Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Musings: Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Phoning It In

There are certain issues about which I'm intensely passionate, and one of them is the subtle ways in which our culture not only harms all people, but women and young girls in particular. We live in a society that tells women they are supposed to be physically perfect, to the extent that even celebrities are airbrushed and Photoshopped until they're no longer human. Want an example of what I'm talking about? These animated GIFs tell the tale in a stark and shocking fashion. Watch as Jennifer Lopez, Anne Hathaway, and other celebrities are morphed from people into dolls, all through the wonder of photo editing software.

Unfortunately, like many women, I have a tendency toward Body Dysmorphic Disorder. If you're not aware of what Body Dysmorphic Disorder is, Mayo Clinic has a good summary here. This is a deeply personal issue for me, one that is painful to talk about, and one that informed the way I wrote the character of Melinda. I've struggled with weight most of my life and have had periods when I was extremely thin. But I've never reached that magic place where I accept the way I look and make my peace with it. It's a daily struggle for me, one in which I look at myself in the mirror and find many, many things to criticize. I wish I could say I'm the only woman who feels this way, but I know I'm not. I also know there are men who feel this way, and I by no means want to minimize their experience. But our culture treats men and women in very different fashions. Want a good example? Just take a look at this Google search, which lists links to articles about Rex Reed's offensive slurs against Melissa McCarthy. What about Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars? I could cite more examples, but frankly I'm tired of it. The whole issue can be summarized like this: more emphasis is put on how women look than on what they do.

When I wrote Phoning It In, part of my goal was to tell the story of a character who suffers from body image issues, but not to make the entire book about that. Melinda's feelings about how she looks are just an aspect of her personality. What was more important to me were her feelings about her life, how she felt like a failure because she hadn't accomplished the things she'd wanted to accomplish. Her looks were incidental, and a lot of her issues with her appearance are of her own creation. At one point, her best friend Lou explicitly tells Melinda that she knows Melinda would never treat another person the way she treats herself. To me, that's one of the most important scenes in the book.

One thing I knew I would not do with the story was have Melinda lose weight, with the result of that magically fixing all of her issues in life. Because, the fact of the matter is, when you have a problem like Body Dysmorphic Disorder, the answer isn't as easy as shedding some pounds. As Melinda herself notes, her weight has fluctuated throughout her life but, no matter how thin she got, she always sees a fat girl looking back at her in the mirror. Even if I'd made Melinda a size two by the end of the book, it wouldn't have changed how she felt about herself because her real issue is with what's in her head, not with the number on her scale.

Another reason why I chose not to have Melinda lose weight is because her weight doesn't define her. It's not who she is. Her success with her career, with her relationship with her sister, with her luck in romance does not hinge on her jeans size, it hinges on the choices she makes. In order to be successful, she has to focus on finding a meaningful career, on trying to find common ground with her sister, on learning to accept that love is complicated. I strongly feel--and always will feel--that Melinda deserved success because of who she is inside, not because of how she looks. This applies to every person on the planet: none of us should be defined and/or judged solely on our physical appearance. We should all be judged on how we act, on the things we do, on the way we treat others.

To the readers who have written reviews expressing delight with Melinda as a character, I want you to know that your words have touched me. To know that I could connect with you on that level, give you a character with whom you feel you can really identify, is incredibly meaningful to me. I look forward to the day when this isn't a rarity, when people are celebrated for who they are and what they have accomplished rather than the size of their thighs.