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Beneath the Surface: Menstruation, Body Dysmorphia, and Inner Healing


Artist and writer, Taylor Neal
Guest post: Taylor Neal

Over the years I have learned to love my cyclical nature. 


While I was taught from pubescence that having a period is a hassle, and perhaps the worst part of being a person with a uterus, I have spent many years of my adult life working to develop a loving, compassionate relationship with my menstrual cycle. Most of the time, now, I actually really love feeling connected to my cycle and the many unique, yet unifying, experiences it brings me, both in connection to my own body and those of other people who menstruate around me. 


There is so much beauty in the shared experience of our menstrual cycles, so much union and understanding, and yet each human that bleeds has a deeply personal experience of, and relationship to, their cycle, their bleed, and the embodied experience of moving through the hormonal and physical shifts each time around. 


While I have spent quite a bit of time developing this love and compassion for myself as a cyclical being, learning about my cycle and how best to support my body through it, and integrating practices and intentional time and space in my schedule for caring for my body in ways that align with my needs, there are still some aspects of my cyclical experience I would love to do without. 


Each month, during the luteal phase of menstruation, and more specifically in the week right after I ovulate, I experience devastating body dysmorphia, and this is part of my experience no matter how much I wish it wasn’t. 


Menstruation & Body Dysmorphia: The Luteal Phase


Briefly, the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle occurs right after ovulation (when the egg developed during the follicular phase is released from the ovaries) as the egg makes its journey to the uterus. 


The goal of the luteal phase is to prepare the body for possible pregnancy. Progesterone levels rise during this phase of the menstrual cycle, which helps to thicken the lining of the uterus in preparation for pregnancy. 


If the egg is not fertilized, hormone levels decline and the uterine lining is shed, and this becomes the menstruation phase; the time during which we bleed. 


Due to the significant hormonal changes occurring, many people experience a wide range of bodily changes and reactions (I don’t really like the word symptoms because this implies there is something wrong) during their luteal phase.


These experiences can range from:

  • an increase in body temperature

  • fatigue

  • mood swings

  • acne

  • bodily tenderness

  • bloating

  • and many many more body reactions.

Each human has a unique experience with their cycle, so there truly are infinite reactions to the luteal phase that can be possible, these are just a few of the most widely recognized. 


An apple with a distorted reflection representing body dysmorphia

I could write a whole separate article on the societal normalization of these ‘symptoms’ as part of the shitty experience of being a person who menstruates when in actuality there are many ways to nourish and soothe the body during this phase that can help to alleviate the discomfort.


For the sake of this article, I will just say that during the luteal phase, the body needs nutrients, rest, care, and softness, in order to do its thing.


Education is medicine when it comes to the menstrual cycle, and in many cases, we have not been offered this information about our bodies and how to support them, so we experience discomfort, pain, and ‘symptoms,’ as our body’s way of communicating that it needs things from us. 


In a world that silences and disregards menstruating bodies, we have learned that we must simply shut up and live with the discomfort and frustration that comes with our cycle. When we come to understand what’s actually happening during the different phases of our cycle, we can find ways to support our bodies and look to them with more compassion. 


In a world that silences and disregards menstruating bodies, we have learned that we must simply shut up and live with the discomfort and frustration that comes with our cycle. When we come to understand what’s actually happening during the different phases of our cycle, we can find ways to support our bodies and look to them with more compassion. 

So I have spent ample time in this coming to understand what is happening in my body. I have learned what foods to eat, how to carve out time for rest, and all of the things that come with supporting my cyclical nature. But when it comes to how I feel in my body during my luteal phase, I still struggle to find ease. 


Body Dysmorphia


While I usually feel like John Travolta in his white suit strutting down the street to the BeeGees during my ovulation phase, in the weeks that follow I experience extreme discomfort being in my body until I begin to menstruate. 


While I usually feel like John Travolta in his white suit strutting down the street to the BeeGees during my ovulation phase, in the weeks that follow I experience extreme discomfort being in my body until I begin to menstruate. 

Body Dysmorphia is defined as “an overwhelming preoccupation with a perceived physical defect.” Many people experience differing levels of body dysmorphia due to the experience of living in a culture that upholds specific, unrealistic beauty standards as pillars of one’s worth in society.


Body casts
For some, the body can feel alien to how they feel internally

The experience is also extremely common in queer and trans people, who feel at odds with their bodies and struggle to find comfort and safety in a body that does not physically reflect how they feel inside. 


Sometimes, the dysmorphia I experience in my luteal phase is less destabilizing than other times. 


The intensity of my experience largely depends on other factors relating to how I’ve been caring for myself and what’s been going on in my life in general, such as how I’ve been eating, my exercise regime, my social engagements, my sex life, how much rest I’ve been getting, work, mental health, and so on. 


As a non-binary person, I have often felt gender-based body dysmorphia in relation to how my body looks and what I see in the mirror. Things that contribute to these feelings can include certain clothes or other gendered garments, activities, social expectations and conditioning, public spaces, social interactions, relationships, and largely, media.


I will say I spent a long time unaware of what I was feeling when I had sensations of feeling disconnected and uncomfortable in my body. When I discovered I was non-binary, a lot of my past experiences clicked, and since then I have developed a practice of consistently checking in with my gender identity and how it shows up in my body.


When I discovered I was non-binary, a lot of my past experiences clicked, and since then I have developed a practice of consistently checking in with my gender identity and how it shows up in my body.

Most of the time, when I notice the sensation of body dysmorphia, I can recognize the source of my experience and navigate through it, remaining somewhat grounded. 


When it comes to the body dysmorphia I feel in relation to my cycle, however, there is no particular external factor or gender-specific cause for why I feel so uncomfortable and unhappy in my skin, I just do. 


Sometimes it’s relatively manageable. 


Since I have learned to be able to recognize what’s going on and have educated myself on the physical and hormonal shifts occurring in my body, when I begin to feel that general discomfort in my skin each month, sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a deep breathe, sending some compassion to myself, and carrying on with my day. 


Other times however, I literally cannot stand to look in the mirror. 


The Dreaded Mirror


No matter what I wear, what I eat, what I do, or how much positive self-talk I practice, some days during my luteal phase I just can’t seem to get past the ick I feel in the experience of being in a body and moving through the world. 


A hand points at itself in the mirror
Removing the mirror

I feel sluggish and slimy and heavy and weak. I hate the way everything looks on me, I hate my face, my hair, my hands, and my feet. I hate my skin and the way it feels wrapping around me and trapping me in this vessel. I hate having to lug around this sack of meat I call my body all day like a ton of bricks weighing me down. I hate it all, and no amount of knowing that it’s just a hormonal shift seems to feel any better. 


While I know this experience of discomfort in my skin will have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like the discomfort I feel when I hold a difficult yoga pose, it still feels extremely challenging to interact with the world, carry on with my work day, be intimate with my partner, and get dressed in the morning, during this time of my cycle. 


And above all, I can’t stand to look in the mirror. 


When the way I feel on the inside doesn’t feel reflected in the mirror, it feels like a constant wrestle with my reflection to find a feeling of “okay enough” to get myself to leave the house. I don’t want to perceive myself, so how the heck am I going to navigate being perceived by every passerby on the street and everyone I must interact with that day?


It’s tough, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t always have to feel good to have a body and be in a body. Sometimes it can be shitty, it can feel icky, and this is all part of the full spectrum of the human experience. 


It’s tough, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t always have to feel good to have a body and be in a body. Sometimes it can be shitty, it can feel icky, and this is all part of the full spectrum of the human experience. 

So the first thing I do when I feel these icky feelings creeping in during my luteal phase, is I literally remove the mirrors from my space. 


If it feels shitty to look in the mirror and confront my reflection, why would I continue to subject myself to that if I don’t have to? Get them out of here, take them away!


In removing the mirrors, I can allow my experience to be a lot more about how I feel in my body, which may still not be great, but at least I don’t have to confront the wrestle of ‘the outside versus the inside’ anymore if I remove this as an option each time I go into my bedroom. 


The goal is to support the body, not to fix the body. We are trying to soothe and hold ourselves through this experience rather than make it fully go away. 


I spent a long time trying to fix my experience of my luteal phase, and the best way I’ve found to bring about connection and compassion when all I feel is disconnection is to surrender to the experience of body dysmorphia and reach for things that feel soothing rather than reaching for a cure because the pressure that comes with trying to find a cure only adds to the frustration. 


Below are some more practices and things I’ve integrated during my luteal phase to help me navigate through the body dysmorphia that comes before my bleed. These are things that have felt supportive for me, and they may not work for everyone.


We each have such a nuanced relationship with our cycle and our bodies, so you may resonate with some things on this list, and you also may find other things that work better for you. As long as it feels supportive, go for it! And whatever you find hindering your support of yourself, get that shit out of there if it’s at all possible. 


✨Finding Your Glimmers


‘Glimmers’ are the opposite of triggers, in that a trigger is anything that invokes a negative experience and sensation in the body and triggers a past experience or feeling that causes the body to go into a state of stress or fear. 


Our ‘glimmers’ by contrast then, are things that bring about a spark of warmth, joy, or soothing sensation in the body, and this can be anything from a song to a favourite hat, to someone using your correct pronouns or preferred name. 


Our ‘glimmers’ by contrast then, are things that bring about a spark of warmth, joy, or soothing sensation in the body, and this can be anything from a song to a favourite hat, to someone using your correct pronouns or preferred name. 

When I am in my luteal phase battling with feeling at odds with my body, one of the best ways I have found to maintain a connection to joy is to reach for my glimmers. This reminds me that there is always joy to be found amidst grief and that I can still find little paths of connection to pleasure no matter what my hormones are doing. Essentially, I still have some sort of control/agency over my bodily experience. 


For me, glimmers look like listening to my favourite album while I shower, lathering myself in body oils, my silk robe, dancing in my kitchen, wearing my comfiest underwear, writing poetry, fun earrings, masturbating, concocting herbal tea blends, going to yin yoga classes.



💍Any Little Thing 


Similar to glimmers, this one pertains specifically to the process of getting dressed.


When I hate how I look and feel in my body, getting dressed is the most difficult part of the day. I don’t like how anything looks or feels on my skin, so I just want to hide under the covers and not deal with it. 


Unfortunately, this doesn’t work as a solution when I still have to get up and go to work, so I’ve found little ways to connect to joy during this process even if it still doesn’t mean I end up feeling fierce and sexy when I leave the house. 


Taylor Neal with face art
Taylor Neal with Face Art

Applying the concept of ‘glimmers’ to getting dressed, I reach for any little thing in my wardrobe that always makes me feel good. This can be a full outfit that always feels comfy and easy, like some comfy pants that sit at just the right height on my waist or a big loose dress that I can escape into. It can also be something as small as a pair of socks that feel fun, or a necklace I really like. 


Recently for me, my ‘any little thing’ has been an adorable new ring I bought at a market with my bestie. When I felt like crap during my luteal phase last, I wore this ring every day, and whenever I looked down at it I was reminded of that Saturday morning when the sun was shining and I had time to peruse the market stalls with my friend and her puppy until I found this ring that just felt like it had to be part of me. 


Recently for me, my ‘any little thing’ has been an adorable new ring I bought at a market with my bestie. When I felt like crap during my luteal phase last, I wore this ring every day, and whenever I looked down at it I was reminded of that Saturday morning when the sun was shining and I had time to peruse the market stalls with my friend and her puppy until I found this ring that just felt like it had to be part of me. 

Even if this thing isn’t something anyone else will see or notice, if it makes you feel good or joyous in some way, it will impact how you feel moving through the rest of your day. I think it’s so important to wear things that feel grounding for us, so when we start to notice ourselves moving toward that dark place, we can look to, or literally grip on to, whatever that little thing is, and feel the warmth that lives there. 


🔥Keep Getting Hotter


This practice was originally by the incredible Pleasure-Based Business Coach, Luna Dietrich, but it has been so helpful for me that I had to include it. 


The practice is simply to create an album on your phone of all the photos from over the years where you like how you look or remember feeling joy in that moment, where you feel “hot” in any sort of little way.


The practice is simply to create an album on your phone of all the photos from over the years where you like how you look or remember feeling joy in that moment, where you feel “hot” in any sort of little way.

Title the album “I Keep Getting Hotter,” and add any photos that you feel belong to this space. There may be one, there may be 47, it doesn’t matter how many images fill this space, what matters is that they are all photos that you can look at and feel a sense of joy. 


These photos also don’t have to be of your face or your body. I really like photos of my hands, or this one particular photo of my hairy thighs in the sunlight. I also really like self-timer photos from mornings when I loved my outfit. Any photos you have that make you go “Yup, that’s me, look how vibrant I am” in a positive way should go into this album. 


Whenever I need to reconnect to joy in relation to how I feel in my skin, I look to this album and am reminded of all the ways I find beauty in my embodied experience. 


Oh look, I’m so stylish!  Look how pretty my hands are!  Wow, I have the coolest haircut!  Look how happy I am when I’m with my friends!  Those pants look great on me!  I’m so mysterious and sexy! I love how I feel in this colour!  That print reminds me of being a kid!  I love the way my body hair shines in the sun like damp grass in the morning!


🫂Somatic Self-Holding


This one is less about external pleasure and more about going inward. 


When those dysmorphic feelings arise, I find it helpful to take a moment to hold myself in a soothing, supportive way. To let myself feel shitty and remind my body that I am here to keep her company through it. I’m not going anywhere, it’s okay not to feel okay. 


When those dysmorphic feelings arise, I find it helpful to take a moment to hold myself in a soothing, supportive way. To let myself feel shitty and remind my body that I am here to keep her company through it. I’m not going anywhere, it’s okay not to feel okay. 

Somatic Self-Holding is a way of holding the body that offers physical and emotional support to the self. 


Place one hand under the opposite armpit, so the arm crosses over the chest. Then, wrap the other arm overtop, and grip the opposite bicep, or upper arm. Let your head fall forward so your chin tucks into your chest. Hold yourself here. 


You may feel called to rock gently from side to side, or to stay relatively still as you hold yourself. It can also feel useful to repeat some loving affirmations to yourself while you’re here. 


I’m here for you. You are enough as you are. You don’t have to be anything more. You don’t owe anything to anyone. You have so much light inside you. You are so funny!


Intend to focus on the sensation of being held in this way. Without attaching any meaning or goal to the experience that comes from the practice, intend simply to be with yourself, to keep yourself company, and remind yourself that the difficult experiences, the crappy days, are all part of the full spectrum of human experience. 


You are safe, you are supported, and it’s okay not to feel okay. 


 

Bibliography:


  • Casey E, Hameed F, Dhaher YY. The muscle stretch reflex throughout the menstrual cycle. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Mar;46(3):600-9. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000134. PMID: 24091990; PMCID: PMC3944642.

  • Nicewicz HR, Torrico TJ, Boutrouille JF. Body Dysmorphic Disorder. [Updated 2024 Jan 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555901/

  • Professional, C. C. medical. (n.d.). Luteal phase of the menstrual cycle: Symptoms & length. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/24417-luteal-phase 


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