This is another one of those things that men aren’t supposed to talk about, like crying. Which is exactly why I’m feeling the need to talk about it now. Before I get started, let me note that I’m not asking for sympathy here, I’m sharing this entirely in the hope that it will make a few other people with the same issues feel less alone.
I suffer from low level dismorphia. It’s not severe and it’s not debilitating, but it’s very real and it has significant impacts on my life and self image. Without making a fairly large effort I don’t really see what I look like. Instead I see how much I diverge from what I think I should look like.
At the moment I’m down about thirty pounds from my heaviest weight of 218. At 190 I weigh what I weighed when I got out of high school nearly thirty years ago, and—though I was a fairly serious martial arts type athlete back then—I’m actually in better shape now. I’ve lost thirty pounds total but more like forty pounds of fat, and I’ve packed on a lot of muscle. Honestly, even when I was heavier I wasn’t in terrible shape or really all that fat.
By any objective measure I look much better and am in much better shape than I was five years ago.
But I don’t see it. Not unless I actively try to do so. Even then, it’s hard. What I see is the five pounds or so of body fat that I have left, and, if I let it, it makes me angry and depressed and pushes all my self-loathing buttons.
Best part? The closer I get to the ideal I see in my head, the worse the dismorphia gets. I think that’s because I can see the me that I think I’m supposed to be more easily as the bits that don’t fit that image get peeled away.
One particularly charming aspect of the whole thing is that it’s not actually possible for me to make my body fit the image in my head. Not even if I lose that last five pounds of fat and and pack on another fifteen of muscle. That’s because the image in my head isn’t just in perfect shape, it’s also a fundamentally different body type. I am a human tank, broad shouldered and thick everywhere—a natural born weightlifter—while the image in my head is more the dancer or runner type.
Nothing I can do is going to transform me into that person. Yet it’s what my brain thinks I ought to be. I suspect that this image comes from a combination of media images, the year I spent in that shape after I hit puberty and before I filled out, and the decade I spent immersed in theater and dance between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. Dance and theater are major breeding grounds for dismorphia.
At forty-five I have much better mental and emotional tools to deal with the dismorphia and what it wants to do to my sense of self, but it’s a battle that I have to fight and win anew every single day. It never gives up, it never goes away, and it’s never ever farther away than the next mirror. It has danced me along the edge of the land of eating disorders, it daily takes the edge off my joy at being as fit as I am now, and I know that it will always be waiting for me on the bad days.
I won’t let dismorphia beat me, but it will always be there trying.