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Body Dysmorphia: The Side Effects of Losing Weight

Picture this: you’re browsing the internet, and you come across a picture of a slender model, whose very existence reminds you of your perceived shortcomings of your own body. Her ample hips, delicate waist, lithe limbs, and fine bone structure scream perfection in your eyes. Her skin seemingly smooth and flawless, you don’t see a single bump, stretch mark, or bit of cellulite on her body. As you begin to daydream, picturing yourself in a body similar to hers, you are finally resolved to lose weight so you too can fit these conventional ideals of beauty. You start your diet with a strong will that borders obsession, and you quickly begin to see the numbers on the scale and in your clothing go down. When you look into the mirror, though, you find that you look the same or, surprisingly, worse in your eyes, and you’re not nearly as happy as you imagined you’d be. Where’s your dream body? Why are there stretch marks and loose skin?

Does this sound familiar to you? If you’ve lost any weight, chances are you had or are currently suffering from something called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. The situation described is actually something that happened to me, and a condition I strive to overcome daily. When people talk about how happy they are after they’ve lost weight, you don’t always see the whole picture. We like to promote healthy and happy mindsets, so the negative side effects are conveniently left out. What people don’t tell you is that your mind doesn’t always immediately catch up with your body, which leaves your brain seeing something totally different than what everyone else sees. You have this idea of perfection in your head, and instead of the smooth, dainty, long-limbed beauty your imagination has conjured, you see someone with too much fat, too many bumps, too many flaws.

Throughout my entire weight loss journey, believe it or not, I’ve struggled with being unable to see my progress. I might have even given up early on if I wasn’t being constantly and most enthusiastically told by my friends and co-workers that my progress was visible and astounding. I recall that sinking feeling of looking into the mirror and mentally cringing at what I saw, knowing that my perception did not match up with the number my scale reflected. I would pinch and pull at the fat on my thighs and stomach, suppressing the urge to weep because I despaired of ever being beautiful. Because, in my eyes, being fat wasn’t beautiful. I was a big, fat, vile hambeast, and I hated my existence. At one brief and scary point in my journey, I even picked up some disordered eating habits, where I would sometimes eat as little as 400 calories a day and would just taking sleeping pills to force me to sleep when I couldn’t handle the hunger pain. I figured if I couldn’t achieve perfection the normal way, maybe I could take a hand in it and make it happen faster. At the time, it felt oddly appropriate; in my melancholy, it seemed justified to have my destructive behavior mirror my warped self-esteem.

As my eating disorder progressed, I began to take note of other things that were happening to my body. I wasn’t sleeping well, yet I was constantly tired and fatigued. Exercise was out of the question. I started becoming dizzy often, and a few times at work, even blacked out for a second. I went to the EMT the first time it happened and she told me that my heartbeat was sluggish and irregular, and that I needed to see a doctor. I think I finally realized how detrimental my habits were to my health when I realized that I wasn’t actually losing any more weight. With my extreme calorie deficit and lack of activity, my metabolism drastically slowed. Worse, though, was that I would go through phases where I would eat almost literally nothing for a day, and then turn around and eat as much unhealthy food as I could find. The worse I restricted myself, the harder it was to deny myself food- any food at all!- when it was placed in front of me. I knew I couldn’t maintain these habits for long, and I realized they were doing nothing but harm to both my health and my self-esteem.

I did the only thing I knew I could do to save myself: I began socializing with confident, happy people who were health-savvy while still accepting their bodies. Their positive self-esteem served as a constant positive example for me, and the more I was around them, the more I started picking up on their habits and beliefs. I got more involved with fitness and weight loss communities, knowing I couldn’t let these people down. I started a weight loss tumblr, where I began my often repeated mantra of “you can still love yourself while making your body better.” After a while, I was stunned to realize that I was no longer just mechanically parroting these lines to people; it was something I truly and passionately believed. In my push for promoting healthy weight loss and a happy self-image, somewhere along the way, I gradually began to believe my own words.

I was no longer losing weight to be skinny, and I no longer thought I was previously ugly because I was fat. My goals shifted from weight loss to becoming strong, fit, and healthy instead. I quit staring dejectedly at my reflection in the mirror every morning, pinching at my fat and frowning at my flaws. In fact, I began smiling at my own reflection, for once comfortable in my own skin and pleased at what I was seeing. Yeah, I’m not the epitome of perfection, but truly, who is? The model whose body I so coveted previously had the benefit of flattering camera angles, professional makeup applied, a professional photographer, and photoshop used. No matter how much weight I lose, I will never look like that image, and you know what? Neither will the model. At the end of the day, “perfection” is unachievable, and you have to learn to define your own idea of perfect: the best version of you is the happiest version of you. Perfection is waking up, looking in the mirror, and thinking, “You know what? I’m pretty rad.” Not because you’re skinny, fat, or fit, and not despite being skinny, fat, or fit, either; because it’s you, and it’s the only body you have.

And you know what? Even if I gained back all of my weight, I think I’d be okay now. I’ve finally learned to accept myself.