Body dysmorphia is a specter that continues to haunt us even in one of the biggest years of self-love advocacy—perhaps even more so if you’re in the entertainment industry. It’s one thing to say that you believe in body neutrality and a whole ’nother thing to act and think as a person who does. Celebrity newly-weds Dani Mortel and Josh Colet sat down with us to recount what it was like to grow up with a negative body image and how their marriage has become a big part in unlearning it.
In the past month, Alexa Ilacad got diagnosed with major depressive disorder caused by body dysmorphia during her stay inside the “Pinoy Big Brother” house. There, she opened up about dealing with fatphobia and going through many diets since she was 13. This started a conversation about how celebrities suffer from these standards despite not publicly showing it.
Dani Mortel and Josh Colet gave us even more insight into body shaming in the industry and how they were able to start healing from its impact.
Hey, Dani and Josh! First off, how is married life?
We’ve been having a lot of fun learning more about each other. Married life is sort of liberating and humbling at the same time. We were so used to handling challenges on our own before getting married, and now that we have each other, we know we can take on absolutely anything with more grit and confidence.
Has marriage changed the way you see yourself or your personal body philosophy?
In a way, yes. Since getting married, we’ve had more time to sit down and talk about our personal insecurities. We both are fitness enthusiasts (Josh is actually a certified personal trainer now) so our health and physique are constant topics of conversation. Sharing intimate moments also [has] had positive effects on how we accept our own bodies, and how we express appreciation towards each other.
Can you tell us a bit about the time when you were just starting out in the entertainment industry?
Both of us started doing TV commercials at a very young age. We remember stepping into a room full of “modelesque” people and wondering if we were in the right venue. It definitely felt like a competition each time we went to auditions. Casting directors would sometimes have everyone stand in one line in front of the camera, and then announce the names that they wanted to stay. If your name isn’t called, then you’re “good to go.” That process is done as first “screening” so that the long line outside would automatically be cut to at least a half. But that process was based solely on our looks. And that industry practice is obviously something that could alter your self-image.
Can you describe what it’s like to be held to certain beauty standards during casting calls? Is there a particular instance that stood out to you growing up?
Dani: I remember getting casting calls that had these requirements: “long beautiful hair, good smile, mestiza to fair Pinay only. Class A talents please.” I would get these texts from agencies and I’d automatically think, “I won’t fit the role…”
The first TV commercial I booked, the casting director told me I almost got the lead part, but I was a newbie and my ears were a problem. MY EARS WERE A PROBLEM. They would have me tape my ears so that they wouldn’t pop out. Since then, I never tied my hair up and always made sure my ears were hidden everywhere I’d go—including school.
I was also told not to get too dark because I wouldn’t look good on TV and it would be hard to book projects. Because of that comment, I almost completely gave up on football.
I was also told not to gain too much weight because I’d look 20 pounds heavier on TV. I was a teenager when I heard that, so imagine how little I ate as a young athletic girl.
Josh: I was always insecure about my teeth. I knew I couldn’t book commercials because of them. Casting calls always had “nice teeth” listed down. And I didn’t have that when I started out, so that was a struggle.
How old were you when you started encountering comments from fans or strangers about your looks?
We started *really* hearing comments when we were around 12 or 13. The negative comments did outweigh the positive ones because those comments really stuck to us. We hear them in our sleep and we obsess about how to fix our “imperfections”… that kind of thing.
When did you first encounter the term body dysmorphia? Did it help finding out that there was a label for it?
Josh: I found out about body dysmorphia when I did a primetime show for one of the country’s big TV networks. I had to prepare for that show because it involved a lot of topless scenes for me. I was also surrounded by big and famous names in the industry, so there was that pressure to keep up with them and even how they looked. I started comparing my body with theirs, and when I’d go home, I’d think, “Man, I look too big beside them. I have to lose more weight.” And no matter how lean I get, I still thought it wasn’t enough. I ate so little and I worked out a lot. But it was just never enough.
Dani: About four years ago, after an audition for a shampoo commercial, I cried to my mom, “I’ve had enough. I’m done with this. This makes me feel worse about myself.” When we got home, I scavenged the internet for strangers who shared my pain. And then I found a video on YouTube that showed a girl having her ears done. She talked about the scars her ears brought to her life—negative comments, bullying, low self-esteem and even depression. At that point, I was convinced I would have mine fixed too. I was already in talks with my mom and she was even supportive of it because she wanted me to be happy.
My plans never really pushed through though. Of course, I was scared and I tried to console myself and fed myself with affirmations.
It was only about two years ago that I found a video on Instagram that talked about body dysmorphia. This girl explained that no matter how hard she tried to like how her body looked in the mirror, it just wasn’t possible. Even if her loved ones tell her she looks amazing, she can’t believe them. When I heard this, I immediately thought, “Wow, that’s how I feel about my ears.” I’ve had so many of my friends and family say that my ears look perfectly okay. But no matter what people say, when I looked into a mirror, I saw the same 13-year-old girl who needs to tape her ears away. I kept seeing an imbalance. “My ears are too big for my head. That’s all people see. I have to hide them away.” When Josh and I started dating, I would always angle my face so that he wouldn’t notice my ears… I would always hide them under my hair.
It somehow helped when I found out that what I was feeling was called something. And it helped that people started talking about it, too. I understood where it was coming from, and I slowly unlearned everything I heard as a young girl.
How do you try to overcome it? Do you think that it’s possible to be in the industry, with the way that it’s being run now, and not experience body dysmorphia?
It’s still an ongoing process, but we take little steps every single day. For Josh, he’s been trying to shift his mindset about his physique. He’s exposing himself to the bodybuilding community and the discipline that it entails. He’s taught himself how to focus on his own body and the science that goes with it. This means that even if he gets into a hole of comparison, he understands that literally, no two bodies are built the same way. And he carries that mindset with him wherever he goes.
For me, it’s taking steps like buying hair scrunchies, clips, headbands… experimenting on new hairstyles that actually expose my ears. Tying my hair up at home in front of my husband and not thinking of how he’d look at me. I go for walks outside with my hair up, yes, ears exposed. I run errands with my hair up… ears exposed. I do my skincare routine with a headband on… hair tucked behind my ears. It’s these little steps that make all the difference for me. And it seems to work just fine. So when I host events, or shoot a commercial, thinking of my ears has become the least of my priorities.
We think that it’s impossible not to experience body dysmorphia if you’re working in the industry. One way or another you will really hear comments about your body. And if you absorb every single one of those comments, they will affect you. We think what has to change is the way some industry leaders treat artists and actors like a commodity. In our opinion, to expect criticism and undue pressure about your physical appearance when you’re trying to get into show business or even make it “big” in the entertainment industry shouldn’t be normal.
What’s your message for people who are struggling to build a positive or neutral self-image?
Give less f*cks. When we actively tried not to give a d*mn about other people’s comments about us and how we looked, we enjoyed our bodies and how they allow us to just… be. Let your hair down (or tie it up), dance in your underwear, get intimate with your partner, skip the lights and shower with candles lit up, apply sun block every day, use less chemicals on your body, switch to organic and all-natural deodorants and body products, be okay with underarm sweat (hello, baskil!), the list can go on and on.