When I first received my brand spanking new MacBook Pro, I would turn the Photo Booth camera on and carefully dissect my body. I would lock my bedroom door, strip down to my skivvies, and click the red circular button. Then I’d quickly run backwards as fast I could, as my computer counted down: "three, two, one…" (This was back in the dinosaur days, before the invention of Apple’s self-timer.) I was taking nudes for myself, not to send to some crush who’d only go on to disappoint me (or, worse, forward them to his friends without my consent). The thing was, I didn’t like what I saw — in fact, my butt-naked body scared me. So, I threw the files in the trash and covered up my figure with as much fabric as possible.
The truth is, I was feeling desperately trapped inside my own skin. And capturing those photos, studying them, then swiftly deleting them, was all part of a long series of attempts to see myself as beautiful.
I’ve struggled with body dysmorphia long before I had a name for it. Growing up, my sister battled undiagnosed PCOS, which left my entire family in a panic over our diets. As a result, our kitchen was scrubbed of any carb-loaded snacks or sugary delights, and our family dinners were closely monitored. From a young age, I became hyperaware of food as a weighted life source, both literally and psychologically. Calorie-counting became a metric by which I measured my days, and I grew increasingly unhappy with my appearance.
This toxic cycle only became more harrowing when I entered high school. I listened as my peers picked apart their lunches and each other’s self-esteem, and my anxiety over food slowly developed into a form of disordered eating. In my mind, my body had become enemy number one — the only thing standing between me and my happiness. Meanwhile, my classmates and I were free-falling through puberty. Our raging hormones led us to suddenly see our cohorts (those pimple-y pre-pubescents) in a brand new light. But my crippling self-confidence — or lack thereof — frequently reminded me that I was in no way, shape, or form a sexual being. Why would anyone ever be attracted to me?
Then, a funny thing happened — my body began to change. I grew taller at a rapid speed, waxed off my luscious mustache and unibrow (shoutout to my Middle Eastern genes), and started straightening my hair each morning before school. According to the American beauty standard, I was now growing more "conventionally" attractive. Students who used snicker behind my back now complimented me on the way to class, and the immature boys who has previously called me a "caveman" or a "wooly mammoth" wanted to kiss me behind closed doors. But their attention and approval didn’t make a difference; I still resented my body. My dysmorphia had become a parasite, sucking the life out of me, one morsel of food at a time. No amount of flattery could force me to see myself as worthy of affection, let alone desire.
When I first got to college, this anxiety caused a strain on many of my relationships. For example, I’d feel uncomfortable engaging in sexual activity with the lights on, and I’d flinch whenever any of my partners made any comments on my body or appearance. Whenever a new crush would ask what was wrong or if they had done something to upset me, I would ice them out. I wasn’t prepared to explain my triggers, or to let anyone in on the fun house that existed inside my mind. I was too busy studying my reflection in its distorted mirror.
But everything came to a head my second semester, when I returned home for the holidays and was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by damaged villi in the small intestine that prevent food absorption, commonly known as an allergy to gluten. My gastrointestinal diagnosis was scary, but it finally forced me to reevaluate my relationship with food. For the first time in my life, I celebrated being able to eat certain nourishments, and learned to look to meals as a source of enjoyment, not just sustenance.
Unlearning my negative thoughts and habits, however, has been a longer process. Although I physically no longer struggle with a form of disordered eating, the mental ramifications of examining my body with such intense scrutiny are enduring. Luckily, I found that I am able combat moments of fleeting self-loathing with what I view as celebratory practices, like yoga and therapy, which my quiet my mind and center my thoughts. But although I was technically healthier than I’d ever been, I knew I was still avoiding confronting my corporeal self — my skin and bones — head on.
Four years later, I found myself right back where I started: naked, afraid, and staring down my camera lens. I had moved back in with my parents in order to save money, so ironically, I was even standing in the exact same bedroom. So much had changed: I had graduated college, was in a serious relationship, and had started my first full-time job. But I continued to shield myself from my body, and I was ready to let myself drop my guard, and my clothes. Stripping down, I set the timer, closed my eyes, held my breath, and awaited the sound of the flash. In that split second, I worried that all of the work that I’d done on myself, both physically and mentally, wouldn’t translate — that when I caught sight of my image, I’d immediately be revisited by negative thoughts, haunting me like the dead or an old ex. I was afraid that I wouldn’t see me; I’d see a monster.
Click. I hesitantly crept towards my phone, my pointer finger eagerly shaking in anticipation of pressing "delete." But when I looked down at the screen, I sharply exhaled. Somehow, I hardly recognized myself. It’s not that I looked different or my body had transformed, but the body I had inhabited all my life suddenly looked different. The curvatures of my hips, thighs, and behind, all appeared graceful, not gruesome. The same skin I’d spent a decade of my life pinching and prodding somehow possessed a sexy glow. But the biggest contrast was the subtle smile now embedded in my face. I finally looked happy — confident, even. And that confidence radiated beauty.
Taking nudes of myself, for myself, did not rid me of my dysmorphia: my rehabilitation is a journey, not a destination, and one I’ll surely be processing for the rest of my life. But it did allow me to explore my sexuality outside of the confines of a relationship, and taught me that sensuality is sparked from within. While I work towards accepting every inch of who I am, capturing my essence — bare and exposed — feels like a celebration, a small victory. I no longer worry about being unloveable, because instead of studying my body, I now study self-love. And for me, that’s enough.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.
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