When you are walking down the street, especially in your own town or city, it is not uncommon for someone to recognise you and say hello. You probably expect it in certain places or at certain times. You may also be on the lookout for other people that you recognise. But what about if you cannot understand how or why people recognise you?
When you look in the mirror, you are probably faced with a familiar looking face and body. Especially as we get older and have spent more time in our bodies, the person staring back at us should begin to feel like seeing an old friend. No matter how much we may wish the reflection were smaller, more muscular, taller, with a straighter nose, or whiter teeth, we should recognise our reflection and know that it is us and that is what we look like.
Now imagine that every time you look in the mirror, your face looks different, your body looks like it is a different shape, smaller, bigger, different proportions. Your perception of yourself changes from week to week, even day today. You are unable to properly recognise yourself because, in your view, you are always changing, always looking significantly different. This can be the existence of someone suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
Within the safety of our own homes, looking into the same mirrors we’ve been looking into for years, it is normal to notice different features about ourselves. This week we see full lips on our faces and that’s fine, our eyes are a little small and close together, even though last month our eyes were big and buggy.
It is an accepted reality that we always look different in some way, the changes do not necessarily upset or distress us unless it is a perceived large negative change. This is not to downplay the negative mindset often experienced by those with BDD, but a constant state of displeasure or dislike becomes easy to live with and is the status quo. The most obvious source of distress when experiencing BDD, outside of seeing photographs of ourselves taken by others and not in trusted lighting, with failsafe angles, and intense filters, is the spontaneous and unexpected recognition of others.
Whether it be old schoolmates from twenty years ago, or newer friends, both of which you recognise perfectly well from a distance, acknowledgement initiated by them can be unsettling. How do they recognise me? The old school friends shouldn’t because it’s been years since you’ve seen each other and you’ve changed so much since last month, never mind since school.
The new friends shouldn’t recognise you because they haven’t spent enough time around you to learn your face and the way it changes over time. For ages, I couldn’t work out why it felt so disconcerting to be recognised by someone I knew, and it took me a while, but I think I figured it out.
When someone outside of our brains, outside of the people who have close personal relationships with us recognises us with ease, it bursts the complacent BDD bubble. It is a jarring back to reality that our bodies and faces don’t morph and change regularly, that we do look a certain way all the time.
And there is a twinge of fear at the back of our minds because we don’t know what that certain look is. We don’t know what we look like, but this person does, and we will never know what they see, what strangers see. It is extremely depersonalising to be unable to comprehend how we are perceived by others. How do you recognise me when I can’t recognise myself? And how is it fair that you know my face better than I do?