What It’s Like to Hate Your Reflection
You may hate the way you look. But do you know what you look like?
I learned years ago to hate the way I look. I learned it from magazines, from fashion shows, from movies. I learned it from my peers. I learned that stringy, messy hair, acne, and any body fat whatsoever made one ugly, while small boobs, knobby knees, and large feet were also contributing factors.
A lot of people claim to hate the way they look. In a relatable scene in Mean Girls, the titular characters gather in front of the mirror and begin to list their flaws, while Cady learns all the things that can be wrong with a girl’s appearance. Whether the mean girls are legitimately concerned or it’s performance art is up for debate. And yet I suspect a lot of people who criticize their own appearance are looking at their flaws with relatively mild concern spurred by advertising effects. Teeth not white enough? Break out the whitening strips. Hair brassy? Grab that purple shampoo.
I apologize if I’m wrong and if many people legitimately hate the way they look. But I have to assume that they have an accurate idea of what they look like. Meanwhile, I actually loathe my reflection — and I don’t know what I look like.
I have a condition known as body dysmorphic disorder, in which my brain produces borderline-hallucinatory misperceptions of the shape and other characteristics of my body. In other words, my brain tricks me. Where other people see my actual self, I see a monster.
It affects my entire life. I avoid sexual intimacy, I avoid looking people in the eye, and I hate all photographs of me. I have taken steps to treat myself: I do take selfies, 90% of which I throw out, and I have paid for professional photo shoots in an attempt to retrain my brain to see my true appearance.
And yet when I’m tired, not wearing makeup, or generally having a bad day, my reflection makes me cry. I feel absolutely hideous, like the ugliest person on the planet. I know rationally I’m not, and that it doesn’t really matter, but I also feel like I deserve to be pretty.
I actually loathe my reflection — and I don’t know what I look like.
In one early study, only 7 percent of patients were able to recognize that their “defects” were all in their head. I guess I’m lucky. And yet that knowledge doesn’t empower me to overcome it.
I had one astounding moment in which I witnessed my perception change: I was looking at the mirror and it was as though a spell fell off — the hideous beast I’d been looking at vanished and I saw something I actually liked. By the same token, I’ve seen my reflection some days and felt confident, only to look in the mirror that same night.
Most days, though, I suffer when I look in the mirror. To keep myself from freaking out, I look at the few photos that exist of me — not because I’m narcissistic, but because I need to remind myself that those are closer to reality than what my brain perceives. Usually, though, the comfort is temporary and my brain’s default mode of exaggerating imaginary flaws kicks back on.
It’s a struggle to have a conversation with someone because my brain actively tells me how hideous I am and produces intrusive thoughts about what my mouth and eyes look like while I talk. I fear that my conversation partner is looking deep into the pores that seem huge to me, watching my mouth twist in unpleasant ways, disgusted by my brittle, broken hair.
Body dysmorphic disorder affects between 2 and 3 percent of the population, both men and women, and takes different forms in different people. Some are obsessed with muscle tone or cellulite. Others think their nose or ears are monstrously big. Still others think that their body is way too fat — or thin. Whatever the symptoms, BDD is frequently comorbid with conditions such as OCD and eating disorders, but is often ignored in or resistant to treatment.
I’m hopeful that writing this piece will kick-start my brain into unlearning its misperception of my reflection. And if you shudder when you look in the mirror, perhaps it’s time for you to seek help.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.