Body Dysmorphia & Social Media

Two nights ago I was in a bit of A Mood™️ and I decided to give a little air time to my frustrations on social media.  The responses to my post got me thinking about how we react to people’s bodies, and feelings about their bodies, on social media.  Fair warning: this is not your typical, predictable post about body image and Instagram models.

Understanding My Face

my profile, showing my retracted chin
Come thru, chin defect!

I was born with what’s clinically diagnosed as a “retracted chin”; instead of my chin extending out to match the shape of my forehead and nose, it retreats back under my lips.  It’s a genetic defect and it’s also a feature I share with my Narcissist-with-a-capital-N father.

For most of my young life I could not figure out what was wrong with my face.  I would stare at photos of myself with other friends with non-defected facial structure and I was absolutely stumped as to why my face looked so wrong.  My own dysmorphia and distorted perception of myself made it hard to view my face as “mine”, let alone to understand its individual features.  Discovering that my retracted chin is an actual, diagnosable, defect made me happy.

I wasn’t crazy.  My face was fixable.

In the years since pinning down my facial defect, I have researched doctors.  I am lucky to have a home base in Massachusetts — a state with some of the best medical facilities in the country, possibly the entire continent.  I came close to saving up the roughly $5k that corrective surgery will cost but unfortunately had to spend my savings when the startup company I was working for in NYC could no longer support my salary.

That setback has been devastatingly frustrating in many ways.

Controlling Perception

For the most part, I have kept my plans to get corrective surgery to myself.  We live in a culture that looks down upon people that choose to alter their bodies in many ways.  People who choose cosmetic surgery are seen as vain, people who pierce and tattoo their bodies are seen as freaks, and people who are born transgender and choose to take hormones and/or pursue surgery face discrimination.

The beginnings of ab definition
Almost-defined abs

But in a world where there is so little we can control, it is important to know that our bodies are our own and we can change them as we please.  Everyone I know, including myself, who has lost weight or worked towards getting in shape says the same thing — realizing they are in control of their body is one of the most empowering experiences in life.

I do not believe it is entirely shallow to judge people based on appearances.  Our bodies reflect how we feel internally about ourselves.  At one of the lowest moments in my depression, my posture was slumped, my body was more-than-a-little flabby, and my skin was sallow.  I was wearing my depression in more ways than just my permanent gray sweats uniform.

For myself, losing weight and seeing real progress towards defined muscles in my core was a more intense version of the feeling that getting my first big tattoo and first facial piercing gave me.  My body is mine — I control how it looks, and therefore how others perceive me.

To go back to the example of my retracted chin: it’s true that I want to fix it it so that the person in the mirror looks like me and not like my abusive father.  But I also want to fix it because I feel I am too strong a person to have such a weak jawline.  

I realize that sounds odd on first read.

But from a psychological standpoint, it does make sense.  Our appearances are the first thing the outside world uses to judge us, whether we like it or not.  And I dislike being read as a pushover because of my weak facial structure.

I often joke that I have a face that screams “ask me for directions” because although I project confidence, I am read as a soft-faced non-threatening person.  And to most lost tourists, that seems to single me out.  No matter how little I know about a city, within my first week walking around someone will ask me for directions.  I swear I could be in Kyrgyzstan and some lost Frenchman would come up and ask me if I knew how to get a marshrutka from Osh to Bishkek (and the answer would be yes, because I obsessively read about travel).

Jokes aside, it’s not entirely about how others perceive me, but about how I perceive myself.  I let my weak jawline erode my confidence and I can do the exhausting work to remind myself not to, but I would rather just have the jawline I should.

Patronizing Responses

Going back to the point of this post: Two nights ago, while in A Mood™️, I decided to post the above profile shot on my personal Facebook page with a frustrated note:

“Someone please lend me $5k so I can buy a real chin and not wake up every morning staring at my thieving, rapey, narcissist father in the mirror. #cptsd #bdd #cantshametheshameless”

Clearly I do not expect any of my Facebook friends to actually lend me thousands of dollars for an elective surgery, but keeping my frustration with my appearance in was making me crazy.  I usually avoid having photos taken from angles that reveal my retracted chin, but posting a photo that not only showcased it but also named it for the defect it is was, for lack of a better word, liberating.

In addition to naming my frustration with my appearance, I also shamelessly named my experience with my father.  Despite writing about my childhood on this blog in the past, I have not talked to more than a handful of close friends and family about my experiences.  After I cut ties with my father, many family friends and relatives distanced themselves from me because they did not understand why I had “turned” on my father/their friend.  This distancing made it incredibly difficult to share my story with them and after three years of never getting to explain myself I finally decided I don’t need to explain.

What struck me the most in the responses to my fussy, childish, Facebook outburst, was the generational split.  My friends around my own age left responses that included a caveat assuring me that they did not see my father in my face but clearly said they supported any choice I wanted to make.

My middle aged friends did not hesitate to chime in to tell me that I am “beautiful the way I am,” and that they “see an <insert nice adjective> young woman”.  While it was clearly well-meaning, it came across as patronizing as well as completely misunderstanding my post and the issues behind it.  Even after explaining myself further in the comments, the last response was along the lines of “I hope you can see what we see.”

I will never see what you see and, believe it or not, I don’t want to.  

I have accepted how I see myself.

Peep my first large tattoo under my selfie-taking arm.
Peep my first large tattoo under my selfie-taking arm.

I have never been formally diagnosed, but past therapists and I have discussed the possibility that I have BDD (body dysmorphic disorder).  Like my chronic depressive disorder, it is something I will have to manage for my whole life.  Making tangible, visible changes to my body helps me to look in the mirror and say “Yes, that is me. I recognize that person.”

I mentioned above that my first large tattoo was a major empowering moment.  I will never forget staring at my midsection in the mirror after having just survived three hours of tattooing on my ribcage and instead of focussing on the art, I was flabbergasted at how much I could actually see the shape of my body without internal distortion.  It helped me see that I wasn’t as heavy as I thought I was and it was motivation to lose the extra weight that I did have.

I have happily made changes to my face and body in the past to make my outsides better match my insides and I have no problem doing so more in the future.  Whether it’s tattoos, surgery, or diet and exercise.

Who’s Face Is It Anyway?

One of my younger friends joked that people in the thread seemed awfully attached to my face.  She made the observation in jest but I’ve been thinking about it for 24 hours.  Her point is deeper than I think she meant in the moment — because we use people’s appearances to recognize them, we feel an attachment to the appearance we “know”.  We feel entitled to seeing them maintain that appearance, especially when that appearance is tied to a shared identity.

It’s one of the reasons we see even the most “tolerant” friends turn on each other when one starts to lose weight or transition from one gender to another.  I have seen a lesbian community shun a former friend because as he transitioned, he left the identity of “lesbian” behind to start his new life as a man.  And I have seen fat activist groups viciously attack anyone who discusses their desire to lose weight or shares their success in weight loss.

Sharon Needles
The Incomparable Sharon Needles

We even see it when a celebrity gets cosmetic surgery, as though somehow their desire for silicone cheekbones betrays their fans.  Take the well-loved drag star Sharon Needles for example.  She chose to use her Drag Race winnings to pursue cosmetic surgery and injections (something she was open about wanting before winning).  In many comment threads under her photos, you can find people lamenting how “sad” it is that she chose to make changes to her face.  The thing is — even though you may like her face — it’s hers.

The point I want to make in this article is that we should not be afraid to express dissatisfaction with our bodies on social media and we should not hesitate to go after the changes we want.  The other side of that is to ignore people who tell you that you are “fine how you are” if you are unhappy as you are.

I understand the intention behind such comments is to “fight negative body image” but the truth is, sometimes we have negative feelings about ourselves for a legitimate reason.  No one should make you feel like you have to make a change (except a doctor talking to you about your health) and excessive negative fixation on certain things is certainly something to speak with a therapist about, but at the end of the day, some of us don’t want to settle for how we were born or how we are right now.  And that’s ok.

If you’d like to read more about my fitness journey, you can check out my first post on my eating habits here.  I’m in the middle of a post about the other side of the fitness coin (physical activity) and if you’d like to be notified when that’s finally posted, scroll a little further down and follow my blog :) 

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