All photos contributed by Olivia Zayas Ryan
I’m supposed to meet my friend for drinks in an hour. I already have my outfit on. Today, I chose to challenge myself: I am wearing a black body suit that fits snug against my skin, with a crop top that does nothing to hide the edges I’m afraid of. I look in my full-length mirror and I wonder if people passing by will stare at my curves and skin the way I do, and I try not to convince myself to change. Instead, I start thinking about what makeup look I can turn today.
When I sit down at my desk, instead of a place to do my work, I am met with an array of beauty products. Eyeshadow palettes pile in one corner, a collection of lipsticks and eyeliners clutter a basket that was meant to help me organize, unwashed brushes crowd a small pencil holder. On my desk, there is also a small beauty mirror — the kind with one “normal” side, and one side that magnifies your face by three times. For many years, I have often started my makeup routine in the same way: I sit down, I think about what I want to do that day, and I stare at myself in the unnecessarily zoomed in mirror, endlessly examining what I believe to be my flaws. I pick at the ever present whiteheads on my chin, I examine every pore on my nose, I play with the baby hairs that line my face, I pluck every stray eyebrow hair, I fantasize about getting a nose job and the next time I’m able to get my upper lip waxed. Time seems to stop as I sit there, examining every detail of my appearance, finding new things about myself to criticize.
On the side of my mirror, I catch sight of the newest makeup palette I bought, and suddenly I am lured out of this mirror-induced haze. I take a breath and open the palette. It’s colorful, with a rainbow full of matte shades and a column of chunky glitters. I prime my eyes and reach for the brushes in their pencil holder and dip the fluffiest one into a soft pink shade. I grab another brush and go into the brightest pink I have. I swipe gold glitter across my lids. I look in the mirror, and the skin that I once chastised becomes a canvas. I become art. I add more bright eyeshadows, I listen to music that makes me feel grounded, and I am lost as I put color on my skin that finally matches what I see for myself. In adding thick eyeliner and highlight, my skin feels my own, and I look in the mirror and I can truly see myself.
I have struggled with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) for as long as I can remember.
BDD is a mental health condition on the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) spectrum in which a person experiences obsessive thoughts about their own appearance and perceived physical flaws that cause severe emotional distress and/or impacts their daily life. BDD symptoms show up differently for everyone. For some people, BDD looks like seeking cosmetic surgery to fix a perceived flaw, for others, it looks like an obsession with a physical trait that causes so much anxiety that they avoid social interactions. For me, it has shown up as an eating disorder and obsessive skin picking that have interfered with my life for the last decade.
When I was nine years old, before I even knew my body well enough to hate it, I started developing disordered eating habits, which grew into a full blown eating disorder by the time I was 12. A few years later, I developed a skin picking disorder called dermatillomania that feels as integral to my identity as the color of my eyes. Dots of faded brown and red line my arms, my stomach, and my chest. Every inch of my body is scarred in some way. My skin picking knows no boundaries. I’ll spend important meetings for work picking at my arms, pick at my chest when I’m on dates, pick at my stomach while I’m just watching TV.
BDD also looks like having a very poor understanding of what I actually look like. This has gotten significantly worse since the start of staying home due to the pandemic. In addition to having more time to look in the mirror, through FaceTimes, Zoom calls, and even telehealth visits with my therapist, I am forced to look at myself in a tiny box in the corner of my screen constantly. Through seeing myself constantly, my perceived flaws become greater, and it has become harder to know what I look like. When I look in the mirror, I cannot discern if the flaws I am seeing are real, or if I created them. I am unable to accept them as a part of what I look like — instead, I obsess over them, and fantasize or plan out ways to change them.
My BDD doesn’t just impact how I see myself. It impacts how I see others, too. During the pandemic, we have lost the ability to see people exist as their whole selves in person, and instead, we see curated images of people on social media. The images of other people’s bodies are posed, edited, and specifically chosen. They are not candid. I know that the perception I have of my body is vastly different from what others see, and I struggle every day to find the reality of my body. When I try to understand what my body looks like in the context of other people, I am comparing myself to images that are color corrected and blurred and tweaked to allow the user to post themselves in a way that they like. Of course this comparison is going to leave me feeling even farther from the beauty standards I hold myself to. And on top of that, the pandemic has caused an increase in triggering weightloss memes and content. As I compare the body I see in the mirror to those that I see on a screen, I find more traits I hate about myself.
I was always fascinated by makeup, and began experimenting with it when I was elementary school, sneaking soft pink shimmer onto my eyes before I left for school. When I was in middle school, I was gifted my first “real” eyeshadow palette and played with different color combinations and styles I had seen on Tumblr. Once the era of beauty influencers and YouTubers began, I immersed myself in the online beauty community, spending hours watching videos and tutorials. I used what I learned and began buying more products, trying out new things, and spending even more time looking in mirrors. Slowly, makeup evolved for me from a fun pastime that I was good at, to a place of art and expression.
Often, use of makeup, especially as a way to cover up perceived flaws, is seen as a symptom of BDD. But for me, using makeup is not a way to hide what I look like. Instead, it’s a way for me to be seen. In the process of creating makeup looks, I am spending time with my face and my body in a way that used to make me uncomfortable, and in turn, I am celebrating the parts of my face that I once saw as flaws. I get to look within myself and express how I feel or what I’m thinking through the colors and textures I apply to my skin, transforming my skin from something I resent to something I am grateful for. For me, makeup is an integral part of my healing process — a way for me to express and see myself more clearly — not a symptom.
The makeup I wear also forces me to be seen. I often feel that everyone else in the world must share my perception of my body and thus see the same flaws I do, which has made me want to blend in with others in the past in order to avoid that scrutiny from others. But when I walk down the street with two-toned eye makeup and beaming highlight, my presence is known, and I know that people can see me. In this way, my use of makeup and its impact on how I view my body is also tied to my queerness.
My experimentation with colorful and over-the-top makeup began around the same time that I started living into my queer identity more. Before then, I was using makeup to conform to beauty standards, to make myself “prettier,” to become smaller and more attractive. Now, I use makeup as a way to explore and honor what queerness looks like for me. I play with the colors that I feel, I try out new ways to be femme, I look to drag and other aspects of queer culture for inspiration. When I look in the mirror now, the person I see is closer to who I imagine myself to be, and I attribute that as much to my makeup as I do to my queer aesthetic and identity.
The pandemic has taken away the outlets for queer visibility that I am used to, such as going to clubs or attending events with my community. As a femme queer person, I often try to signal and connect to my queerness through makeup, and it brings me joy (as much as it does discomfort) to be seen and read as queer. Now, I grasp at visibility through Instagram and social media, which means taking endless photos of myself. The only way I can see and feel seen is through social media — but the comparisons that brings can often make my dymorphia worse. I see beautiful photos of people every time I scroll through my phone, I follow makeup artists and other people I look up to, and I strive to make my photos match the caliber of theirs.
When my girlfriends or friends take photos of me, they know the drill: take 500, and I’ll like 5. I take these photos to feel seen, but more often than not when I see them I feel disgusted. I focus on the way my lips aren’t symmetrical, the way my skin looks covered in dots and lines, and the way extra skin gathers at the top of my underarms. When I feel this way though, I try once again to view what I’m seeing as a painting or an art piece — not an indication of my worth. I try to look at how I look as a celebration. I try to celebrate my art.