Updated July 21, 2021.
Body positivity is getting more attention in the media these days, and that’s a good thing. Despite this, it’s still not uncommon for a negative body image to impact our lives at one time or another. In general, that’s okay. It’s normal to occasionally fixate on a stubborn zit, a bald spot, or a roll of belly fat.
However, this can become a problem when we start obsessing over a feature we dislike, making it a bigger issue in our mind than it might actually be in reality. Those who experience this fixation, or obsession, may be dealing with what’s known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is also often linked with eating disorders. If you think you may be suffering from it, knowing how to deal with body dysmorphia (another name for BDD) means you’ll be able to recognize what this disorder really is, how it can affect your life, and how you can deal with it to begin healing.
What is Body Dysmorphia?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), body dysmorphic disorder involves a “preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are not observable or appear slight to others.”
About one in 50 people are affected with body dysmorphic disorder, and it occurs at roughly the same rate in both men and women. Body dysmorphia is classified under the same categorization of disorders as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), based on the criteria that, like OCD, those with body dysmorphia often perform repetitive behaviors like “checking” their body, either in the mirror or with their hands. It’s common to obsessively poke, pick, or squeeze the perceived “problem” area. Those with body dysmorphia often expend a lot of mental energy thinking about the part (or parts) of their body they see as defective. Those who are affected with BDD can sometimes also suffer from gender dysphoria. Though these two are sometimes confused with each other, there is a big difference between dysphoria vs dysmorphia.
Common body dysmorphia symptoms can include:
- An incredibly strong belief you have a physical defect
- Being preoccupied with that perceived defect (despite it largely being seen as minor or nonexistent to others)
- Avoiding social interaction
- Partaking in repetitive behaviors to try and hide, or fix, the perceived flaw
- Seeking out near-constant reassurance from others
- Believing that others are mocking you for your flaw
- Acting from perfectionist tendencies
- Checking the mirror repeatedly
- Picking at the skin
- Obtaining medical cosmetic procedures, typically with little to no satisfaction
- Trying to hide flaws with makeup or clothing
How Body Dysmorphia Affects Your Life
Body dysmorphia can affect many facets of life. It can become a guiding factor in virtually every situation you face, from school, to work, to home life, and more. Aside from the fact that it’s a mental health disorder that can be completely exhausting, body dysmorphia symptoms can also cause clinically significant distress (not just mental distress), resulting in extreme anxiety in several areas of life.
- Social Impact: Those who haven’t yet figured out how to deal with body dysmorphia may struggle with a tendency to isolate themselves out of fear or shame. They might worry about others seeing the flaws they’re trying so hard to hide. This can lead to avoidance of social situations and low-self esteem, both of which can have a negative impact on relationships and often resulting in what’s known as a social anxiety disorder.
- Professional Impact: Studies have shown that beautiful people tend to be paid more at work, are better liked, and are often more successful. But beauty isn’t just what other people see – it’s also what you see and how you feel about yourself. Those with confidence are generally more successful at work. So it makes sense that some people with body dysmorphia, who are preoccupied with their body “defect,” have less mental capacity to focus and excel on their work tasks.
- Physical Impact: Though body dysmorphia is not a physical disorder, many people experience physical symptoms. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it’s common for those with body dysmorphia to engage in skin picking, excessive grooming, and over-exercising, all in an attempt to “fix” their flaws. This can lead to hair loss, abrasions, and other serious side effects. Body dysmorphia can also result in such an extremely negative body image that it leads to eating disorders, which can be incredibly dangerous for physical health.
- Financial Impact: Spending money on (typically unnecessary) clothing, cosmetics, diet foods, plastic surgery, or drugs and alcohol to self-medicate can affect financial situations. Rather than investing in seeing a therapist, who can challenge perceptions about a negative body image, many are willing to spend exorbitant amounts trying to “fix it” on their own.
- Emotional Impact: According to the International OCD Foundation, those with body dysmorphia are more likely to attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, social anxiety, and a decline in self-esteem. The feeling of being trapped in a body we dislike can be deeply linked to the actual thoughts we have about our bodies. Many people find that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be tremendously helpful in easing the symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder.
All of these factors contribute to a reduced quality of life that you don’t have to live with. The best thing you can do if you’re struggling with body dysmorphic disorder is to talk to someone you trust. This can be a family member, a friend, a partner, or a therapist. With help, you can eventually see yourself as the beautiful person everyone else sees.
How to Deal with Body Dysmorphia
If you’re wondering what is body dysmorphia, or if you think you may be experiencing it and want help, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Online therapy and specialized teen therapy options can connect you with a therapist who understands what you’re going through. This easily accessible format means therapy can be available to you when you need it, how you need it, and where you need it. If you feel that a more traditional format of therapy might work better for you and your personality, you can always seek out a therapist who offers in-person appointments, too.
Therapy and Medication: There are several types of therapy that can be beneficial in treating body dysmorphia. Some therapists suggest a combination of talk therapy – like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – and medication. Medications that have proven effective are in a category known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SRIs/SSRIs are antidepressants that can help treat body dysmorphia symptoms like compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts.
Self-Help Tips: There are also a number of self-help tactics you can use to begin healing from body dysmorphia too. Either on your own or in combination with therapy and medication, you may want to try:
- Practicing yoga or other physical activities
- Eating healthy
- Finding support groups
- Focusing on stress management
- Working towards identified goals
- Avoiding isolation
- Creating (and sticking to) a sleep schedule
- Staying hydrated
- Seeking support from family and peers
Anything that helps you feel healthy and strong can be a positive way for you to move forward on a path to life without body dysmorphia.