We're excited to share 'To Live Freely in this Body', an excerpt from Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju's recently published book Earnestly (Archive Books, 2022). Earnestly is an invitation to observe the self-transformative power of embodied writing, moving towards joy, presence and connection. In this excerpt Ilupeju explores her experience of Body dysmorphia through writing and conversations with a group of women.
In the winter of 2017, I cried, begged, and then forced my mother to take me to a plastic surgeon in Bethesda, Maryland. My preoccupation with my breasts had become so full and unwavering that I couldn’t sleep well, would spend hours in the mirror dissecting my Body, think of ways to harm my breasts so they would have to be removed entirely, constantly compare myself to other women, pinch, spit, and blow on my nipples to make them harder and thus more aesthetically pleasing, have panic attacks leading up to sexual encounters, avoid sex entirely, think of my breast in passing and immediately feel my heart close, compulsively research breast surgery reviews on RealSelf until five o’clock in the morning, spend hours at the gym to lift and tighten my chest, purchase jar after jar of ineffective skin-firming creams, have dreams of myself prancing around with the breasts I had always wanted only to wake up in devastation, and feel guilty for being so consumed by something as shallow and silly as the shape of my breasts. I loved or could tolerate everything about my Body except for this one thing, and so that was where I channeled my anxiety. Shame has the power to transform a person into something they do not recognize.
A few days after my mother reluctantly agreed to take me to the consultation, she and I met with the surgeon. He was nice and professional and had done hundreds of breast lifts before. He commented on how surprised he was to see me in his office. He told me I had a nice, healthy-looking Body, and then a nurse came in and I took off my top and bra. He assessed my breasts for a few minutes, measured them, sighed, and then looked tired suddenly. He told me that my breasts did sag and were a bit asymmetrical and tuberous, but the sag, size, and shape were all within the realm of what was considered normal, healthy, and appealing for a person my age. He also said that I was too young, that there was nothing wrong with me, and that he didn’t recommend the surgery. He told me that breasts vary in appearance, and although we usually only see one type in the media, it’s okay because men don’t care that much. Overlooking his assumption of my sexuality, I was in shock. I hadn’t expected this reaction at all. I asked him what he would do to my breasts anyway, and he told me that if he were to do anything he would perform a lift on both and mild reduction on one. I nodded. Eventually I put my clothes back on and we walked to the waiting room. He shook his head at my mother and told her quickly under his breath, She is fine and too young, perhaps she should see a therapist if she doesn’t have one already.
When we returned home, I wondered if my mother had called him beforehand and convinced him to perform this act of deception. But then I remembered that I hadn’t given her his name or address until we had been in the car on our way to his office. In this moment, regardless of how real or perceived my flaw was, I began to suspect that I had Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and that I needed help. I needed help because I had convinced myself that my Body, the vessel which cradled my spirit, determined my worth and was standing in the way of eternal validation. I needed help because my will to carry on in this Body was dangerously close to nothing at all.
It is now the spring of 2018. In the year following this consultation, I have attended eleven therapy sessions, made many artworks about my relationship to my Body, and researched and written about BDD. Over the last few months, I conducted oral history interviews with four women who have also been struggling with the disorder. In these interviews, we look at BDD intersectionally, as characterized by our age, gender and sexual identities, race, socioeconomic backgrounds, childhoods, and spiritual and secular paths. We talk about plastic surgery, our love lives, our private rituals we perform when no one is watching. Bryce explores the relationship between Body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, and desire, detailing the ways her Body image and understanding of womanhood have evolved throughout her transition. Jheyda talks about the five-year period where she completely avoided mirrors and how photography and self-portraiture have carved out paths towards healing. Romie expresses an appreciation for her Body’s capabilities and the peace she found having long ago resigned herself to the fact that she will never be completely happy with her Body without surgical intervention. Jennie expands on the role therapy has played in mitigating her anxiety, while pointing out the insidiousness of fatphobia in today’s culture.
I interviewed these women because I wanted to feel less alone in my ongoing struggle to feel safe and at home in my Body, and I hope there was something in it for them too. At one point in my life, I was so ashamed of my Body that I had never dreamed of telling anyone. A year later, I am here, sharing my journey with anyone who will listen. That feels tense and good, and I also hope to make people feel less alone in their own struggles through this work.
But it is most important for me to let you know that at the end of this, although I feel better and more secure in who I am, I am not fully over it and I’m not sure I ever will be. But I do think it is important to remember that our paths to self-realization and ways of coping with the darkness of life do not have to look alike in order to be true.
Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju is a Nigerian-American artist and writer based in Berlin and New York. Her transdisciplinary practice confronts the distortions of oppressive structures while offering avenues toward collective and embodied healing. As she works through intimate subject matter, she also interrogates the broader political contexts in which these issues and observations. Ilupeju graduated with distinction from New York University, where she studied studio art and social and cultural analysis. She is also an alumna of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She has done curatorial and editorial work with SAVVY Contemporary and Archive Books, among others. Earnestly (2022, Archive Books) is her debut collection of writing.