Healing community and learning to love well

Written by Katie Pezzutto

For as long as I can remember, I have felt uncomfortable in my body. I was reminded of this recently as I rummaged through an old box of photos and drawings from my childhood. I found a picture of a cheerleader I had drawn. 

Her pompoms posed and ready. Although yellowing and chipped, her smile was wide; she did not acknowledge the disfigurements that wracked her young body. Beneath a bulbous nose, severe acne speckled her jaw. Dark circles nearly swallowed her squinting eyes. Rolls of flab jutted over the hem of her skirt and spilled towards tree trunk-sized legs, clubbed feet, and curled toes. 

This masterpiece served as a ten-year-old’s manifesto about her unspoken reality. It was not a silly cartoon but a drawing that visually expressed dissatisfaction with my appearance before I could articulate it with words. 

Unfortunately, the problem was never recognized or addressed and it got worse. 

The misery culminated in 2020 when my husband Alex and I moved across Canada to our new home in Halifax. Exhausted, we had been travelling for seven days, praying we would make it through each Covid-19 checkpoint. Finally, hoping for some rest, we stopped at Trois-Rivières–a small French settlement–for the night. 

At that point, my mind was a mess. I was emotionally, physically, and spiritually burnt out from friendships and church experiences where I found myself constantly giving, performing, and rarely being truly seen or understood. The life I had left behind was far from gone, the remnants gripped my mind like boney fingers. Alex went to get some food, and rather than journal or sit with my emotions, I did what I had taught myself to do for many years. I sought comfort in my appearance. Even though everything was falling apart inside, I wanted to feel presentable on the outside. 

I had gained about twenty to thirty pounds since the start of that year. In my mind, I had morphed into the cheerleader I despised so much as a child. 

Helpless to the onslaught of negative thoughts, I started to cry. Racked with sobs, my body slid hopelessly to the carpet. Half an hour later, Alex returned with sushi and set it on the nightstand, unsure what to do. 

Later that year, I decided to talk to a therapist. I’ve received some ineffective counselling before and was not expecting much, but this time was different. The therapist was caring and wise. And she believed in the Spirit’s healing power.

I realized I had a classic case of body dysmorphia, as classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). The DSM 5 defines body dysmorphia symptoms as “distress or impairment in social, occupational, or academic areas of functioning among others, due to intrusive thoughts regarding an imagined flaw(s) in their appearance.”

While researching current statistics for this article, I discovered afresh that I am far from alone in the struggle. As of May 2022, body dysmorphia affects between 1.7 and 2.4 percent of the population, or 1 in every 50 people in America. The Recovery Village estimates that in the United States alone, “it’s believed that between 5 million and 7.5 million individuals have body dysmorphic disorder.” 

Despite its prevalence, body dysmorphia is a hidden epidemic. Sufferers are often left alone to deal with their pain, which worsens the struggle significantly. It is not a physical injury everyone can see and understand; it is a silent, solitary hell. 

Having a body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is challenging, and in some cases, stepping away from toxic church-related beliefs is an important first step in healing. When I first approached my healing journey, I came to it with the assumption that my faith was weak, I was not reading the Bible enough, or I had done something wrong to merit my disastrous mental state. 

This is bad theology and does not consider the complexity of human beings. I learned there is ample room in the life of a Christian for the wisdom of therapists, personality typing, and the advice of learned authors and doctors. Each of these resources has been incredibly healing not only for my thoughts but my physical body as well.

These elements have aided significantly in my ongoing recovery from BDD. They have taught me how we, as Christians, should approach body image disorders and dysfunctional thoughts. 

One of the crucial things I learned was how to build a mental, emotional, and spiritual support system offline. We cannot not rely on social platforms to validate us. The competitive and comparative nature of this form of media is terrible for anyone and everyone, especially those of us with little self-esteem. 

We all know many picture-perfect photos are fake. Still, some of it might be real, thus making the problem even more challenging because our brains are stuck trying to compute the truth and the lie. The constant energy that goes into this is exhausting, misleading, and ultimately unhelpful. 

To recognize our worth in God, we must establish grounding and sustaining offline practices.

This can be accomplished by daily morning and evening Bible reading routines. I highly recommend Daily Celtic Prayer by the Northumbria Community if you are interested in starting this journey. The book’s verses, poems, and stories are quick and simple but powerful reiterations of Scripture as discovered and tested in faithful community practice. 

I’m also learning the power of substituting negative thoughts with positive ones. We all have negative thoughts about ourselves; that’s normal. It’s the result of being comprised of a cocktail of chemicals and formed by how those chemicals align and react in certain social situations. 

We are complex and human, and those thoughts will come, but we have a choice about what we will do in response to them. Instead of entertaining the malicious ones, grab hold of thoughts that are helpful to your growth. Adopting functional thought patterns to break harmful ones is a tried and true idea.

An excellent introduction to this practice is The Power of Habits. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, it talks about the fact that 40 per cent of your daily choices aren’t actually choices — they’re habits, patterns of thought. And they can be changed.

If you struggle with social media addiction, Hooked by Nir Eyal is another excellent book to help you understand why you might be addicted to your phone and social media and how you can break free from the cycle. Both are easy, quick reads and offer a foundation you can use to start rebuilding the narrative your mind tells you about your body.

Many people struggling with BDD and other negative thought patterns may not want to burden others, so they sequester themselves away. If you recognize that a friend may be struggling in with their body image, it may seem instinctual to tell them they are beautiful just the way they are. This isn’t very helpful. Instead, it’s better to show them this truth. There are a few ways to do this. 

1. Do not apply pressure, please. Phone conversations and even texting can be downright exhausting for those struggling with body image-related dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety–all three are often comorbidities. Rather than expecting your friend to pick up the phone or make a date, just let them know you are there regardless of whether you talk every day or rarely. Eventually, they will see that you will not leave them and start to lean on you. If you care about them, be patient. 

2. Validate their pain. This is not to say you let them settle in it, become content and lose focus of the future they will have. But do not always focus on that future, even though it may be more comfortable for you to do so. Sit with them in the struggle and have empathy when they tell you about challenges that may not make sense to you.

3. Learn. We all innately know that to be known and still loved is true love. Saying you love someone is one thing, but taking the time to learn about them proves your words and validates your care for them. Take time to study the disorder, their Enneagram or their Myers Briggs type. I wish people in my life had done this in the past or now.

Ultimately, disordered thoughts about body image can come in various manifestations. BDD is often misunderstood and, unfortunately, left untreated in Christian circles. It is important to remember that faith is not a magic fix, and healing requires therapy, renewed habit formation, and the desire to understand oneself. Offering help to a friend involves validating their pain, loving them by learning more about them, being patient, and educating ourselves about their disorder. With these strategies, those suffering can start to heal from the effects of disordered thoughts toward their bodies. 

Personal experience with—and without—these three strategies has taught me the value of communal healing. As scary as it can be, other people are necessary in order for deep and sustainable renewal to take place. And if you’re willing, your presence and ability to care for someone who is struggling will help bring wholeness to their lives. It will mean the world to them, trust me.