Teaching Profession Opinion

Body Dysmorphia and Anxiety, the Invisible Experience We Can’t Ignore

By Starr Sackstein — April 12, 2019 3 min read
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“You’re crazy. Look at you, you’re beautiful.”

“You do so many things, how can you be anxious?”

I know what people think. I can see it on their faces when I tell them that sometimes I’m paralyzed with anxiety or that I feel like I’m fat.

What they see and what I feel are NOT the same experience.

The social constructs of beauty and success have the capacity to erode the very things that society hopes to build up, and in our society children and adults can be crippled with invisible harms that are very easy to think aren’t real.

As a child, I was an overachiever. Doing well in school and being successful at the various things I participated in were extremely important to my self-worth and value as a human being. My parents didn’t push me unnecessarily as they knew they didn’t have to. I was motivated to a fault.

Additionally, that level of perfectionism was quadrupled not just in my work ethic but also in physical presentation. Being an athlete, staying fit was essential to that look. My mother, who was also thin, often complained of being fat, and as I watched her in my childhood, I too developed an unhealthy desire to be thinner than I was. Of course, it didn’t start with my mom; my grandmother still obsesses about her weight at 93.

The messages that we send ourselves, our children, and our students come in loud and clear through our actions. As adults, we must be cognizant of the many ways students can develop feelings that hurt their self-esteem and threaten their growth and development as young people.

I didn’t learn the words “body dysmorphic disorder” until I was in my early 20s and a therapist told me that was what I had.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (AASA), "People who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) think about their real or perceived flaws for hours each day. They can't control their negative thoughts and don't believe people who tell them that they look fine. Their thoughts may cause severe emotional distress and interfere with their daily functioning. They may miss work or school, avoid social situations, and isolate themselves, even from family and friends, because they fear others will notice their flaws."

This obsession with my body, coupled with my desire to be perfect, was a complicated situation. Fortunately, I was in therapy at a young age and worked hard (and continue to work hard) to love myself as I am.

I don’t write this because I want people to feel sorry for me ... I share my story because I know how much anxiety and stress young people experience today. My son struggles with it and so do some many children, and it is prevalent in younger and younger kids.

Society expects so much of us, and as we shuttle students through the system, grade to grade, requirement to requirement, it is easy to not pay attention to the social-emotional elements of the whole child. Ignoring these facets of our students can be extremely detrimental to their growth in school, so we must be aware and compassionate with our children.

Students, of course, are not the only folks who suffer from these disorders; teachers do, too, and they can manifest in many ways. It is important that school systems are informed and offer opportunities to keep reminding everyone involved about how to identify these silent killers and how to help.

As the rates of suicide increase and mental health is becoming less of a taboo to discuss, states are mandating mental-health curricula as early as pre-K. We can’t pretend these issues don’t exist.

When a person tells you how they feel, please don’t ever dismiss it and try to listen without judgment. The work it takes to overcome anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia is great, and it is something that most will struggle with their whole lives to varying degrees. Stress can exacerbate the issue, so be sensitive to those you work with.

Although I understand intellectually that I am thin, when I look in a mirror, sometimes all I can see is the areas that I’m not happy with. Fortunately, at this point in my life, I feel good about myself most of the time. I focus on what I like about myself instead of what I don’t.

This is an inside job, though, no matter how many people tell me I’m beautiful and smart, that isn’t the validation I need, especially if I don’t feel it in that moment. The moments do pass, and it is our job as educators to be empathic and dialed into our students, adjust our expectations based on their needs,

and remember that our kids are more than our content requirements.

How can we assure that all children and adults in our learning institutions are well-cared for? Please share

*Picture made with pablo.com

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