The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

 Writer discusses her own battle with a debilitating condition

thumb mirroreyes copyI am a 13-year-old girl and it is the end of the school day at my junior high school. I've just been told by the boy that I've been obsessed with for months that I am "too ugly" to be his girlfriend.

A mirror hangs on the inside of my locker door and for the first time in my life I close my eyes every time it catches my reflection. I don't want to see my face anymore. I didn't know that I was ugly — everyone else must have kept it a secret from me. I hate them for it.

I go home and scrub all the makeup off my freckled skin. I'm so embarrassed that I'd actually tried to wear it in the first place. I don't want people to think that I don't know that my face is repulsive. I don't want them to think I'm wearing makeup to fix it.

For the next six months, I cover my face with my hand every time a mirror threatens to make me look. I dig my face out of every photograph with a wet finger.

Coping Behaviours

My psychological reaction to being called ugly is still a mystery to me. I suppose I could have shrugged it off, or called that dude a jerk, or just chalked it up to a bad choice in crushes, but I did none of those. I just took his word for it and became absolutely convinced that there were no redeeming qualities in my face.

"These people tend to place an over importance on things being right or perfect. The personality traits we tend to see with BDD are people who are really sensitive to feelings of rejection, or they feel that appearance is really important."
—Felicity Sapp
Psychologist

I took great care to make sure that other people knew that I knew I was ugly. I wore no makeup. I began dressing in men's baggy T-shirts and a number of other garments from my father's closet. When walking in public I kept my gaze planted on the ground.

I used mirrors as a tool to reinforce the perception of my own hideousness. Carefully, I would scrutinize my skin for hours — picking and digging my nails into my flesh just as I had dug out the faces from my photographs.

I remember being in a class in high school and having to watch a video recording of myself from some group project. As the VHS tape slid into the mouth of the VCR, my stomach churned and my face burned with fear. I couldn't do it. I buried my face deep into my crossed arms, and stared at the blackness of my desk until the viewing was over.

The psychological side

Felicity Sapp, a Calgary psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, helped me to understand that my case in adolescence had a name: body dysmorphic disorder, also known as BDD.

Sapp describes how the sufferer of BDD will have certain triggers, like mirrors or photographs, that when triggered, the brain will tell the body that something very real and very bad is happening.

Anxiety and distress flood the body, and the person with BDD seeks relief from the feelings by developing coping behaviours, such as covering up the perceived flaws or obsessively checking in the mirror.

In terms of the causes for BDD a lot of environmental factors come into play, Sapp says. "Sometimes people had experiences in the past where they had a lot of teasing about their appearance. That can really play into it.

"These people tend to place an over importance on things being right or perfect. The personality traits we tend to see with BDD are people who are really sensitive to feelings of rejection, or they feel that appearance is really important."

The sociological side of ugliness

Why though, I wondered. How can the perception of a crooked nose or pockmarked skin have so much power in the first place?

Concordia University professor, Anthony Synnott, who teaches sociology and writes for "Psychology Today" magazine has thoroughly studied my queries.

"This whole question of beauty and ugliness is because we tend to have equations that the body reflects the soul, and that the outer reflects the inner — that the appearance reflects the reality," he says.

"And of course the appearance does sometimes reflect reality. We look to the milk to see if it's curdled. We look to the bread to see if it's green."mirroreyes copy copyThe sufferer of BDD will have certain triggers, like mirrors or photographs.
Photo by: Melissa Molloy

He says that we tend to think that outer beauty reflects inner beauty, and that outer ugliness reflects inner ugliness.

"But it's a nonsense set of equations."

Synnott tells me that he feels no surprise that conditions like BDD of the face exist. He notes that beauty is much like currency in our culture — the absence of it can mean the absence of self-esteem, self-confidence and many other social privileges.

Help is out there

I couldn't find a single person with the disorder to interview for this story. And I know it's not because I'm the only one to have suffered from BDD.

I was lucky in that the problem went away with time, therapies, and perspective. For other sufferers of BDD, the issue persists and cripples every aspect of their life.

The real key is in ending the silence about these things — those shame-based inner thoughts that keep our true selves at bay.

So, I tell you my story in hope that you can speak yours. And if you can't speak the words yet, please know you are not alone. There is help.

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