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To live freely in this body

March 2018

A little over a year ago, I cried, begged, and then forced my mother to take me to a plastic surgeon in Bethesda. My preoccupation with my breasts had become so full and unwavering that I couldn’t sleep well, would spend long stretches of time in mirrors dissecting my body, think of ways to harm my breast so that they would have to be removed entirely, constantly compare my body to other women and images of their bodies, run cold at the touch of my overly soft breast or reflection of an unflattering angle, have panic attacks leading up to sexual encounters with romantic partners, avoid sex entirely, think of my breast in passing and immediately feel my heart close, spit on my nipples and blow on them to make them harder and thus more aesthetically pleasing, research RealSelf breast lift reviews until five o'clock in the morning, spend hours at the gym to lift and tighten my chest, have dreams of myself with the breasts I had always wanted only to wake up in devastation, and feel guilty for being so consumed with something as shallow and as silly as the shape and size of my breasts.

I lost a significant amount of weight in my teenage years while going through family hardships. It was a very stressful time, and I completely lost my appetite. Once I started eating normally again I never regained the weight, but after losing twenty to thirty pounds over the span of two weeks, my body and social life changed rapidly. I was now slim and fit; everyone treated me differently and wanted to be my friend, after a lifetime of feeling invisible as the only chubby, dark-skinned black girl in starkly white settings. However, my breasts were my awful secret, proof of my past and inadequacy. They had never been round and I didn’t mind them too much, but after the weight loss they too lost weight, making their less than ideal shape more apparent. I loved everything about my body except for this one thing, and so that was where I channeled all of my anxiety and shame. Shame has the power to transform a person into something they do not recognize.

A few days after my mother reluctantly agreed to take me to a plastic surgery consultation, she and I went to the surgeon and he was very nice and professional and had done hundreds of breast lifts before. He commented on how he was surprised to see me in his office. He told me I had a very nice, healthy-looking body, and then a nurse came in and I took off my top and bra. He assessed my breasts for a few minutes, measured them, sighed, and then looked very tired suddenly. He told me that my breast did sag, but that the sag, size, and shape were all within the realm of what was normal, healthy, and appealing for a person my age, and that I was too young, that there was nothing wrong with me, and that he didn’t recommend the surgery. He told me that breasts vary in their appearance, and although we usually only see one type in the media, it’s okay because men don’t actually care. Overlooking his assumption of my sexuality, I was in shock. I hadn’t expected this reaction at all. I asked him what he would do to my breast anyway, and he told me that if he were to do anything he would add a small implant for more upper pole fullness, and perform a small lift. I nodded. Eventually I put my clothes back on and we walked to the waiting room. He shook his head at my mother and told her quickly under his breath, she is fine and too young, perhaps she should see a therapist if she doesn’t have one already.

When I returned home that day, I wondered if my mother had called him beforehand and convinced him to perform this act of deception. But then I remembered that I hadn't given my mother his name or address until we had been in the car on our way to his office. In that moment, regardless of how real or perceived my flaw was, I realized that I had body dysmorphia and needed help. I needed help because I had convinced myself that my body, the vessel which cradles my spirit, determined my worth as a being and was standing in the way of eternal validation. I needed help because my self esteem was precarious and very close to nothing at all.

Over the past year, I have attended countless therapy sessions, made many artworks about my issues with my body, and researched and written about body dysmorphia. In recent months, I conducted interviews with four women, Bryce, Jheyda, Romie, and Jennie who have also been struggling with body dysmorphia. In these interviews, we look at body dysmorphia intersectionally, as characterized by our age, gender identity, sexual identity, race, socioeconomic backgrounds, childhoods, and spiritual and secular paths. We talk about plastic surgery, our love lives, our private rituals that we perform when no one is watching. I interviewed these women because I wanted to feel less alone in my experience of my life and in my ongoing struggle with trying to feel safe and at home in my body, and I hope there was something in it for them too. At one point in my life, I was so ashamed of this part of my body that I had never dreamed of telling anyone. A year later, I am here, sharing my journey with anyone who will listen. And that feels very tense and good, and I also hope to make people feel less alone in their own struggles through this work.

But it is most important for me to let you know that at the end of all of this, although I feel better and more secure in who I am, I am not fully over it and I’m not sure I ever will be. But I do think it is important to remember that our paths to self-realization and ways of coping with the darkness of life do not have to look alike in order to be true.





Interview Questions:

1. How are you feeling about your body right now? How do you expect to feel about your body tomorrow? How do you feel about your body in general?

2. What does the word dysmorphia mean to you? When did you realize that you had body dysmorphia? How is dysmorphia different than just having a thing on your body you don’t like very much?

3. How do you feel about societal expectations and beauty standards? Do you believe that you are conventionally attractive? Why or why not?

4. How has your race/gender/sexuality/socioeconomic background and/or childhood affected your relationship with your body?

5. How does dysmorphia affect your sex life? If you have had sexual partners, how have they reacted to your perceived flaws? Have you ever told any of them about your struggles with dysmorphia? Why or why not?

6. Have you ever considered or had plastic surgery? If yes, are you happy with your procedure? If no, if money wasn’t an issue, would you have anything done? What ideas do you have about people who choose to have plastic surgery?

7. When do you feel the most vulnerable in your body? When do you feel the most comfortable?

8. Do you have any private rituals that you practice to improve your feelings towards your body? Any destructive habits?

9. Do you believe that you can overcome your body dysmorphia? Why or why not?