My friend Minnie Iris is a very talented artist. I have one of her pictures in my practice space. She is a trustee of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Trust.
In the words of their website:
The term Body Dysmorphic Disorder [BDD] describes a disabling preoccupation with perceived defects or flaws in appearance. It can affect both men and women, and makes sufferers excessively self conscious. They tend to check their appearance repeatedly and try to camouflage or alter the defects they see, often undergoing needless cosmetic treatments. Onlookers are frequently perplexed because they can see nothing out of the ordinary, but BDD causes devastating distress and interferes substantially with the ability to function socially”
Minnie herself suffered from the condition. It started when she was 11, when she became fixated with creases in her neck. She believed she was ugly, but was able to function until she was 38, when her Mum died. At that point, her hair started to fall out because of the stress. She started to feel monstrous when she saw herself in the mirror. Then she started to have a lot of suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, she was able to access specialist therapy.
BDD is said to affect around 2% of the population in varying degrees. But if we take this as the extreme edge of a spectrum, who can honestly say that they don’t know at least one person who seems unreasonably negative about one or more aspects of their appearance?
When Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, died, in the obituaries we learnt that as a teenager, Michael was sensitive about his nose. And his Dad, deliberately mocked his nose. Hence all the surgical treatment as an adult, which transformed his beautiful black face into something weird and other worldly.
Often, something like this is at the root. A person perhaps has an accident and their appearance changes. Or, for a variety of reasons, they suddenly lose or gain weight. Or, like Minnie, they suffer bereavement or other loss.
But underneath the wide range of immediate causes, there’s a common mechanism. The mind -an idea ‘I am ugly’ – takes over the body. The person loses a realistic sense of their body because they lose their feeling connection with it.
My Swiss friend, Thea Rytz, was a pioneer in treating eating disorder sufferers somatically. She realised it was no use telling them that their ideas about themselves weren’t true, or getting them to look in the mirror, because it was so easy for the mind to distort. So, she would do things like get her patients to put bags of sand on themselves, so they could feel actual weight, and so the mind could recalibrate itself.
It’s a major problem, a major, widespread cause for great unhappiness.
As, among other things, a body worker, I am very well placed to work with body image, for several reasons:
– I meet the body of the other in love, respect and acceptance, countering the negativity
– I re-embody the client, so the body can become autonomously feeling again, free from the tyranny of the mind
– with the active participation of the client, I help the body to be a source of pleasure and empowerment
– I replace judgement with alive embodied presence.
Here’s Minnie’s picture: it’s beautiful, isn’t it?