Understanding Body Dysmorphic Disorder: What it is and How to Overcome It

We all, at times, have been guilty of staring at ourselves for too long in the mirror. Picking at what “could be” and “should be,” wishing for something different than what we’ve been given, and treating our flaws as the most important thing about us. 

There is a distinct difference, however, between the phenomenon of not liking everything about ourselves and the obsessive pattern of believing we are damaged. That difference is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a mental illness that affects nearly 1 in 50 people in the United States population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

In my newly released book, Good Enough: Believing Beautiful through Trauma, through Life, through Disorder, I talk about BDD and how it manifested in my life. The below excerpt is an example:

I was standing in my room trying on dresses for formal one day, and my friend Hannah was over. As I changed into dress after dress, she asked me how I’d lost so much weight.

She was asking for her own benefit, and I did the thing I always did and played it cool as I listed off a few of the “natural” ways I had lost weight.

“I just run a lot, eat super healthy, and don’t eat two hours before bed,” I’d say.

My mom came in the room shortly after to see what we were up to and to hand over a couple more dresses I might consider wearing.

It was the first time my mom had seen me undressed for a while, and I remember her eyes being planted on my body as she voiced out loud I was “too skinny.”

As I pulled up one of the dresses, she told me she could see my ribs and collarbone coming through my skin. Hannah added how she never thought I needed to lose weight in the first place.

I stood in front of my full-length mirror in a small pink dress, my mom behind me and Hannah to my side. I looked in the mirror, and for a second it was just me and my body. And I wanted to feel sorry for it. I wanted to see what both of them saw, but I couldn’t. The more I stared, the more flaws I found.

Too skinny?”  I thought. “What is she talking about?

All I saw in that mirror was a fat, useless body which did nothing more than bring me trouble. My monsters encouraged and validated these thoughts.

“There’s still weight to lose.”
“You aren’t done yet.”
“You can’t trust people, not even the ones who claim to love you.”

I got dressed, ashamed for even thinking I might be able to escape judgment by changing in front of two people closest to me.

Mental Health America defines BDD as the intense preoccupation with flaws or defects that may or may not be apparent to others. It’s starting in the mirror and body checking for hours at a time (3-8 hours a day on average) and experiencing high levels of anxiety from the shame and fear or being unwanted or undesirable.

What might surprise some is BDD occurs more in men (2.5%) than it does women (2.2%). In both genders, environmental and genetic factors could be the driving force. Doctor of Nursing Practice, Amanda Perkins writes in an article that improper use of serotonin in the brain, as well as personality traits, abuse, and trauma could also impact the onset on BDD.

She connects BDD to the drive for perfection:

“EVERYTHING AROUND US focuses on beauty, from commercials to magazines, social media to movies. Already beautiful models are airbrushed to make them look ‘perfect’ in a way that is unattainable. People can easily apply filters to their selfies, removing even the slightest imperfections. In this way, our society reinforces the need to be beautiful.”

On the rise is a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, termed Snapchat Dysmorphia, where individuals are asking plastic surgeons to make them look like the filter they’ve used on the smartphone app Snapchat. 

I mean, remember what it was like to just take a photo? When you couldn’t instantly apply a filter, send it to a thread of people, or post it on social media? Now, you add in apps like Snapchat that reinforce this need for beauty through unrealistic images of what you could look like if only your nose was smaller, your chin was rounder, your skin was softer, your lips fuller.

Writing about BDD now, I think back to the younger me who would take selfie after selfie, trying to get the perfect angle so that what I perceived as “flawed” could be hidden. I think about, more than once, googling plastic surgery options to make my vagina look normal because I thought mine was deformed. I think about the time I stared at myself for so long in the mirror, I imagined one of my calves larger than the other. I think about days I cancelled plans with friends because I was so preoccupied by my flaws and couldn’t control my obsessive thoughts. I’d spend hours in the gym or outside running to try and change my appearance, and then I’d spend even more time examining every inch of my body after. It was never good enough. 

These are all symptoms of BDD, and that’s only scratching the surface. Mental Health America says individuals who battle this disorder might also pick at their skin, pull their hair, bite their nails or cheeks, constantly seek reassurance from those around them, spend an insane amount of money on beauty products, camouflage parts of their body with clothes or makeup, stop doing activities they once enjoyed, constantly compare themselves to others, and even go as far as to contemplate suicide.

They explain that because of the serotonin impairment certain BDD victims experience, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be a successful way to medicate obsessive thoughts and compulsions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) could also be a useful way to filter negative thoughts, get to the root of the issue of the dysmorphia, and create healthier patterns of living.

Personally, I have found getting rid of my full-length mirror to be the most productive way to recover from BDD, along with building myself up with affirmations and recovering from an eating disorder I fought for years of my adolescence and adulthood. 

And I’m here to tell you this: recovery is possible. 

You might be reading this while thinking, “Wow. This all sounds pretty intense. I’m not that bad. That’s not me.” But I see you. And I see you because I was you—in denial and afraid of how I would be viewed if I were to say I had a disorder. I get it. The words “disorder” and “mental illness” are so unattractive, and these behaviors are keeping me safe. I can’t stop now.

But you can stop now. 

I know the monsters in your head are telling you otherwise, yet they make promises they can’t keep, and once you’re no longer under their wrath, you will see this for yourself. You will find true freedom, identity, and belonging no longer tied to what you look like. You will be able to look in the mirror and say, “I’m not perfect and that’s okay.”

Here are 5 quick ways, in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, in which you might free yourself from BDD:

  1. Stop weighing yourself and get rid of the scale
  2. Set a time limit for how long you get ready and stand in front of the mirror
  3. Set a time limit for how long you spend on social media
  4. Normalize negative thought patterns by opening up about your struggle to a close family member or friend—you might also consider talking to a therapist
  5. Write 3 things you love about yourself down in a journal every day that don’t involve your appearance

If you want more ideas on how to overcome Body Dysmorphic Disorder or issues alike, I invite you to read my book, Good Enough: Believing Beautiful through Trauma, through Life, through Disorder. In it, I will show you how to cultivate a healthy relationship with who you are (on the inside and outside) through vulnerable accounts of my own life. You will lose false identities and lies, and you will gain self-love and narratives of truth. 

After all, “It doesn’t matter how many times someone looks you in the eyes and tells you you’re beautiful, you have to believe it—and if you don’t—you have to keep fighting.”

You can connect with me on Instagram or Facebook, @believingbeautiful, for weekly posts including all things eating disorder recovery, recipes, and inspiration. Send me a direct message or use the comment box on the contact page to send over any questions you may have regarding Body Dysmorphic Disorder or topics alike. I can’t wait to meet you! 

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