Many people feel unhappy or insecure about their physical appearance during some point in their lives. However, individuals can become obsessed with the way that they look and worry excessively about small, or imagined, flaws within their appearance leading to a little known illness called Body Dysmorphia.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is estimated to affect one in 50 people and is a disabling preoccupation with perceived defects. The condition usually develops in adolescence, a time when people are generally most sensitive about their appearance, and can affect both men and women, making sufferers excessively self-conscious.
Professor David Veale, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital in North London, is one of the world’s leading experts on BDD and runs a specialist treatment centre for those with the condition.
Some individuals who have experienced BDD have recently discussed their condition on Sky News and BDD is the subject of a new BBC Three documentary this month which follows a woman and her boyfriend over a year, as she starts therapy to try to conquer the crippling condition. The documentary also hears from a range of people in recovery from BDD who talk about their own personal experiences.
“Symptoms tend to include checking their appearance repeatedly and trying to camouflage or alter the defects they see,” Prof Veale said. “Many patients often undergo needless cosmetic treatments. Onlookers are frequently perplexed because they can see nothing out of the ordinary, but BDD causes devastating distress and interferes substantially with the individual’s ability to function socially.
“Ideally, we want to try and diagnose people with BDD early, as treating them is easier than once the thoughts and anxieties have really become entrenched.”
BDD is commonly referred to in the media as “Imagined Ugliness Syndrome” which isn’t particularly helpful as “ugliness” is very real to the individual concerned and does not reflect the stress and anxiety that BDD can cause.
“Many people with BDD don’t always seek help as they are worried about being viewed as vain and narcissistic. The condition is incredibly misunderstood, and more funding is needed for research. Figures show that one in 330 people commit suicide each year because of their BDD, so it is important that the media helps to raise awareness of BDD and most importantly reinforce the fact that it is a treatable condition,” Prof Veale says.
Social media and bullying has frequently been cited as a contributory factor in influencing body image. A recent survey showed that teenagers spend over an hour a day using social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
In recent years, the “selfie” has become a social media phenomenon with smartphones making it easier to take daily snaps of yourself. A survey showed that 16-25 year olds spend on average 16 minutes and seven attempts to take the perfect selfie.
Prof Veale says: “It is difficult to draw the line where body dissatisfaction stops and BDD starts. Social media, in particular Instagram, certainly play a part in showcasing perfect bodies and BDD patients just want to fit in with what they see.”
Many people who suffer with BDD try to alter perceived defects with frequent and repetitive cosmetic surgery. However, fewer than 10% of BDD patients will be satisfied with the results of the surgery, and their anxieties are often transferred to another aspect of their appearance. It is thought that around 15% of people seeking plastic surgery have BDD.
“At least a third of patients I see with BDD have had one or more procedures of cosmetic surgery. Although this can temporarily reduce the anxiety caused by their BDD, they will often find themselves fixating on another part of their body that they want to change. It is increasingly worrying that BDD patients are able to undergo cosmetic procedures and I’m concerned that some patients may have ‘botched’ surgery which will ultimately make the condition worse,” Prof Veale says.
“BDD at its worst can make regular employment or family life impossible. Those in regular employment or who have family responsibilities will almost certainly find life more productive and satisfying if they did not have the symptoms of BDD. Partners, friends, and family members find it very distressing when they are unable to help the person they love stop feeling ugly and regain control of their lives.”
Prof David Veale outlines what to look out for if you think someone you know may be suffering with BDD:
- Obsessively checking their appearance in a mirror or reflective surface
- Cutting or combing their hair to make it “just so”
- Picking their skin to make it smooth and feeling for imperfections and flaws
- Constantly comparing themselves against models in magazines or friends/ celebrities social media
- Disproportionate amount of discussion about their appearance
- Using make-up to camouflage and hide behind