On March 5th we at FangirlNation ran a review on a comic By Helen Mullane. The comic, Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen. was a huge triumph for its writer, and dealt a lot with her own personal demons. Helen wrote an essay on Body Dsymorphia and it was asked of us to share in concert with the review. That ultimately got pushed back while all of us were dealing with the pandemic currently griping the world, but the words are important and people should hear them
So, we’re a little late, but no less important.
When I was a kid I used to entirely inhabit the characters I would read about or watch on TV. According to my mum this started when I was as young as 3, and went on for many years. The example most often talked about among the family, on those days when old tales and reminiscences spill into night, is She-Ra. I was utterly obsessed with her and the other inhabitants of Etheria (even the ostensibly evil Catra who to me was the coolest character in the entire show) and went through periods when She-Ra was the only name I’d answer to. It’s how I’d introduce myself to other families at the park or to cashiers at the supermarket. See also: Kylie, Madonna and half of the eighties cartoon pantheon.
Until I reached about 9 years old, there was no limit on what I believed myself to be. I wore what I wanted, compared myself to the best of the best, and felt entirely comfortable in my own skin. But at a certain point I became painfully aware that I was chubby. it’s hard to say exactly when, because this realisation, once it occurred, became so deeply hard-wired into my mind that to not have this understanding – I. Am. Chubby. became (and unfortunately remains) inconceivable to me.
I write this as a 36 year old woman. In the years between my She-Ra channelling childhood and eventual self-acceptance as an adult lie many years of pain and shame as my awareness of my physical shortcomings grew more and more acute and my perception of the importance of my looks spiralled sickeningly upwards. During my teens I developed anorexia and would not eat for days at a time. Stimulants and coffee and cigarettes sustained me as I enjoyed the act of getting thinner without ever managing to feel thin.
I was lucky to escape that physical cycle that tragically proves fatal for many young people, but have never been able to shake the body dysmorphia at its core. For many years I was haunted by the sneaking suspicion that anorexic me might actually be the best version of me. I was so disciplined then, I would muse, so strong. Now I’m greedy and weak. This is a phantom that haunts many an ex anorexic, trying to draw them back to old habits and provide a new aspect of the self to loathe.
It’s quite surreal knowing that what you when you look at your reflection what you see and what other people see is generally wildly different. At a certain point in my early twenties I found a strange solace in life modelling. Standing naked in front of artists and art classes was terrifying, but it allowed me these precious glimpses into an alien perspective, a rare gift! I couldn’t project my self loathing onto a drawing or painting the way I could onto a reflection or photo, and was always shocked by what I saw when I looked at the portraits and studies of my body. I still have some of those paintings, a welcome reminder during dark times that my opinion on these matters might be just plain wrong.
Body dysmorphia can be a very isolating disorder even though it affects so many people. Girls especially are trained from a young age not to be vain, while simultaneously being shown at every possible turn that beauty is the number one best and most valuable quality any woman can possess. Numerous strands of social conditioning and cultural assumptions lead to BDD often being left untreated in all but the most serious cases, and this is a real problem. Treatment for BDD is under-researched and underfunded, but there is support available. Those in the UK can check out https://bddfoundation.org/helping-you/getting-help-in-the-uk/ to find out more about support groups and treatment.
For many this will be a lifelong struggle but happily it’s increasingly one that we don’t need to go through alone. Discourse online is moving ever forward and increasingly openness about mental health and each person’s individual struggle is becoming normalised. I have resigned myself to likely never liking what I see in the mirror. However that doesn’t mean I have never again managed to tap into that part of myself that simply is She-Ra. Finding healthier coping mechanisms and most importantly a creative outlet have allowed me to move forward and take control of some of my more obsessive behaviors.
I feel strongly that every time someone shares their story there’s a new opportunity for someone else who’s struggling to identify with their experience. Sure, they’re not going to be miraculously cured, but perhaps they’ll be able to view themselves through that more compassionate lens they afford to everyone else, even if only for a moment.
So this one’s for all my fellow She-Ras (there’s a new generation of those now, which fills me with joy), Supergirls and Buttercups. Maybe you’re just as awesome as kid-you thought you were.
Helen Mullane lives in northern Sweden, where she divides her time between writing comics and training and racing alaskan huskies. In her upcoming graphic novel NICNEVIN AND THE BLOODY QUEEN, a modern teen becomes an unwitting pawn in a madman’s magical struggle for power. “In Nicnevin Oswald I wanted to explore a teenager whose attitudes and desires felt more familiar, more similar to my own than what I tend to read in most comic books. My friends and I were much more interested in causing trouble and our personal dramas than saving the day”