From a very young age I always noticed that I was different to my peers at school. In fact from the age of 5 in a small midlands suburb in the UK, I knew I was different. It all started when I attended primary school, for the first time as a young Egyptian immigrant, in a class full of white, middle class sheltered young kids. I entered the class and pronounced my name, B A S S EM, and all I remember were the looks of amusement and bewilderment. That together with my Arabic features, like my dark afro curly hair and contrasting features, chubby cheeks and fuller body made me feel inferior. On top of that my voice was of a higher pitch and unlike the Caucasian tone, I knew this would cause me issues in the coming years. It was that moment I knew I was an oddball when no one gravitated towards me because of the way I looked, but little did I know this would have been the start of my story with body dysmorphia. According to NHS UK Body Dysmorphia is a mental health condition in which a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. These flaws are often unnoticeable to others. People of any age can have BDD, but it’s most common in teenagers and young adults.
I grew up as an only child with a big smile on my face in a whitewashed town. My parents seemed to love suburbia, because they hated the hustle and bustle of the city, on top of that I think they wanted to integrate as badly as guests in the country, that they would then never understand the struggles that I would face as a third culture kid. Whereas had I been raised in more urban areas, me fitting in would have probably been much easier.
My very first experience of my story with body dysmorphia was when I was 5 years old, in PE when we had to wear our gym gear for indoor sports class, I was so shy and embarrassed to take off my clothes, because let’s face it I was fed a lot of Arabic food such as Koshari, Macarona Bechamel and Hawasheh (YUM)! Naturally I was rather big boned and fuller in size than most of the kids at school. All I saw were slim, trim, blue-eyed blonde-haired beauties, and I felt so inadequate and so different in every way. The name calling just was about to start and I knew it was downhill from there. The vulnerability was creeping in and so was the anxiety. “Oi Fatty, you want another cream cake?” became common addressable titles. “Why are you so big and when are you going back to where you came from?”, “Are you ever going to lose weight?” were all questions and comments that were regular slurs to try and grab my attention. Of course, I cried and was left red faced, but what could I do but only detest the skin and shape I was born in. I felt like I couldn’t compete with any of them, as Ken and Barbie were the epitome of perfection back then, but I was just far from that as a curly, big Arabian ball that wanted to make a mark of positivity but was very quickly shunned.
My story with body dysmorphia persisted as the slurs and bullying continued happening when I grew older even though you would think growing up kids would become more mature about it right? Not the case! When I was 17 I was dared by middle classed, young hockey players to lose weight and become ripped and more athletic. This was done all for a bet of £50, awesome right? I took the challenge into my own hands, and used a sense of competitive spirit to prove the haters wrong! I searched online for a quick fix whilst basking at all the “Men’s health” magazines and GQ of course. All I saw was gym bunnies, juiced up men and underwear models, this wouldn’t give me the result I wanted over summer. I scrolled through websites for crash diets until, I eventually was told celery burns more weight eating it then storing it. Eureka, this was my answer to all my problems! Celery and water were going to be my new strategy, and yes that is exactly what I did. I went to the nearest grocery store, cleared out aisle 6 in the veggie section and stuffed my parents’ fridge with the wholesome green stuff. My parents obviously thought I was going cray cray (or magnon as they like to call it), but who cared right I was going to be model Baz! I wanted to be a skeletal work of art, with hardly any body fat, that I would blend into the background, and maybe even have a come up as a catwalk model to flaunt it. David Gandy, Brian Shimansky, watch out! I was going to make a legendary come back, and all these haters would witness it bitterly. Worth the hunger for young Bassem for sure! It was from then on that my story with body dysmorphia took a downward spiral and I became obsessed with my physical appearance. I mean OBSESSED. It was so toxic that I lost myself multiple times. The mirror was lying but the scales were appeasing. Mirror said blobby, scales said negative 22kg. It was right about that time I was researching Arab celebrities Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Elissa and Tamer Hosni and found out about their weight issues, which they took it one step further and went under the knife multiple times. It was glorious to me how someone can transform themselves by surgery and lose weight, it reminded me of the old saying “Nothing tastes better than being skinny”. Let’s be real though, this sudden weight loss triggered a mild form of anorexia, in fact I wasn’t far off being hospitalized a few times, but I pursued this beauty ideal as toxic as it was. It literally ate me up, I was frail, pale and had lost my shine.
Three months after the bet, I came into school dressed all in black with a fresh haircut, contact lenses and a fancy belt into school on results day. It was like Moses parted the red sea, swarms of kids couldn’t believe their eyes on who it was, “it’s MEEEEE Bassem guys!”. I was on such a high, despite the traumatic process, I was living for my success. I was loving myself, although my body was hating me for abusing it and 3 steps from crumbling. I felt the temporary high was worth it! No one wanted to look at their exam results, but were all focused on this new skinny Arabian dream boat. Writing this 12 years later still feels like it was yesterday because of how much of a momentous occasion it was. Even now I reminisce of the feeling of euphoria of feeling accepted.
It was the age of 14 – 18 when I took a huge fascination and interest in surgery, in fact I wanted to be a plastic surgeon at 15. The aesthetics of beauty was a huge thing for me, the weight loss was only a beginning. It is important to say that my story with body dysmorphia is not just about weight but also appearance and perception. Tampering with myself has become a slippery slope without discussing the details of what I have done. Most people would spend their money on a house, car or new clothes. No not me, It became so addictive that I would save money just to get a new procedure each time, skin peel, new hair line, new nose, lipo why not? I am not confirming I have had these procedures, but many guys nowadays feel pressured to evolve and beautify themselves, to fit a certain commercial and acceptable mould.
The issue I had with identity was that even trying to fit a European streak of beauty I was criticized. I couldn’t do anything right. Even now I battle issues of body dysmorphia where I want to be the ideal, be everyone’s type, but that is physically impossible. I was losing myself gradually, I was erasing my identity, getting rid of my curls, my Arab features, shortening my name, changing my body and even speaking differently, that there was no trace of North African heritage left. I still don’t know what beauty is now, is it ripped muscular? Is it skinny? Or is it toned? I guess the reason I have fluctuated so much in weight is because my goals changed due to who I was influenced by.
Last year I made the decision with great difficulty to see a counsellor and a doctor to help cure me from these demons of narcissistic thoughts. It reminded me of how I should care about self love, and change my perspective on how I view myself. I was fixing the outer shell and not nurturing the heart and soul. That was the error of my ways, and I am still learning to compensate for it. There’s an old Ru Paul saying “if you don’t love yourself how the hell is someone going to love you?!” As much as I have altered myself I don’t regret it, I believe we all have different paths to get to a healthy mindset. Even writing this now on my story with body dysmorphia I am shuddering at how this may be perceived and received, as I was always raised in a conservative and private family where these issues should be kept secret. Bottom line is I learnt that people will love me for being my best self, for my intellect, wit and character. Yes, it’s important to look after your physical appearance, but I’ve learnt the hard way it’s even more important for me to look after my mental health. Despite all the physical adjustments I may have made on myself on the outside, I still suffer from comparing myself to others on a regular basis. It is my journey though, which I believe will lead me to beating my demons sooner rather than later.
by Bassem Labib