This past weekend marked the 33rd annual celebration of North Carolina Pride, a time to celebrate the beauty, diversity, and resiliency of the LGBTQ community. The week of October 1-7 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, observed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to “fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care” in regards to mental health. Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ identified individuals are three times more likely to live with a mental health condition than their heterosexual counterparts. This includes, but is not limited to: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or Body Dysmorphic Disorder, to name a few.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, is classified as a body-image disorder where individuals have persistent and intrusive preoccupations with a defect in their appearance, which can be imagined or slight. Obsessions about appearance can be all consuming, and make it hard for those affected to focus on other areas of their lives. Oftentimes, those living with BDD can perform a compulsive or repetitive behavior, with some examples being: avoiding mirrors, skin picking, excessive grooming, excessive exercise, frequently changing clothes, trying to hide or conceal body parts, or in extreme cases seeking surgery to correct the perceived flaw or flaws. These behaviors can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, resulting in avoiding social situations and having difficulties with work responsibilities and personal life. Individuals suffering with severe BDD are also at a higher risk of having suicidal thoughts or to attempt suicide.
People living with BDD often also suffer from other anxiety and mental health disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, depression, eating disorders, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Because of similarities and overlap of symptoms, BDD can be misdiagnosed as one of these other mental health disorders, specifically with similarities to OCD, being distinguished when behaviors focus specifically on appearance. According the American Psychiatric Association, between 2.2-2.5% of people in the US experience BDD, and it usually begins to occur around the age of 12-13.
As someone living with BDD, I spent years of my life not having words to describe what I was feeling, being hyper aware of my body and the way I see it as being perceived by others. Most of the time, these are internal conflicts, rarely do they manifest in ways that are visible for others. On Saturday night, I was waiting in line to get into a gay night club to celebrate Pride with friends. When it was time to pay the cover to enter, the thought of people looking at my body, of people touching parts of my body that I find unsightly, resulted in a panic attack where I ended up leaving and going home. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable in a space like this, but I can’t shake the feeling of letting my friends down, of allowing my insecurities to get in the way of what was supposed to be a fun night out.
My bigger concern is that my experience isn’t unique, that others have also struggled to feel accepted in places that are supposed to be welcoming to then. The unrealistic standards around body image in queer spaces foster an environment of self-doubt, generate feelings of insecurity, and further reinforce the heteronormative narrative that is already placed on us by larger society as a whole.
But issues around unrealistic body issues aren’t the only problem facing the LGBTQ community. Blatant and covert racism, misogyny, and the policing of how others live their lives are also major hurdles that we need to overcome. And many of our spaces aren’t accessible to a number of people due to cost.
On top of all of this, we don’t give each other spaces to talk about the ways we are struggling, whether that be with our mental health, our interpersonal relationships, or how we are handling navigating a society that simply is not designed for us. My hope is that by sharing, it will open up a space for others to acknowledge what they are feeling, to finally have words to define those feelings, or to simply be aware of the struggles that others are going through.
Below are some sources if you are interested in learning more about the topics that I discussed here. If you feel that you need to reach out, talking with a mental health professional can be a great place to start. If you are a student here at UNC, CAPS offers a variety of mental health services, more information can be found below.
For CAPS Walk-In Services:
Go to the 3rd floor of the Campus Health Services Building
MON-THURS: 9 am – noon or 1 pm – 4 pm
FRI: 9:30 am – noon or 1 pm – 4 pm
National Alliance on Mental Illness Awareness Week – https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Illness-Awareness-Week
National Alliance on Mental Illness LGBTQ – https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/LGBTQ
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Body Dysmorphic Disorder – https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/body-dysmorphic-disorder-bdd