What is Body Dysmorphia?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) defines body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) as a mental health condition in which a person obsessively focuses on one or more physical characteristics that they perceive as being flawed (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). People with BDD might feel embarrassment, shame, distress, and anxiety about their perceived flaws, especially in social or public settings (Mayo Clinic, 2022a). BDD exists on a spectrum, from mild to severe and can affect any gender (Johns Hopkins Medicine, n.d.).
In general, body dysmorphia is a physically and emotionally exhausting struggle, affecting all aspects of a person’s life. BDD can become incredibly debilitating for some individuals, affecting their day-to-day emotional well-being and ability to carry on daily tasks (e.g., going to school, going to work, eating nutritious meals, maintaining hygiene, etc.). Often, BDD is a private and personal battle not easily noticed by others, resulting in the individual having a hard time acknowledging the severity of their BDD struggle. Therefore, it is essential to refrain from judgment, as well as indifference, when supporting an individual who discloses their struggle with BDD.
Why Do I Feel This Way?
People do not choose to struggle with body dysmorphia; often, it results from a combination of biopsychosocial factors. These can include experiencing childhood trauma, teasing, bullying, and negative social situations in which others give negative, harsh, or judgemental feedback about one’s appearance (Feusner et al., 2010). All of these factors can be detrimental to one’s self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence.
Other risk factors include (Feusner et al., 2010; Mayo Clinic, 2022b):
- Family history
- Presence of another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression
- Presence of an eating disorder or history of disordered eating habits
- Presence of obsessive-compulsive disorder or obsessive-compulsive tendencies
- Presence of certain personality traits such as perfectionism
- Presence of social anxiety or social avoidance
- Irregular levels of neurochemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, which can play a role in mood regulation
Social media is another factor that plays a role in the development of BDD. Whether it’s how many likes and reactions your selfie gets, or the seemingly unending posts depicting an “ideal” body image by a society’s standards, social platforms can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem and lead to body-envy (comparing your body to others and feeling inadequate) and body dissatisfaction.
Studies show that high amounts of time spent on social media apps, such as Snapchat or Instagram, are linked to the presence of BDD among adolescents (Alsaidan et al., 2020). They also show that these platforms stimulate body-checking behaviors and negative or anxious thought patterns regarding body image.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body dysmorphia, please exercise patience. It can take time and effort to confront and heal from BDD, due to societal and cultural pressures surrounding specific beauty standards and aesthetics (Feusner et al., 2010).
Signs & Symptoms
Managing symptoms of BDD often involves seeking support from loved ones and a mental health professional. People with BDD tend to keep their struggles to themselves, due to feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment, which can make it difficult for others to recognize when someone is suffering from this condition. Everyone’s experience of body dysmorphia is unique, but below are some common signs and symptoms.
- Social anxiety
- General anxiety relating to body image
- Depressive symptoms linked to bodily appearance
- Thought comparisons of self to others
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
- Feelings of shame and embarrassment related to bodily appearance or specific body parts
- Weight fluctuations
- Nausea resulting from irregular eating habits
- Altered sleep habits, such as insomnia and trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Avoiding mirrors or reflective surfaces
- Looking at yourself in the mirror for an excessive amount of time
- Hiding certain body parts using clothing, accessories, or makeup
- Having cosmetic procedures to alter the body
- Body-checking, whether that includes looking at yourself in the mirror or pinching and touching certain body parts
- Excessive exercising with the goal of losing weight or gaining muscle
- Body picking – skin, hair, nails (sometimes leading to infection)
- Social isolation
5 Wellbeing Strategies
Seek Out A Therapist: So much of your struggle with body dysmorphia can be silent and invisible to others. A professional can help you to practice compassion and kindness toward yourself and also to open up a discussion around how to ask for support from your loved ones and close friends. There are mental health professionals who specifically focus on body-image issues and concerns, and you might consider seeking assistance from one.
Seek Out a Medical Provider: Don’t hesitate to visit a medical provider for advice or specialized care around bodily injuries related to body dysmorphia, general health concerns resulting from BDD, or physical symptom management.
Try Self-Compassion: When you struggle with body dysmorphia, you also might experience feelings of anger, annoyance, or frustration with your body. Take a moment to practice compassion toward yourself through the use of affirmations or meditation (allowing yourself to catch a breath is an act of self-compassion).
Clean Your Social Media Feed: This is incredibly important, considering how influential social media is these days in how we view our self-image and form body ideals. Take a look at the people or influencers you follow. For example, if some of them practice body shaming, encourage body-checking behaviors, or trigger thoughts about body-related issues, it is time to mute them or unfollow them.
Clean Out Your Closet: Take a look at your closet and create a pile of clothes that emotionally or physically trigger you and exacerbate your struggle with BDD. Consider getting rid of these to avoid some feelings of discomfort with your appearance.
Alsaidan, M. S., Altayar, N. S., Alshmmari, S. H., Alshammari, M. M., Alqahtani, F. T., & Mohajer, K. A. (2020). The prevalence and determinants of body dysmorphic disorder among young social media users: A cross-sectional study. Dermatology Reports, 12(3). https://doi.org/10.4081/dr.2020.8774
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Author.
Feusner, J. D., Neziroglu, F., Wilhelm, S., Mancusi, L., & Bohon, C. (2010). What causes BDD: Research findings and a proposed model. Psychiatric Annals, 40(7), 349–355. https://doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20100701-08
Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Body dysmorphic disorder. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/body-dysmorphic-disorder
Mayo Clinic. (2022a, February 26). Teens and social media use: What’s the impact? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teens-and-social-media-use/art-20474437#:%7E:text=Social%20media%20is%20a%20big,%2C%20Facebook%2C%20Instagram%20or%20Snapchat
Mayo Clinic. (2022b, March 19). Body dysmorphic disorder – Symptoms and causes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/body-dysmorphic-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353938