“Excuse me, are you in line?” a soft voice asked from just over my shoulder.
“Uh, yes” I said, nearly jumping back on to the man in fear. I was so confused. Of course I was in line, I thought. Here I was standing behind the current person picking up their prescription at CVS, what else would I be doing?
“Well, I think you should take a step forward then” he said. “You’re up next.”
I looked from him, to the woman in front of me, to the ground at my feet. I took a deep breath. I saw no room for even a half step forward. If I did, I would surely bump into the poor woman. I closed my eyes, the words “I’m too fat for that,” running continually through my mind.
The sweat had started and my hands were shaking. It was finals week, I had missed my anxiety medication for the last several days because I hated going to the pharmacy and now, here I was (finally) and I couldn’t even properly wait in line because of how fat I was.
“I think I’ll bump into her if I do,” I told the man. He looked startled, and to his credit, said nothing in response.
When the woman had signed the pin pad and left I slowly inched forward, worried, not wanting to knock over any of the festive displays.
“How can I help you today?” asked the pharmacist. I swallowed, making a high-pitched squelching sound as I did.
“I’m here to pick up my medication.” I told her, thinking, do you ever get a different answer?
“Could you step forward? I can’t hear you,” she said. My eyes widened in fear as I looked at the racks of magazines I would surely displace if I did. I inched forward a little more and tried my best to speak up.
“I’m here to pick up my medication.” She seemed to notice how stressed I was this time and just proceeded to asking my name and birth date. I saw her nod as she realized I was there for an anti-anxiety medication, all my strangeness making sense in her head.
“Here you go,” she said, holding out the bag for me. I reached as far as I could and managed to grab it.
“Thank you,” I said.
I could feel her and the man’s eyes following me as I weaved my way carefully to the door and slid through it sideways. Thankfully I fit.
The truth is, I would have fit if I walked the normal way as well. In reality I could have taken that step forward in line and I definitely wasn’t in any danger of ever knocking the magazines over. The truth was I was suffering from body dysmorphia.
Body dysmorphia defined by the mayo clinic, is when “you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you may feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.”
Body dymorphic disorder is a disorder all on its own, but many individuals who suffer from eating disorder exhibit symptoms of it as well. For me, it is not something I battle continually, but it comes on like a wave often during times of stress and suddenly all I can think about is how fat I am, or the lines on my neck, or the width of my ankles…
It isn’t only a persistent thought, either. It feels completely physical and real. That day in the CVS I was convinced I was so wide that my stomach would hit my fellow customers in line. I was wearing an enormous sweatshirt that I was convinced wasn’t adequate to cover my girth and my coat was unbuttoned as I suspected the zipper might break if I tried it.
Other times I’ve been driving along when suddenly I realize that my coat, which had fit only a second before, is too small, and struggle to extricate myself without crashing the car.
I remember stretching in dance class as a teenager, helplessly staring at my ankles. I would try to think about any exercise or surgery that could potentially remove the extra wide part that somehow, nobody else seemed to notice.
In the moment it is nearly impossible to explain for an individual suffering, and for someone watching their odd behaviors it seems completely incomprehensible.
“I don’t see any lines on your neck,” people repeatedly tell me when I am consumed with thought about my least liked body part. “You’re not fat,” is another frequent comment. While I appreciate the sentiment, and on some level it does help to hear those words, in truth, engaging in a conversation about it is the last thing that works to make the all-consuming sensations pass.
A run, a walk with a friend, an intellectual conversation about absolutely anything except my image or body weight, however, works wonders. To simply force my mind in a different direction is the first step to returning to some sort of normal function.
So next time a friend or loved one seems consumed with their weight or a particular part of themselves that you just can’t see, maybe take a step back. This may not be vanity calling out to be satisfied, they probably aren’t looking for complements and they definitely don’t need you to agree with them (they most likely won’t think it’s funny). Instead, recognize it and move on. There is more to this individual than their body and how they feel about it.