Living with body dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. Sophie Klein shares her experience how a mental illness can warp one’s self image.

Story by Sarah Stallinger

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), also known as dysmorphophobia, is a mental disorder characterised by the obsessive belief that a particular aspect of one’s body or appearance
is severely flawed. People affected believe that extraordinary measures are required to conceal or correct their flaws. Although these imperfectionsare often unnoticed by others, they can have a significant impact on an individual’s life.

BDD affects 1.7% to 2.4% of the general population – that’s about 1 in 50 people. “A person who has body dysmorphic disorder perceives defects in their body which otherwise are not there. You may think that something is wrong about your eyes or nose, but if you had asked someone else, they would have not agreed,” says Dr Samir Parikh, director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare.

Picture: Sophie Klein

Sophie Klein, a 21-year-old-woman, has been living with BDD for multiple years. Showing symptoms as early as 12 years old, she has suffered immensely. “BDD warps my perception of myself. I have no idea what I really look like, my self-image changes daily.” People who have body dysmorphia are prone to repetitive behaviours. Apart from obsessing over their appearance for hours, they also tend to touch, rub, or pick at theperceived flaw and compare themselves to others, requiring constant motivation and reassurance. This preoccupation causes them anxiety, distress, and sleep disorders, and often impacts their social life negatively. “BDD can significantly affect academic performance”, explains Dr. Parikh. ”Time-consuming thoughts about appearance make it difficult to focus on schoolwork, which can lead to students failing tests and having trouble concentrating.”

The causes of BDD are unknown, but certain biological and environmental factors, such as genetic predisposition, neurobiological factors, personality traits, and life experiences, may all play a role. While the desire to look ‘good’ is natural, the problem arises when one begins to evaluate self- worth through physical appearance. “My illness has worked its way into every crevice. It has identified all the aspects of my personality, what I love and what makes me tick. It made me into a shell of a human being for a really long time. No matter what size you are, no matter what number you are on the scale, you will always find fault with yourself”, expresses Sophie. “In my mind, I was the only one who felt that way; I was the odd one out. I was scared to go out because I felt like my appearance was offensive. I’ve sat in front of the mirror an entire day, obsessing and crying over my looks.”

It has identified all the aspects of my personality, what I love and what makes me tick.

Illustration: Sarah Stallinger

Many people with BDD avoid seeking help because they are afraid that others will judge them or think they are ‘vain’. Meaning that many people with BDD will likely suffer from it for a long time before seeking help. “We need encouragement to recover, that doesn’t sugarcoat the hard work and effort that must go into it”, Sophie states. “The healing process from this disorder is never plain sailing, but you can come out the other side into a more prosperous, more fruitful life.” She still suffers from BDD, but it’s not at the top of her priority list anymore. “We cannot carry on acting as though this disorder is merely a mission towards self- acceptance. People are destroying their bodies in hopes of learning how to love themselves. No one should have to hit rock bottom to realise that life is worth living.“