Where does this even go in the spectrum of my mental health stuff? It’s hard to say with any precision because the only person who knew any of it prior to this piece was my wife. Even the multiple counselors, many physicians, and two psychiatrists I have seen during my life do not know it because it always felt like a lower order of importance. “Let’s get the anxiety under control and then, maybe, one day I will tell you how much I don’t like…this.”
Part of that is something with which I think many mental health sufferers can identify: anxiety is my thing and other people have severe body image issues. That’s not my lane and they do not need to see my pedestrian worrying about my body in their space. Stick to the anxiety and get into the personality disorder a bit.
Over the years of grappling with comorbidity and diagnostic criteria, I have started to accept that it’s quite possible I have my mental health diagnoses and, under the umbrella of that, I have comorbidities that do not rise to the level of a diagnosis. Heaven knows this is something I explain regularly to neurotypicals about anxiety: Yes, you feel anxious sometimes. That is normal. This is about feeling anxiety when there is no reason or too a more serious degree than is normal. The symptoms alone are not necessarily proof of a condition.
All of that to say, I do not have a mental health condition related directly to my self image issues. I think it’s another in the tapestry of symptoms that belong to the social anxiety disorder I long possessed.
Unfortunately, unlike my larger social anxiety struggle, about which I try to be cavernously open, I feel pressed to be vague about this. I do not want you to know specific things about myself that I hate because at least I have the comfort right now of, “Maybe they haven’t noticed.” Why call attention to it? So that people can offer vacuous reassurance? People are generally polite, especially with people in their circle.
What I can say is that I feel hideous most of the time. And the more I like you, the worse I feel about the situation. Part of the charm with with having friends solely through platforms like Twitter is that they see an avatar and never have to deal with me in person. They only have to deal with my thoughts (which I consider bad enough sometimes), but at least I can talk myself out of the idea that I’m being foolish or inconsiderate. They give me enough reassurance (that I trust) that I am not those things.
Sometimes my friends and I will play the fun game of, “Wouldn’t it be fun to meet ______?” No, no it would not. I mean, it would the thrill of a lifetime for me, but I would be subjecting this person I adore to my presence and that feels wrong. I have this sense of them politely, but coyly, shaking my hand at an arm’s length and then trying to leave courteously as soon as possible. They would not want to hurt my feelings, but they also would not want to be there.
Is that reasonable? No (probably not). But that is what will be in my mind the entire time. The fact that the anxiety will cause my heart to race and my body to sweat will not improve the situation. And like some antiquated eye movement software I am always scanning to see if a person is lingering on any of the specifics I hate. “Yep, she notices. She’s looking right at it and thinking, ‘Oh, gross.'”
It’s so bad that I will go out of my way to avoid meeting certain people to avoid the shame of having them know me and to avoid offending them with my presence. My inner circle? I just assume they’ve come to terms with it, not that they’re okay with it.
Even victories can turn against me. Growing up I was 5’4” and around 80 pounds right into high school. Then I shot up to 6’1” over the course of months without gaining much weight. Part of my body image concern as a youth was looking like a skeleton because I could not retain weight. Ironically, treating my anxiety finally allowed me to gain and keep a healthy weight (to the explicit delight of people in my life who would tell me how much healthier I looked) – only to find myself looking at now rounded features and hidden muscles*. The joy of finally being the weight I always thought was appropriate for my height disappeared fast.
*Muscles are bands of fibrous tissue that we all have. I used to have “definition” in the sense that I was so skinny that my skin was pulled tightly across those bands, and I looked stronger than I was.
I don’t even have a resolution for this one – this is more the start of a journey than a recap of how it went. If anything, I suppose it might help people to know that men do deal with this sort of thing because how we talk about body image in society is problematic all around.