When a per­ceived phys­i­cal flaw takes over your life

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - il­lus­tra­tion ELISA MACELLARI

Body dys­mor­phic dis­or­der took hold of Rachel Ann Cullen in her teens, lead­ing to years of self-hate. Here, she gives an in­sight into the crip­pling con­di­tion

Your legs look fat in that dress.’ ‘Your tits are wonky.’ My ex’s com­ments run on a loop in my head as I stag­ger along a path round the back of my mum’s West York­shire home. It’s 1997, I’m 18, re­cently dumped and at­tempt­ing my first ever jog.

His words struck a vul­ner­a­ble tar­get. I was raised by a mother who bat­tled bipo­lar dis­or­der and strug­gled with her own is­sues with body im­age. Un­fit and pot­bel­lied, I found ex­er­cise tough. But I plugged away at it ev­ery day, part shuf­fling, part walk­ing my way along a 2.5 mile route.

I cut out al­co­hol and stripped my diet down to lit­tle more than tiny portions of stir-fried veg­gies. My ef­forts paid off, and by the time I started uni­ver­sity five months later, I’d dropped from 12st 7lbs to 9st, and on my 5ft 9in frame it showed. I bought size 10 jeans and got blonde high­lights, and when I came home for Christ­mas, boys who’d never even ac­knowl­edged my ex­is­tence be­fore sud­denly wanted to chat. For the first time in my life,

I felt vis­i­ble – and I wanted to make sure I stayed vis­i­ble.

This de­sire marked the start of an ag­gres­sive men­tal health con­di­tion – which I now know by the name of body dys­mor­phic dis­or­der (BDD). I con­vinced my­self that the weight loss I was so proud of had ac­cen­tu­ated my ‘wonky tits’, so I had re­duc­tion surgery to even them out. And while my house­mates were out danc­ing in clubs, I was holed up in my bed­room in­spect­ing my face in the mir­ror for nonex­is­tent blem­ishes. I’d pick at my skin un­til I drew blood, then hide the dam­age be­neath heavy make-up. I was on con­stant guard against per­ceived ug­li­ness.

Even­tu­ally, I went to my GP, who di­ag­nosed de­pres­sion.

With the help of a daily dose of an­tide­pres­sants, I com­pleted my de­gree and man­aged to carve out a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a lawyer. My con­di­tion no longer kept me pris­oner in front of my mir­ror – but it mor­phed into a heavy weight I lugged with me ev­ery­where.

In my eyes, my body im­age and my iden­tity were in­ter­change­able. See­ing the toned tor­sos of friends on hol­i­day or feel­ing my size 12 trousers cut into my hips gave me all the proof I needed that I was ‘less than’. Life be­came about point-scor­ing: if I could prove to a name­less, face­less au­di­ence that I was worth some­thing, then per­haps it would be true.

No mat­ter how hard I tried to push those thoughts be­low the sur­face, they were al­ways there. When I quit law to train as a PT, I was sud­denly trad­ing on my body, and in do­ing so I opened my­self up to neg­a­tive com­ments from both clients and man­agers. When I be­came preg­nant with my daugh­ter, the thought of my ex­pand­ing stom­ach filled me with dread. And when I be­gan run­ning com­pet­i­tively, I found it hard to stop, notch­ing up some 500 races in seven years.

What saved me, I think, was ac­tu­ally an in­jury. I dam­aged my Achilles ten­don in early 2017 and was forced to take a break. With­out the en­dor­phins and self-worth run­ning gave me, my dis­or­dered thoughts re­turned with a vengeance. I could see that, through over-ex­er­cis­ing, I was run­ning away from the body is­sues I’d never truly re­solved.

I sought out a ther­a­pist who spe­cialised in body im­age. To learn that the cause of my self­loathing had a name – BDD – was a huge relief, and ther­apy helped me look back at my life and un­der­stand how I got here. Throw­away com­ments from an ex that be­came etched on my heart; a change in body shape that led to the be­lief that I was only wor­thy of peo­ple’s time and en­ergy if I was slim and blonde. Sud­denly, it all made sense.

I’m still in ther­apy, learn­ing ways to in­ter­rupt the un­healthy thoughts, and now I’m more de­ter­mined than ever to break the cy­cle of hate. It’s hard work, but I’m fi­nally start­ing to believe the truth that evaded me for decades: you are worth so much more than what you look like.

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