What Getting My First Tattoo Helped Me Understand About My Body Dysmorphic Disorder

I walk through life intensely aware of my body and everything that’s wrong with it.

Every day is filled with ritualistic behaviors that keep my defects as hidden as possible. It begins with changing my clothes five to six times every morning before settling on the loosest shirt I can find. When I sit down, I find something to put in my lap to keep the world from seeing my misshapen stomach. If I’m lucky, there will be a pillow nearby. If there isn’t, I have to use my purse or stuff my sweater in a way that will conceal it. When I’m out, I avoid reflective surfaces, not just mirrors but also the sides of parked cars and other metal surfaces where I might catch my reflection. Anxiety rises when someone takes time out of their day to compliment me. I replay the scene over and over in my mind, wondering if they were being sarcastic or if I looked so terrible that they felt compelled to say something nice because they pitied me.

I have Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) to thank for it. It’s one of the many ways my anxiety has progressed over the years. It’s not unusual for the two to coexist. But more trying than just the generalized anxiety itself is that I can’t talk myself out of this one. I’ve gotten to a point with my anxiety that I can say, “Okay, you are getting anxious right now. You don’t have to be anxious about this.” No, it doesn’t always work to calm me down, but it feels good to recognize it, to know that I have at least an ounce of control over it.

BDD is different in that therapy hasn’t helped me take control, at least not yet. Maybe someday it will. I know it’s a process. It has been for the anxiety. But it’s frustrating. My therapist tells me the defects I see in my body are imagined but every time I look in the mirror, they’re right there staring back at me. How can something I can see right in front of my eyes be imagined? That’s the part I have a hard time reconciling.

My first breakthrough in understanding my BDD is unconventional. Well, maybe it is. I honestly have no idea. Most people who suffer don’t talk about it because they’re embarrassed or more commonly, they have no idea they even have it. I’d love to know if there are others out there who share a similar experience.

It all started with getting my first tattoo. It’s a small script quote on the right side of my right forearm. That day, I wasn’t allowed to keep anything in my lap when I sat down at the artist’s station. Instead, I tried to focus on watching him work and not that my stomach was spilling over the waistband of my jeans. He stared down at my arm with the kind of intensity that made the anxiety turn my stomach into knots. When I look at my arms, I see disproportionate wrists attached to flabby forearms attached to even flabbier biceps. Does he see it too? When I leave, is he going to laugh about how ridiculous it looked with his coworkers?

With gloved fingertips, he gently guided my arm this way and that into the position he needed before instructing me to hold still. His eyes never left his work. About halfway through, watching him work, watching the ink permeate my skin, it occurred to me that for him, my arm wasn’t so much an arm as it was a canvas. He didn’t see the (supposedly imagined) defects because he was busy creating permanent art on my skin.

It took all of ten minutes. He smiled and invited me to check it out in the full-length mirror across the room. What was I going to say: “No, I don’t want to go look at this permanent thing you just drew on my arm, thanks anyway?” So I swallowed my anxiety and let him usher me over. It was then that something amazing happened. I caught sight of the ink scrolling up my arm, red and blotchy but so perfect. And for the first time in years, I looked in a mirror and didn’t see any flaws. I saw art. I was art. I held back tears. It felt so good to see myself minus the vast assortment of imperfections.

It wasn’t about the tattoo itself. It was about being able to see my body differently. It was about parts of my body being more than just things that are wrong with me. It certainly didn’t cure my BDD but there’s progress now where before there was none. Sometimes, I catch a reflective surface when I’m out and my arm is positioned just right that I catch the script before I get preoccupied by the flaws.

The best moment so far is when I was checking out at a store and the girl working the counter said, “Your tattoo is awesome. I love it.” It meant she was looking at my arm, at the arm that on any given day I can find at least five things wrong with it. I braced myself for a wave of anxiety, readying my arsenal of breathing exercises to counterattack. It never came. Instead, I found myself with a genuine smile, saying a genuine “thank you” and leaving the counter feeling content to have taken a compliment. TC mark 

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