The first time I was made fun of for my appearance, I was on the tetherball court in the third grade. I had huge hair (it was a large, frizzy halo I couldn't control), and in between swings at the ball, I'd furiously tuck it behind my ears. I noticed some boys behind my opponent making exaggerated versions of my motions while laughing and pointing at me.
I lost my unabashed love for tetherball that day, the only playground game I was really good at. That was also the moment I became incredibly aware of my ears; to this day, I still think they're too big, and almost always try to hide them with my hair. That day was when I also began thinking many other parts of my body might be too big, too small or too different: my prominent nose; my skin that never tanned, even in Southern California; my big front teeth, which once inspired someone to call me a bunny rabbit. Many of my friends had the appearance of stereotypical "California girls," with straight hair and skin that would neither burn nor freckle. I, however, was awkward, especially once I got glasses and braces, and started trying to straighten my hair (I never did get it quite right). The only way I thought I could measure up to their beauty was through my clothing — it was the one thing about my appearance I felt I could control.
I carried this idea that the way I dressed could bring me closer to the people I craved acceptance from into my late teens and early 20s. I developed an eating disorder and body dysmorphia in the last year of high school and I often didn't recognize myself when I looked in the mirror. I'd gained nearly 30 pounds on medication due to a misdiagnosis, and that, coupled with the regular pressures of high school and thinking I didn't measure up to my friends, sent me spinning. These feelings caused panic attacks and depression, and I began to isolate myself from my friends, often canceling plans or abstaining from making them in the first place. Then, my situation changed. I got a job, and with it, an influx of cash. I got a bank account, and I also decided to get a credit card to start building my credit. I told myself I was planning for the future — and in part, I was. But I was also setting myself up to fail. I just didn't know it yet.
The problem with shopping in stores when you have body dysmorphia is that all of them are different. You're already primed to see yourself in a distorted way, so when the angle of every mirror is just a few degrees off and the heat and lighting of each changing room varies, one's self-perception can change every moment. That's why many of us who suffer from the disorder prefer to shop online; we can order things straight to our home and try them on in the comfort of our own reliable bedrooms. While we still don't see ourselves quite as we actually are, we feel we can trust our own mirror more than any other because it's the one we use the most often. The familiar reflections we come to know in our own mirrors become the standard against which we judge any reflections in other foreign mirrors.
When I first discovered online shopping, it quickly became an almost ritualistic experience for me. I'd settle into bed, flip on the TV and pore over the internet, deciding on a budget for the haul and what I wanted to treat myself to. I'd spend hours adding and removing things from my cart, and if there was anything I absolutely had to have, I'd order it in multiple sizes to make sure one of them fit. I'd obsessively track my packages, rush home on the special day the tracking info said "Delivered," tear the box or bag open and immediately try everything on in front of my trusty mirror. I'd stare at myself from all angles, hoping I'd like the clothes as much on myself as I did on the model who had convinced me to buy them in the first place.
I shopped online for about a year, probably once or twice a month. Even though I'd convinced myself that this practice was a form of self-care, I was supremely unhappy during this time period. I started to realize, though, that my theory about buying clothing as a means of improving my self-esteem was baseless. Nothing I was buying made me feel any more confident. Then I got a call that my dad was sick, and I decided to move back home to California from Portland, Oregon. As I packed my things, I realized that I didn't recognize most of the clothes I was putting into boxes. I hadn't worn them since they'd come into my closet, and they hadn't made me happier. What I did realize, however, was that, somehow, my body image had been slowly getting better over time.
All of that online shopping and time spent trying on clothes at home had had a strangely positive effect. I'd been spending a lot more time looking at my body in the mirror — and while the purpose of this time had been to try on clothes, I'd been unclothed for the majority of it. I used to cringe every time I looked at myself naked or in my underwear; but now, I didn't think twice about it. In fact, I'd replaced those negative feelings about my body with the excitement that comes with trying on a new outfit you've been eagerly anticipating. Lately, whenever I'd looked at myself in the mirror in my underwear, it was because I was hoping to find something that would make me feel better about myself — I'd created a new, more positive association with the experience. I could experience the thought of my semi-nude body as something hopeful.
Over time, I decided to stop online shopping, and I made new rules. I could add things to my cart, but I wouldn't log in to the websites to actually go through with the purchases. It's my own version of window shopping, and it's something I still do when I'm feeling anxious. I also started to spend more time staring at myself naked or nearly naked in the mirror, even when I hadn't received a new package of clothing to try on in the mail. While it took some getting used to, it helped — I started to like what I saw. Over time, it's helped to calm my persistent worry about how others perceive me.
For a while, I felt ashamed when talking about my online shopping addiction — as well as how I got over it. The idea that staring at myself made me like what I saw seemed too vain a thing to admit. But the truth is, it did work. Looking back now, I think my shopping addiction began because I was convinced that there was a magic piece of clothing out there somewhere that would make me like myself. It sounds crazy, but I know that it's what I was looking for — the one outfit or garment that would make me confident enough to feel worthy of my place in the world. I wanted to feel funny and beautiful, and like I had as much of a right to be at the party as anyone else, But the thing is, that outfit doesn't exist. Not really. There are some pieces that can make us feel confident and strong, sure, but if we don't already have some of that within us while we're naked, putting on a piece of clothing isn't going to accomplish it for us either.
We're so often told to make ourselves smaller, to change our appearances to fit specific standards, to wear certain things or talk a certain way, and it causes so many problems. If vanity is the answer, so be it — but I don't think vanity is the right word. Loving ourselves is a thing we have to fight for every damn day, and it took me 25 years to get to get there. So that's fine if someone wants to call it vanity — but I'll choose to call it victory.