Body Dysmorphic in Hollywood: An Unexpected Path to Recovery

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What is body dysmorphic disorder? Known more commonly as body dysmorphia or BDD. Wikipedia states that it is a type of illness wherein the affected person is concerned with body image manifested as excessive concern about and preoccupation with a perceived defect of their physical features. The person thinks they have a defect in either one feature or several features of their body, which causes psychological distress or impairs occupational or social functioning. Often BDD co-occurs with depression and anxiety, social withdrawal or social isolation.

The causes of body dysmorphic disorder are different for each person, usually a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Certain types of psychological trauma stemming from mental and physical abuse, or emotional neglect, can contribute to a person developing BDD. Although a rarity as 1-2% of the world’s population meets the criteria of this disorder, which often rears it’s ugly head during young adulthood. There is no cure for BDD but with psychotherapy and or psychological medication this affliction is treatable. Those afflicted can go on to live fulfilling lives.

I have body dysmorphia. Due to a combination of biological, mental and physical abuse that I endured, this mental disorder has invaded my brain and for a time my spirit. I can remember as a pre-teen and a young teenager being happy with the way I looked. I was much more concerned with books, museums, music, my friends and the game Magic the Gathering than I was with boys or models in the magazines. So how did a confident sweet girl succumb to the throes of BDD?

It was my sophomore year of high school when a good looking guy my girlfriend tried to set me up with told her that ‘Although your friend Dani is totally cool I could never date someone like her. She is not hot nor pretty enough for me to go out with. I could not believe my ears. I was so disgusted and infuriated that I immediately dismissed that jerk. I had every intension to continue to do so until I saw that narcissist later in the hallway with his arms draped across a gorgeous tan and blonde leggy cheerleader. In that moment I saw what I was lacking. I was a skinny, pale, black haired nerd with glasses and this cheerleader was a supermodel.

This event served as a catalyst for a series of physical, sexual and mentally abusive relationships that I endured throughout my teens and early twenties. My BDD in full throttle, I found these abusive boys that would facilitate my internal hatred for myself physically and mentally. With statements regarding that I was too pale, that they needed to wear sunglasses around me, I had an unattractive body with cankles, and I was too beefy to go to bed with, I was too far gone into my own self loathing and body dysmorphia that as a victim I couldn’t discern the reality of the situation.

I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to pursue my dreams. It was there that my budding body dysmorphia thrived. Unaware that I had issues with abuse, including BDD, I marched myself into a very prestigious Hollywood agency. Having submitted a photo prior to our meeting I was excited for this opportunity to meet with a well known Agent. As I walked to the head Agent’s office I was stopped short at the opening of his door. Behind his desk he stood up. You’re Dani? Whoa…you look nothing like your picture. You need to lighten your hair, drop 30 pounds and for God’s sakes get a tan. My mouth dropped. I was frozen in place. Like every horror story you hear about or see in the movies, this agent proceeded to tell me to get the f*ck out of his office!!! Flabbergasted I returned to my apartment where in my torment I ate my weight in chocolate. I went into a deep depression where the only solution to me was to lose about 10 lbs. I wanted to feel better about myself and I was extremely tired of jerks like this keeping me from my dream. My plan backfired…miserably.

Even though I had an unhealthy perception of myself I wanted to ensure that I lost the weight in a healthy manner. I did so by hiring a personal trainer and a nutritionalist. I lost the ten pounds, achieved my goal and I relished in it. Soon after I started getting very sick to the point of where I was being hospitalized. I could not keep an ounce of food down and my weight plummeted. Desperate, I went to a holistic doctor where I was diagnosed with the now familiar Celiac’s Disease. At that time since Celiac’s was an unknown condition. I did not have as much information on stabilizing my body as I do now. Altogether I had lost close to 30 pounds.

My brain had not caught up with my body. When I would look in the mirror the image I beheld was that of the chubby awkward Dani rather than the svelt model-esque Dani. Others took notice of my shrinking frame, enabling the danger in it further. Instantaneously I was being pursued by modeling agencies and casting directors where I was booking consistently. It was there in the pressures of the modeling and acting world that my obsession for diets and quick fixes grew.

On the set of my first network pilot the unhealthy competition, hazardous eating habits between my female co-stars and myself, mixed with rigorous work outs/dance routines and my newly discovered celiac’s disease contributed to my diminishing weight. Alarming my friends and the professionals surrounding me. Although I was shrinking, I still could not see the difference from the 30 pounds prior.

For years I tortured myself mentally and physically with crash diets and unrealistic expectations. There would be days where I would literally see an extremely overweight woman and or a pudgy nerd in the mirror. It was debilitating to the point of where I would have panic attacks before auditions. There were several times where I would refuse to leave my home. I was aware of my growing obsession, I just had no idea as to how to go about fixing it.

It was in a routine therapy session where I found my answers. My therapist turned me on to a new study of body dysmorphic disorder and provided me with the research and the tools to go about living a healthy lifestyle. I was now aware of my disorder and where it stemmed from but I was not prepared to fix it. My redemption and my path to recovery found me at a very unexpected point in my life.

I was honored to be a member of the panel ‘All Shapes & Sizes’ for San Diego Comic-Con 2013‘. This no holds barred honest look at the negative body images perceived in Hollywood was met with much praise. I could not have been more proud to be amongst these strong, beautiful and outspoken women. It was there that I spoke out about BDD. To my surprise there were several male and female audience members that had experienced the same affliction as I had. I left that panel feeling electrified. The following day at our group autograph signing at the Geek Scape booth my world was literally rocked. A sweet and beautiful young girl in her late teens or early twenties approached me for an autograph. She stated that she was there specifically to see me. She too was struggling with body dysmorphia and was on the road to recovery with the help of her therapist. She said she admired me for my strength and courage to speak out about the issue and that seeing me recover only inspired her more to heal. My world came tumbling down. At that moment I knew I was a fraud. How dare I speak up about recovering from body dysmorphia when I wasn’t ready to overcome my obstacle! How in the world was I going to be a role model for those suffering from BDD if I’m not ready to help myself? The equivalent of that would be a spokesperson for anti drugs doing drugs themselves! My mind was blown. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I needed to change. I wanted to be not only a voice for that sweet girl in front of me but for everyone who has Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Armed with this revelation more and more epiphanies surfaced in my brain. These epiphanies did not just include BDD related issues but they emphasized specific tools and fitted me with armor to fight this lifelong battle. Starting from the beginning, I forgave myself for the poor decisions I made regarding the abusive men…excuse me, boys that I let into my life who were there to hurt me. I settled for them rather than them settling for me as I had once told myself. These incredibly insecure boys had their own self loathing in which they felt threatened by me. I was intelligent, ambitious, talented and gifted. I challenged them to better themselves and achieve their goals. Feeling inferior to me they tore me down in the only way they could…my looks.

I’m not just on a mission repair myself mentally and spiritually, I want to destroy the hold that Hollywood and the entertainment industry has on the psyche of our youth. As Mothers and as Fathers we must educate our Sons and Daughters to not fall prey to the false allure of what is considered beautiful. Hollywood is 1 percent of the world’s population. If everyone looked like that there would be no Hollywood! It is unattainable!

If I could go back in time I would tell those abusers of mine to watch what they say. I believe men and women are equal but it is still in part a man’s world. Your view upon a young girl is POWERFUL. How would you like it if a guy like yourself told your mother, grandmother, your aunt or your sister that they were too fat or too ugly to date? Think about it! This message doesn’t just pertain to men it also pertain to us ladies. We have to stick together and not be judgmental of one another and tear each other down. Not everyone is meant to be a freaking supermodel! We come in all shapes and sizes and all of these different spectrums are beautiful.

I am a few months into my recovery process but I am gaining ground. I am no longer checking the scale, counting calories and or focusing on the size of my clothes. It REALLY does matter how you feel. For once in my life I can look in the mirror and I can honestly say that there are times more of than not, that I am satisfied with the image staring back at me. I am no longer searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. I am in the light on the broken down path of the yellow brick road. Step by step I’m fixing each and every brick on the path to my Emerald City. This is my chance to go home. In the words of Dorothy Gale ‘There’s no place like home’. Home for me looks a lot like peace.

Dani Lennon

About Dani Lennon

A Chicago Native and a classically trained singer, Dani has performed all over the world and the country in exciting places like Carnegie Hall. Singing transitioned to acting as she took part in stage productions all over Chicago where she worked with many talented actors and Steppenwolf directors. After moving to Los Angeles she has been working consistently in television, soaps, film and new media. One of her most notable projects to date is Lionsgate/Machinima’s successful Series ‘Bite Me’. In addition to acting and singing, Dani’s interests and talents are extended behind the camera as a Screenwriter and a Creative Producer. Having been an athlete most of her life, she enjoys performing her own stunts, firearms, boxing and riding horses. As a self proclaimed adventure junkie, Dani loves the outdoors. Hiker, camper, fisherman and equestrian are the few roles she plays in her everyday life.