Intense insecurity about one’s appearance
When someone is preoccupied with their appearance and the flaws they perceive themselves to have, this can be identified as body dysmorphia. This is a mental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to see themselves in a positive light. People who suffer from body dysmorphia often take extreme measures to try to rectify what they believe are their flaws.
Body dysmorphia and eating disorders
Many people who suffer from eating disorders suffer simultaneously from body dysmorphia, as they are unable to see their size accurately and so imagine they are much larger than they are. It is difficult to say which issue comes first because a person’s level of self-critique can increase when they start trying to lose weight, as they have already identified the goal of changing their appearance. This is almost like highlighting one’s so-called imperfections in an attempt to modify them. Highlighting things that you would like to change can be done in a healthy way, like when people monitor their progress weekly, alongside healthy eating and a reasonable exercise regime. However, it can also happen with eating disorder sufferers, who have distorted views of themselves and harsher expectations too. Whereas a healthy person might see they have reached their goal weight and feel confident about their appearance, an eating disorder sufferer may not notice a sufficient difference, and may even believe they look larger. This is an example of body dysmorphia and how it can affect people.
Who else might be affected by body dysmorphia?
People who function ‘healthily’ in society, and who don’t appear to have any serious insecurities, can also suffer from body dysmorphia. For example, some people who wear a lot of makeup don’t do this because they enjoy it, but rather because they feel the need to hide certain parts of themselves. The intention is to boost their confidence, but also to alleviate the intense discomfort they feel at the prospect of others seeing their supposed imperfections. These can be things like dark circles under their eyes (bags), the size of their nose, the thickness of their eyebrows, the size of their lips – and the list really does go on. To the outside world, such ‘imperfections’ may not even be noticeable, but to the individual, these aspects of their appearance can be all-consuming and can make them feel unattractive and entirely ugly. The person suffering from this may feel isolated and unable to engage in usual social or professional arrangements that they used to actively enjoy.
Signs of body dysmorphia
If you feel you, or someone you know, may have body dysmorphia, here are some things to look out for:
- A distinct and negative preoccupation with your own appearance.
- A strong and unshakeable belief that there is something seriously wrong with how you look, even though others say they cannot see it.
- A feeling that your loved ones are lying to you when they attempt to reassure you that there is nothing wrong with your appearance.
- Repeatedly spending an excessive amount of time trying to change your appearance to make these flaws less noticeable.
- A compulsion to repeatedly check your appearance, whether by reapplying the same makeup again and again, checking your appearance in the mirror overly often, or feeling the strong urge to pick your skin if it looks like something imperfect is on it (whether this is a blemish or simply makeup that doesn’t look quite right to you).
- Feeling as though you cannot engage in the same social arrangements that you used to because of a fear of others’ judgement of your appearance.
- Frequently finding yourself comparing your appearance to that of others and criticising yourself for not looking as good as you feel they do.
What to do if you feel you or someone you care about may have body dysmorphia
We all have imperfections, but ultimately if you feel like you, or someone you know, is focussing excessively on what they see as their flaws, it is important to make sure you/ they receive the support needed. This isn’t something the individual can simply snap out of, and sometimes, the more they are told to do this, the less they feel able to confide in others about these insecurities. This is why it can often be helpful to speak with a professional counsellor, as this can help the sufferer to see a different perspective with an entirely independent person. The counsellor works with the individual to identify where these beliefs come from, what they would like to be different, and how they can achieve this goal. This involves slow steps to try to alter certain behaviours and thinking processes.
In a safe and structured environment like therapy, the individual can build up a trusting relationship with the counsellor. One example of what might be worked on in therapy is a gradual decrease in rituals. With an individual who checks their appearance in the mirror 10 times before leaving the house, for example, the therapist and client can consider together how it might be for the individual to try to lower the number of times they check the mirror. Depending on how severe and ingrained their routine is, perhaps the person could decrease it by 1 time a day. If this worked well, they could then decrease it further, and if it didn’t work, they could go back and work together on why this was. This is just an example of one of the many ways that a person who suffers from body dysmorphia can be helped.
The most important thing, whether seeking professional or simply personal support (through friends and family), is that the person does not feel judged. Body dysmorphia is based on an intense fear of judgement, both from others and oneself. The best way for a person to learn how to lessen their own judgment of themselves is to see others not judging them. If you know anyone suffering from this disorder, it may be worth letting them know that you are willing to support them and listen to them, and possibly even help them to seek the professional help they need.