Body Dysmorphia and Pregnancy

(Disclaimer: I wrote this in 2020, when I was about 8 months pregnant with my daughter.)

I don’t talk much about my diagnosed body dysmorphic disorder.

It feels vain and vapid to do so. I also feel like people won’t believe me, partly because I’ve been casually dismissed in the past when I did try to open up about it and partly because there is a rational part of me that does not believe what my disorder is always trying to tell me.

But the voice of the disorder is always present. A tape that plays constantly in the background, perking up any time I change in and out of clothes or pass a mirror or see an image of a body that I feel like I should look more like.

I’ve rejected and felt insecure about most aspects of my physical appearance for as long as I can remember. From sitting on my mom’s lap on my first day of preschool, being the only Asian family, taking in everyone else around the circle who looked and sounded nothing like us all the way through to being in front of cameras for some incredible brands to most certainly and perhaps the most confronting of all - pregnancy.

It started as a simple realization that I simply looked different to most others in my day to day life. My jet black hair, flat face, small eyes, dark hair. I didn’t like feeling different. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, evidenced by the class picture every year. I was subjected to the typical racial insults on my features, most notably by children who pulled their eyes into slits to mimic mine. I learned my eyes were not beautiful not only by non-Asian people, but also by my own cousins, some of whom got the double eyelid surgery when they were as young as twelve years old.

My mom does not look full Korean. Her skin has always been an almost translucent, alabaster white. She just doesn’t tan as naturally as I do; I have more of my dad’s skin tone. We turn and stay brown after just a few hours in the sun. Culturally, Korean women value very, very white skin, especially on their face. So my mom would always keep her face covered but she would try to get some color on her body. I remember her slathering copious amounts of baby oil all over herself when we were out at the beach or by a pool. Still, her skin stubbornly stayed fair.

My mom would fantasize that she had European blood in her, somewhere up her ancestral line. She majored in French at university, so she would say, wistfully, that perhaps she was part French. That would explain her large set eyes, that were uncommonly light brown - almost hazel - for a Korean person and her “White person’s nose,” as we’d call it. Her nose is not flat; she actually has a bridge.

I always thought my mom was so beautiful. When she wasn’t in a depressive spell, she took care in her appearance: trendy clothes, fun handbags, hair and makeup ALWAYS done when leaving the house. She was also very slender, very petite. I could see absolutely no physical flaw in her.

People regularly thought she was my older sister.

And yet. What I saw did not match what she communicated about herself. She was hypercritical of herself.

She would complain to me that she was fat. She was always buying the latest anti-aging / anti-wrinkle cream. She would show me her c-section scar and softened tummy skin and say my brother and I did that to her body. I lost track of what her true hair color was because she started regularly dying it as soon as white strands appeared.

She had so much shame.

I never understood it. I simply did not see what she apparently saw. And this disconnect made me unable to trust myself and what I was seeing.

I remember the moment that felt like her body dysmorphia evolved into my own. I was young, perhaps about eight years old. My mom and I were sitting side by side in church. We both had our two feet flat on the floor, our thighs lined up in four parallel lines. I happened to look down. I noticed that my thighs were much larger than her thighs. I swear they were twice as large.

In an instant, I made a judgment that I internalized as a truth that I carry with me to this day: My thighs are too big, I am too big, my body is wrong.

Children look to their parents as a first step in making sense of everything: the world, themselves, other people, everything. After witnessing my mom’s self-hate and self-criticism, and learning that I couldn’t trust what my own eyes were telling me - namely, that she was beautiful - seeing that I was actually bigger than my mom told me that I, too, should hate and criticize myself. I should not feel beautiful. I should understand that I was too big.

Hating and feeling ashamed about my body fit in nicely with already feeling insecure about not being White, all of which was regularly reinforced by what I saw in the media. Things are different today, but back when I was a very impressionable, young girl, I don’t think I ever saw anyone that looked like me. There were no Asian supermodels or leading Asian actors. I couldn’t see myself reflected as beautiful. I concluded, then, that I must not be.

I would dress to hide my flaws. I almost always wore oversized tops that came down to mid-thigh. If I had to wear shorts or a skirt, they were never shorter than just above my knees. I never, ever went swimming with friends. I was ecstatic when I could hop on the “Asian gangsta” look in high school: enormously baggy jeans and oversized windbreakers. My friends still tease me to this day about how much I indulged in that look.

The thing is, I was not really dressing to express my personal style. I was first and foremost always dressing to hide my body’s infinite imperfections.

But when I look back at pictures from my childhood now, I can’t see what I thought I saw then. “How did I ever think I was fat?” I wonder. What I see is a rather scrawny, long-limbed growing girl. I see twiggy arms and legs. I see a tiny, flat stomach. I do see some baby chub on my face and I do see my Asian features, but I now know that baby chub goes aways and I’ve grown to appreciate my Asianness.

This is a repeating cycle for me: looking back at old photos and feeling absolutely confounded that I hated my appearance so much at that time. But here’s how the persistence of the disorder asserts itself. After I, correctly, think, “How could I possibly think I was fat back then?” I immediately, incorrectly think, “But NOW - NOW I am ACTUALLY fat. NOW I am right in hating my body.”

A year will pass and I’ll have this same conversation with myself while looking back at old photos.

During my first job out of college, I did gain weight. My roommates and I had gotten into a fun but unhealthy habit of drinking hard lemonades and ordering takeout most nights. We were trying to figure out the whole being an adult thing. We didn’t have as much time to be as active like we had been in school, we didn’t yet know how to cook for ourselves, and we had our own money to spend. I wasn’t exercising as much as I had been, opting to come home and collapse on the couch in front of the tv.

One day sitting at my cubicle, I had to unbutton my size 4 Banana Republic trousers. I realize this is not a large size and for reference, I very likely would have fit into a size 6, but I was uncomfortable and unhappy that my clothes were no longer fitting me and my dysmorphia told me that my body was unacceptable.

I got back into an exercise routine that included yoga, Pilates, and the elliptical machine. I became obsessed with yoga, primarily because I absolutely loved my yoga teacher, Ally. In a few short months, a lot converged: I realized how much I hated my job in Finance, I started hearing Ally’s teachings not just about the physical poses but about the self-acceptance and self-love that could be reached through yoga, I lost the extra weight and then some, and I - as cheesy as this may sound - found joy on my mat.

With Ally’s mentoring and support, I became a full-time, full-fledged yoga teacher myself. I was incredibly fortunate to have her as my teacher, along with a few other key teachers, who made it very clear that yoga was not about the physical postures. I never valued the physical aspect of the practice over the internal. As much as my body may have been changing, my mind and outlook were changing so much more.

At least this was what was in my conscious mind.

In my unconscious mind, my self-criticism took on a stealthier identity.

I had learned the outward language of self-acceptance. I knew what was true and I knew how to teach it to others. But there was still a disconnect when it came to myself. Every day as I changed into my yoga clothes to go and teach, I made sure to dress to hide my flaws. I would never wear a fitted top and leggings. In fact, I never wore leggings. I wore Lululemon’s baggiest pant styles - boot-legged or wide-legged. I opted for looser T-shirts. I worried students would judge me for not looking the part, for not being skinny or toned enough to teach yoga. But my love of the practice and my desire to teach thankfully enabled me to push through these worries and show up.

When Nike reached out and wanted to fly me from Hong Kong, where I was living at the time, to their Global Headquarters in Portland to potentially sign me as the face of their upcoming yoga program, I was obviously excited and hopeful that I would get the job. But I was deeply worried that they would take one look at my body and say No.

I reasoned that they must have seen my little yoga website where I had dozens of photos of myself so they must know and accept what I look like. But then I reminded myself that I always dressed to hide my flaws, so, maybe when they saw me in the flesh, they would see that my body was all wrong.

Upon arriving, I had meeting after meeting with various executives. Everyone seemed to be excited and to think I was the right yogi for the job.

Then they showed me the clothes I’d be modeling in the videos I’d start filming the next day. The key outfit? A onesie. A very, very short onesie. A very, very short onesie that the stylist insisted on taping higher up my legs to be even shorter.

I was mortified.

Standing in front of a group of ladies whom I tried on the outfits for, I meekly said, “I know my cellulite must be showing…”

They answered, “What are you talking about? There is no cellulite there!”

I didn’t believe them.

I told myself that they were thinking that they could just photoshop out my imperfections.

I said the same thing to the stylists on set. I continued to say variances of the same thing at basically all my shoots over the next decade.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t take the next size up? This sports bra pinches my back fat.”

“Can you make sure not to tailor the waist in too much? Otherwise it’ll show my belly fat.”

“Can you please tell me how my arm looks in this position? I don’t want to squish all my arm fat forward.”

Every single time, the response was something like, "Don't be ridiculous, you look amazing!"

Every single time, I didn’t believe them. They’re just being polite. They’re wondering who the hell hired me in the first place. They won’t use the content being shot right now.

My fears were ultimately unfounded. The content would come out and look pretty great. I would be more relieved than happy or proud. Relieved that I didn’t look fat. Relieved they must have massively photoshopped me.

Having body dysmorphia is like taking a selfie and looking for that perfect, flattering angle and filter, but instead of doing this just for the selfie, you live your life in this mindset 24/7.

Although I didn’t notice at the time, based on photos and the clothes I was wearing, I was probably at my thinnest when I got pregnant the first time. I was constantly traveling and working. I was on a perpetual diet because I was often in front of the camera or very large groups. Of course I would never have called it a diet even to myself; I simply ate clean and conscientiously.

I was terrified of my body changing through pregnancy. I focused on how quickly I would bounce back after the birth. I envisioned being one of those enviable new moms who would effortlessly get her body back.

Through the pregnancy, I never proudly displayed my bump. In fact, I tried to hide it. I actually felt embarrassed to show up in my classes week after week, getting larger. I wore baggy T-shirts and hoodies. I did not want to look pregnant. I wanted to hear that I didn’t look pregnant.

I resented my pregnant body.

And then, I met my postpartum body.

As much as I rejected my pregnant body, I had no idea how much I would hate my postpartum body. This was particularly true because I ended up needing an emergency c-section which resulted in lopsided, uneven scar that clearly very hurriedly had stitched me closed. For months, I would burst into tears when seeing my scar. It would take years before I could see it as the mark of the warrior mama I now know that I am.

Beyond the scar, though, I built and became completely attached to the narrative that pregnancy and childbirth had ruined my body. I felt the preemptive need to explain to anyone I met for the first time that I’d recently had a baby, in case they were wondering why my body was so hideous, especially if they knew that I was a yoga teacher. I never believed anyone’s obligatory response of shock, “YOU’ve just had a BABY? I would never have known!”

I regularly complained to friends and fellow moms of those last dreaded 10 pregnancy pounds. I actually never weighed myself so I don’t even know if I had those last pounds, but, I claimed them anyway.

I caught myself continuing to blame pregnancy for my unsightly body when my son was two years old and realized I could no longer do so. No, my flawed body was now my own fault. I was doing something wrong with my eating and my exercise. I went on the Whole 30 “Eating Plan” (read: diet) and abandoned yoga for more intense forms of exercise like spinning, SLT, and reformer Pilates. At the same time, my panic attacks were at an all time high and I often found myself dizzy with low energy.

Fast-forward a year or two, looking back at photos of this time, I find myself once again perplexed. I didn’t look hideous. Those are size 2 pants I’m wearing. NOW, those pants are tight on me, NOW I am ACTUALLY fat.

I am caught in a persistent, exhausting cycle of madness.

I turned 40 at the beginning of this year. I felt determined to move into this decade with less of an obsessive focus on my body and more of a deep appreciation of who I am and my WHY of existence. Something about reaching 40 made me want to stand up straighter, to own the years I have lived, to set claim to at least a little bit of wisdom I’ve gleaned along the way.

This felt especially important when I discovered I was pregnant a couple weeks after my birthday and even more so once I found out I am carrying a girl.

I was stepping into this pregnancy and this next chapter of motherhood with much more awareness. This time around, I know that my pregnant body is very temporary. I know that I actually was able to “bounce back” after having my son, despite what my body dysmorphia tried to tell me. I know now that I have body dysmorphic disorder and that this is something I’ll likely have to manage for my whole life.

I still am not one of those pregnant women who relish in their life-bearing bodies. I marvel at my friends who proudly post photos of their growing bumps. One friend told me how delighted she was to feel her baby stretching into their insides, how she misses that feeling. I responded, “You mean that feeling when it feels like the baby is taking a kickboxing class inside your belly?” I accept that I feel how I feel.

What I have worked hard to keep at bay is that critical voice. I have not indulged in hateful thoughts over my growing body. I accept the weight gain, swelling, and cellulite. I know it is temporary. Beyond that, I know it’s my body doing its best to grow and safeguard the new human life inside. I took a deep breath the first time I got into my maternity swimsuit so I could enjoy family swim time. I didn’t dwell on what others might be thinking of me. I even dared to think that I might look beautiful.

I had a surprising thought about a month ago: I found myself wondering if I should maybe be bigger than I was. I’ve never wanted to be bigger in my life in any context, but I had been thinking about how the baby was growing and hoping she was growing well. I think the surprise I was registering was the absence of hating my body, of even being open to the thought of being bigger possibly being a good thing. I was surprised that as I looked at my belly, I didn’t see something grotesque, shameful, wrong, or too big. I was perhaps seeing my belly and myself as it actually is: perfect and just the right size.

There is something about knowing I am about to become a mother to a daughter that keeps me tethered to choosing self-love and self-acceptance in a way that feels different to having been a mother to my son. There is an urgency to my own healing. I do not want to pass on to my daughter the disordered thinking and self-rejection that my mother inadvertently passed on to me.

For both my children, I will endeavor to model all that I, as an adult, have had to work so hard to understand, repattern, and relearn. As a mother, I know that what may have once been my own private mental illness no longer only affects me. I know that my self-talk becomes my children’s inner voice. Because our children are always observing us, always making sense of the world and formulating their sense of self through us.

In loving myself, I show my children that they are deserving of love, too. I don't know if there's a more powerful gift a parent can give to their child.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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