Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…Dysmorphia

I was first introduced to this word by hearing about body dysmorphia.  Body dysmorphia is defined as a psychological anxiety disorder in which the affected person is excessively concerned about and preoccupied by a perceived defect in his or her physical features.  This problem is significant in my life for a number of reasons.  For my day job (that little old thing that pays for the apartment and the voice lessons!), I work for a weight loss company, and have been passionately helping people improve their health and confidence for over five years.  Having lost sixty pounds myself over six years ago, I can always relate when clients say, “I still see my old body when I look in the mirror.”  Despite losing weight, they see their body at its heaviest, thus the necessity of a scale giving concrete evidence of weight loss.  This altered perception is very common among those who have lost weight or undergone a dramatic physical change.  But is this affliction limited to the body, or can we have skewed perceptions of other aspects of ourselves?  Is there such a thing as voice dysmorphia?

My Google search for voice dysmorphia proved unsuccessful, but I have decided it is real in its own way and use it in my own lexicon to describe two different issues: 1) hearing my own voice with perceived defects 2) hearing others sing and deciding their sound is absolutely perfect when compared to my own.  Both of these tend to occur in stressful situations such as auditions.  I recently auditioned for a panel that included musicians who had heard me in the past, but not within the past five years.  I became so preoccupied with wanting to demonstrate improvement since the last hearing that I became distracted and imagined having all of the same problems in my technique that were present when I was an undergraduate.  It didn’t matter what came out of my mouth; in my head, my high notes were spread, my vibrato inconsistent, and my middle voice non-existent. This was combined with the other aspect of my self-defined voice dysmorphia, I was convinced the woman singing before me was Jenny Lind, back from the beyond.  Needless to say, I psyched myself out of nailing that audition. I would have moved past the experience without discussing it, but the more I talk to singers, the more they open up about their own dysmorphias.  We all have altered perceptions about one thing or another, and we all know we need to move past it in order to be our truest self in performance and in person.

So, how do we alter the mirror so it is no longer a fun house reflector?  Well, for my weight loss clients, I suggest having something tangible to remind them of reality.  Since my proportions have remained the same despite my dramatic weight loss, I have to put on one of my old dresses to see that I have an improved body.  When I really need the difference to be shocking, I put on the dress from my eighth grade formal and marvel at the fact that I smaller now than I was at age thirteen.  It’s like electro-shock therapy.  How do we hold on to evidence of vocal improvement?  The only way I can get a grip on reality is to listen to my voice lessons and compare them to what I’m hearing in my head. (Just to clarify, it’s not that I’m hearing voices in my head, just the one.) I will probably always hear my high notes as slightly reedy, just as I will always resist the urge to ask, “Does my butt look big in this,” but I will continue to strive to listen to my gut and not my reflection. 

I realize I’m revealing a lot about myself and my quirks here, and I hope you’re not comparing me to Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan, though I now use Black Swan as a way of describing a case of severe perception issues.  (eg. I don’t know how it sounded, but I’m not Black Swanning about it) I was relieved to hear other people feel this way at times, and I am starting to think the desire for a sort of altered perception is what attracts us to the arts in the first place. Of course I like to suspend reality- I’m an opera singer.  I believe people must break out into song to express their feelings!   The important thing to remember is not to get too involved in reflections or we will end up like Narcissus, being undone by them.