Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Body Dysmorphic Disorder and the Sins of the Camera

I have a mild verson of body dysmorphic disorder. I impose impossibly high standards on my attractiveness and then feel dismayed and inadequate when I can’t meet those standards. It’s a mean way to live, to judge myself so harshly.

I’ve never been diagnosed with BDD, and its arrival in my life was subtle – it never really felt like a new disorder, more like another outlet for my existing obsessiveness.

Most of the time I’m okay with my appearance these days, but every now and then something happens that throws me completely off kilter.

Given that BDD is related to OCD, I imagine one treatment would be exposure therapy based on getting used to the sufferer's own appearance. In the case of ageing, this exposure would need to be constant: our faces regularly show small alterations as we age, alterations that would be imperceptible to the average person but can spell doom to the BDD afflicted.

This is disconcerting, but I’ve learned to cope. I can now adjust my expectations each time there’s some slight change in my actual appearance. I’ve learned to accept and live with many changes  in recent years and I’m confident I can keep doing this.

Photos of me present an additional problem: I have the sort of bone structure that doesn’t flatten well into the two-dimensional image. This means that the face that I’m familiar with simply doesn’t translate to a photo. I look different in the mirror from how I look in a pic.

Just as I’ve gotten used to my changing appearance in real life, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that photos of me will not look like the image I see when I look in the mirror. I don’t like this state of affairs, but I can live with it.

This shouldn’t matter. Photos are an important means of recording our lives for ourselves, friends and family as well as posterity. Even if we personally let down by them (as I do), avoiding the camera isn’t the answer.

But flash photography represents another degree of foreignness altogether.

The other night I was planning to spend the evening at a friend’s place, and I asked him if he’d mind taking some photos of me for my business website. The photo that’s currently on the site is two and a half years old. I’ve kept it on the site that long not just because it shows a younger version of me but because it’s a good photo – and I’m not the most photogenic person in the world.

Because it was evening, my friend took the photos using flash. The result? Pictures that were so at odds with my actual appearance that they gave me a distinct downer. I looked like a ghost, incredibly gaunt and with dark shadows under my eyes.

I don’t think I’m being overly critical here. I think the camera is! Now I've reached my late forties the camera's two-dimensional images are harsher than they've ever been, and flash photography increases the disparity between the real me and the photographic one.

So the question is: now that I know flash photos show a ghostly avatar that bears little resemblance to the real me, what should my response be? Should I gradually expose myself to these images for longer and longer periods of time so that they eventually lose their ability to discombobulate? Or should I avoid flash photography like a vampire avoids the light?

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