Body dysmorphia is like a special kind of astigmatism. A pair of glasses can fix the normal kind of astigmatism, but there aren’t corrective lenses for the body kind. I happen to have both. Since I regularly lose my glasses, I end up relying on others to reflect reality to me—whether that means reading street names aloud while I’m driving, or telling me that I look like a normal, healthy human being.
The way my dysmorphia works is that I look in the mirror, or shop windows, or any terrifyingly reflective surface, and see a whale. Everyone else looks at me and sees a tall, unremarkable-looking girl of average BMI (body mass index). I look down at my medium-sized clothes and wonder how they’re even containing my bulk. I walk up the sidewalk in amazement that cracks aren’t forming in the cement beneath me. At Starbucks I try not to let anyone see me pouring cream into my coffee, so that I won’t offend the other patrons, whom I’m sure would like to think that someone as large as me is at least trying to change her ways.
You might be thinking, “Wow, an entirely warped view of things! Is her view of everything warped?” Sadly, I don’t get to look around and see ballooning Dr. Seuss table legs on the coffee table, or massive squirrels in the trees being miraculously supported by frightfully narrow branches. My funhouse mirror vision applies only to me.
I look at my reflection as a blob overflowing its intended human frame, and feel like an irresponsible child who failed miserably at coloring within the lines. Everyone I see, on the other hand—average, bigger, or smaller than I—looks like they somehow got it right.
Millions of people suffer from this kind of constant, all-consuming delusion. Because I’m so unoriginal in having body dysmorphia, there are loads of treatment centers all across the country where people like me can learn to live like a normal person—can learn to maintain a healthy body even when incapable of seeing it as such.
I went to one of those centers this past April after my doctor told me that I’d never be able to have children if I kept my body in such a state of deprivation for much longer. It had been over a year since I’d had a period, but I had no idea that my weight had anything to do with it. I thought I was averagely sized, a bit flabby in the usual places, but overall okay. After an embarrassing conversation with my family and my (transgender) boyfriend, both of whom informed me that I was grossly thin, I did some Googling about it. Then I reported to rehab.
My time at the center was not as neat and linear as the ease of enrolling had led me to expect. There were unexplained, rigid rules, and no one had a sense of humor. There was also compassion, though, which to me is such a dead word that I was surprised to find an apt occasion to use it. People going through similar pain were able to give each other the rare gift of a comprehending listener. I was happy to leave the center, but also grateful for the help.
Back in the real world, I was ready to resume life as normal—without a food counselor, for instance, carefully studying me as I ate breakfast. I wanted to kiss everyone who ate a meal with me for their complete apathy as to the order in which I ate my food. I promptly compartmentalized the whole experience. The only hangover was the shame I’d get when I remembered that I had this stupid problem and other people didn’t.
I handled those unpleasant feelings the way I handle most things: I turned it into material for my stand-up comedy act. And it got laughs. The really ugly stuff—the really true stuff—always does.
I use stand-up as a way to convince myself that I’ve got some aspects of life figured out. Try telling yourself some half-truth about life that would make things a lot easier for you if it were entirely true. Then go tell that half-truth to a room full of strangers, and hear how much truer it sounds when they all laugh at it. It’s magic! Tacit agreement from the general public cements invention into reality.
I usually lead into the warped body image jokes with opening jokes about being queer, because that gets laughs without even having to be funny. I could just stand up and announce my gayness, and at least three men in the room would guffaw. For better or worse, whatever is still a bit taboo will get a response. I’m not saying I’m glad it’s still taboo to be queer. But I am grateful for a safety net built into my identity that I can fall into if everything else is flopping.
So I get on stage, and after a few throwaway lines about being gay in the South or bringing my boyfriend to a lesbian book club meeting, I describe the mental fat suit I’m walking around in. Everyone laughs, and I feel deeply relieved. Night after night, I find myself seeking absolution from drunk laughing strangers rather than sympathetic, earnest listeners. And despite what my therapist says, it’s not because I’m in denial. Laughter just feels more honest to me than do most expressions of pity or concern.
Everyone has weird stuff happening with them. No one asked for their unique deficits, and no particular deficit is more shameful than others. On top of that, everyone, in some way, has a warped self-image. That’s a very important thing for all of us to bear in mind. It’s all a matter of what we do with whatever it is that we think is wrong or embarrassing or shameful about us. In my case, I turn my warped and ill-conceived view of myself into self-denigrating humor. If it’s true that laughter is the best medicine, then I self-medicate, and so grow a little bit better, every chance I get.
About Angela Fields
Angela Fields is a standup comedian, yoga instructor, and ice cream-maker from Atlanta, GA. She is also a seminary graduate seeking to incorporate faith into life to the point that it’s no longer a separate color on her Google calendar.