Saturday, December 31, 2011

Visions of Body Dysmorphia

I have come to believe that Body Dysmorphic Disorder plagues most of us. I'm too heavy/thin, short/tall, young/old. Polarized and not fitting the person staring back at in the mirror, we either don't want to look, or spend hours changing the physical self. Dysmorphia is fed by Seventh Avenue ads of beauty and impossibility. Indeed, Photoshop has created the impossibly perfect and now we expect reality to conform...just take a look at Youtube. Think about it, how many people actually feel comfortable in their own skins? Even those of us who recognize we are not defined by skins find it easier to like our spiritual selves than our physical selves.

I lost 55 pounds this year. But when I look in the mirror I see a still overweight, size 22 middle aged woman with the beginnings of smile creases and eye crinkles. I see a body marked by a difficult journey, limited by too many hours in an office job, grad school and doing therapy. And most of my friends echo my challenges with body image. Gender challenges, weight challenges, the wear and tear of arthritis, diabetes, fill in the blank.

Put that thought on on the back burner.

This is a quote from one of what is quickly becoming a favorite author, Susan Howatch. She explores spirituality in the Episcopal Church of England in a series of six books. I've read them out of order, having begun the with the last first. I'm currently reading GLAMOROUS POWERS. It's the story of a monk with a vision that leads him to leave his current calling for something undefined but promised by his psychic powers during a vision. About half way through the book, he attempts to explain what it is like to have a vision:

      "All I know for certain is that I step out of time as we understand it where the past is always behind us and future is still to come."
      "Miss Fielding said suddenly: "It must be like escaping a prison. Isn't it strange how unaware people are of being locked up in time?"
      "You find an unconscious awareness of this in the widespread longing to be immortal. Yet isn't it equally strange, when one remembers that we're also locked up in space, that no one seems to long to be ubiquitous?"

As our character Father Darrow reminds us, we normally perceive ourselves as walking a time line from birth to death, moving inexorably in the direction of death from the moment life begins. Most "mogals" or "mundanes" see this as the inevitability of life.

But what if we really are light beings trapped in a temporary, corporeal existence for the purpose of growth.  What if the only way for a light being to experience the rumble of cat's purr, the sensuality of their fur on fingertips, the devotion in their eyes is to come to Earth, the learner planet, clad in skins of water and bone.

Mayhaps our longing for immortality is the spirit's awareness of the flesh's impermanence and reminder that this stage, many times repeated, is still only temporary. And perhaps, just maybe, this powerful sense of dysmorphia is more than Seventh Avenue's lure. Maybe it is our soul deep awareness that we are something more than the flesh. And that no matter how physically perfect the body becomes, the matching of the corporeal to the spirits is, in the end, impossible.

Let's grab another burner.

That stated, do I believe we should struggle any less with these bodily "temples" to seek a more perfect union of flesh and spirit? My answer is that it depends.

Certainly our physical manifestations on this planet determine identity, how we are perceived, and how we define ourselves. Male. Female. Transgender. Androgynous. Each word comes with a judgement, a cultural value, and definition of self and other.

Moreover, I would never suggest my beloved partner, who is transgendered, should not seek to more clearly align the outer expression of self with the inner sense of identity. It determines which bathroom he/she uses. How others see our coupleness. Whether or not we or he is safe.

So bringing the pots together, the front burner and the back.

I don't believe that everyone has dysmorphia to the extent of a needful diagnosis and treatment. I do think the current focus created by media on the physical distracts light beings from our purpose on this planet. We are here to experience the purr, the fur, the doubt, the fear and the joy of living. We are here to engage our challenges and grow. Sometimes necessary changes leads to the loss of 55 pounds or the transition of gender. Sometimes the physical drives us so profoundly that until that pain is addressed, we cannot get on with our purpose.

Let's stir the pot.

Middle age has come as a rude awakening for me. Despite the roundness of my curves, I've always gotten by on a great complexion, an ability to flirt, an innate sexuality that made the men notice. I changed it all in the last ten years. A substantial weight gain, a shift in pheromones, a iron control over my sexuality has completely shifted how I relate to the world. Menopause has made the shift easier, light on the night sweats and bringing relief to no longer have 10-12 day periods.

Then my complexion shifted. I suddenly started breaking out. Badly. My skin wasn't just splotchy. I had those teenage zits that make people notice. I work in a substance abuse treatment center where such acne is associated with opiate abuse. People kept asking if I was okay. The morning a middle aged gentleman asked, out of deep and caring concern, what was wrong with my face, I realized my appearance was getting in the way of being able to do therapy. No matter the inner work of my journey and my struggle to be comfortable in the flesh, my physical appearance was interrupting the therapeutic process, leading to personal inquires in place of the professional. I find that to be unacceptable.

I turned to the internet. I viewed a teenage model's videos on makeup application. I spent $40 I didn't have at WalMart. For an hour I searched the aisles for the secrets of success. I finally had to admit I have middle age skin in need of real coverage, not that light kid stuff. And I need primer (am I painting a house?). I settled for Drew Barrymore meets Elen Degeneres in the Cover Girl aisle. To my disgust, it worked perfectly. Every single day, I do mean every day, I have had compliments on my appearance ranging from the polite "you look radiant/pretty/really good" to the crass "your makeup is flawless."

Grrrrr.... Just like when I lost 55 pounds and my hips no longer met both sides of my chair (yes, clients have admitted to noticing), I'm judged by appearance. And no matter how pretty the make up, I still don't see the physical matching what's in my head.

Leaving the pot to simmer.

In an ideal world, I suppose the answer is balance. But balance still doesn't allow my partner to go to the male bathroom or erase the pimples from my cheeks. Sigh.

This is where I remind myself it truly is the learning planet.


  1. Yeah, middle age sucks in many ways. My skin's gone all to hell too. It's an adjustment to accept it but, as they say, aging beats the alternative! Better to be over the hill than under it, LOL!

  2. gee...what comes after middle age..oh yeah, old age..suck it up..your still a baby.