Yesterday, I was sitting in my office at the outpatient counseling center where I see clients, who range in age from adolescent to adult, when I began to notice a pattern.
Two were young women who are high school students. Both were there to learn skills to cope with social anxiety. They didn’t know each other, but could easily have been soul sisters. They were on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of appearance. One is blond, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. The other has light brown hair, brown eyes, and an olive complection. Both have slim, athletic bodies.
What they had in common is that neither of them feels beautiful. I shook my head (internally) in bewilderment, since by most people’s standards, these two girls would be considered gorgeous.
I asked them, in their individual sessions what they didn’t like about their appearance. Here were some of the responses:
- I don’t like the color of my hair. (The blond-haired student wished she had darker hair)
- I wish my skin was darker. (Shared by the same young woman)
- My feet are too big. (She wears size-6 shoes)
- I’m not skinny enough. (She is a size zero)
- I have acne.
- I’m not pretty enough.
- My nose is too big. (She has a tiny nose)
- My hair doesn’t look good in a high ponytail.
- My belly is too big.
- I don’t like how my ears are shaped.
- I have too many wrinkles on my knuckles.
- I’m afraid people will judge me.
- I don’t like anything about how I look.
One of the most interesting aspects of my conversations with the two was that neither of them was comparing herself to celebrities.
Models, musicians, or actresses were not the standards by which they were measuring their appearance. Both were hard-pressed to come up with anyone to whom they compared themselves unfavorably. I asked if they felt inadequate among their friends. Both said no.
Did their friends or families judge them or, even in jest, criticize their appearance? Again, they answered in the negative. Did boyfriends or potential boyfriends reject them? That wasn’t the case, either.
It was a nebulous ‘them’ who they worried about shining a spotlight on their perceived imperfections. Strangers. The world. I was able to evoke somewhat of an explanation from one of the girls, as she shared that sometimes her mother put herself down, even though they wore the same size (likely a 5 or 7) and borrowed each other’s clothes. Fortunately, neither of the teens has an eating disorder. The onset for both of them was around age 13 or 14, which, for many teens heralds confusion about adolescent/adult expectations, behaviors, sexuality and body image.
Where does this condition, known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder originate? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “The causes of BDD are unclear, but certain biological and environmental factors may contribute to its development, including genetic predisposition, neurobiological factors such as malfunctioning of serotonin in the brain, personality traits, and life experiences.”
The disorder reflects a cognitively distorted view of various body parts, such that it can prevent daily social and emotional functioning. The person may be so distracted by worry of how she (or he) will be perceived that the individual can socially isolate, which deepens depression and creates a domino effect of symptoms.
I liken it to standing in front of a fun house mirror and seeing a distorted image; believing that is the truth of how one appears. Not much fun! Both girls could relate to that description.
I then asked what they liked about themselves. This resulted in a much shorter list:
- My dimple (She has one on the left side of her face)
- That my breasts aren’t too big (She went on to describe a classmate who was more amply endowed and needed breast reduction surgery)
- My eye color
- My smile
- My strong legs
- My finger nails
I was careful to focus on inner beauty as well, describing people who may not meet societal standards for attractiveness, but who radiate magnificently from the inside, as well as those who are classically attractive and who are mean-spirited and ugly within. We spoke about their other strengths, such as intelligence, creativity, kindness, and friendliness. Both have friends, but neither initiate conversation with potential new friends, instead preferring for people to approach them. Again, arises the fear of being judged and found wanting.
I told them both a story about novelist Erica Jong whose classic Fear of Flying, which was sexually explicit for its time when it came out in 1973, shaped a new perception of female sexuality. I had met her at an eating disorders conference I had attended both as therapist participant and journalist. From the stage, she shared that in her teens, she had anorexia. Her parents had taken her to see a dermatologist when, as a result of restricting food and even water, since she perceived that it made her belly bloated, she had developed a skin rash.
Jong related that this doctor was a Holocaust survivor who had the telltale numerical tattoo on her forearm. After examining the teen, she told her parents that she indeed had an eating disorder. Jong went on the explain to the audience that it was prompted by sexual experimentation that led to her dislike her budding body. She figured that if she remained pre-pubescent in her appearance, she could remain safe sexually. A stunning quote from the presentation, that remains with me to this day, “It’s important that your flesh be available for hugging. Hug-ability is more important than how you look in a photograph.”
A number of YouTube videos reflect this concept of how beauty is defined.
One highlights the magical morphing that occurs when young people are told they are beautiful. From shy, looking down at the ground, to uplifted smiles, from grimaces to high beams, the transformation brought forth goosebumps and tears.
Another experiment featured two signs hanging over the entrances to a building (appeared to be a high school or college, based on the ages of the people involved). One was labeled ‘beautiful’ and the other, ‘average’. Without prompting, the people had the option of walking through either door that reflected how they perceived themselves. Most passed through the second, wondering what people would think of them if they felt they were worthy of entering the first.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Photo by RebeccaVC1