-free wedding. And I still can’t fathom the idea of posting an #OOTD on Instagram despite the fact I write a fucking fashion newsletter. It truly humiliates me.
I don’t know why my brain does this. I know it’s a trick. A nasty one! And I try to reason with myself in those Kodak moments. But it’s so far beyond a simple “bad” photo, it’s a shame spiral — undoubtedly attached to some long-ago buried trauma that I’ve yet to unpack. But I cried tonight because of the way I looked in photos that should have overjoyed me. Happy memories, and all I can focus on is myself! I am an asshole.
I had to get up out of bed when that photo flashed on my screen and stand in the full-length mirror in my bedroom. I had to stare at my reflection and reassure myself that this is what I look like — this reflection, not the anxious, “ugly” girl in the photo pulling her face into her neck, dying to crawl into her giant green coat like a tortoise shell.
The anxiety and dysmorphia won out tonight, big time. I hate that for me.
I find myself laying in bed, anxious, mentally grinding away. My brain is just chewing cud at this point. First, I spin out about how my New York friends are so conscious of how everyone looks in a photo, how nobody ever just looks in a camera and smiles. And how I wish Atlanta Millenial culture would catch up to that, abandon the sorority squat and learn to find nice light. Then I fantasize about being one of those people who just isn’t on social media at all. Then I wonder if I should lose ten pounds or get my teeth done. Then I chide myself for all of it, because I realize every ugly thought I’m having comes down to control. Me trying to control the outcome of a photo, so I avoid the shame spiral.
I think, the fact that I am neurotic enough to stress over this tells me that I am sick.
But how do I get un-sick? Idk, friend.
I imagine part of the reason I am such a curious consumer of the fashion, beauty and wellness market is because I am trying to somehow steer this disconnect I feel. I funnel that energy into this newsletter because it feels productive to help people. I spend my money on things that I think will make me feel pretty. Some of them don’t, some of them do. So I tell you about the good things, because if a pair of pants makes me feel sexy, or a tube of concealer covers a zit so big I’ve named her, I just bought back a little anxiety. I just controlled the monster a little.
Whether that’s right or wrong is up for debate. But we all need pants, and trying them on can really fuck with your mental state. So I try to help you, dear reader, skip the mean fitting room fluorescents and go straight to the good pants. Because I’ve been there, you know?
Oh, friend. Please don’t think I’m too far gone. Do you experience this? Have you found a way to beat it? All I know is I am exhausted of feeling this way, tired of hiding from the camera, tired of feeling invisible after a party because there is no trace of me ever being there. Sitting up in bed tonight, writing this, it’s a first step, I guess. I am at the beginning of a search. Maybe you can help.
I’m here to chat, just leave a comment or reply to this email. And as ever, my DMs are open… on Instagram.
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Wow, you’ve explained what I’ve been feeling for years. Thank you, Jess.
I feel like this sometimes and I wondered whether I don really see myself in the photos because of the fact that the mirror would offer a "mirrored" image of my face whereas the camera somehow "corrects" that swapping the sides and therefore I look like a weird version of myself?