When a perceived physical flaw takes over your life
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.