Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is an obsessive preoccupation of a perceived or imagined defect or flaw in personal appearance that others generally do not see.1 BDD is not confined to specific body parts; however, issues with the nose, chest, stomach, hair or skin are most common among people with this disorder. People with this disorder can be unhappy with any part of their body, though most commonly, they have issues with their nose, chest, stomach, hair, or skin. The individual may focus on any part of the body and the preoccupation may involve multiple body parts at the same time. In reality, the perceived flaw may only be a small imperfection or not exist at all. However, the person with BDD perceives the imperfection as being very obvious, which can cause extreme emotional problems and issues with everyday life.2
A person is diagnosed with BDD only when their preoccupation causes them severe emotional distress and/or interferes with daily thoughts and actions. It is not uncommon for people with BDD to undergo numerous plastic surgeries in an attempt to augment the perceived imperfections, yet oftentimes they are still not happy with the results.2
BDD is not categorized as an obsessive-compulsive related disorder, although they are similar. It can often be diagnosed alongside other anxiety disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder. In addition, people with BDD commonly suffer from depression and eating disorders.2
Who is Susceptible?
Adolescents and teens are at a higher risk of developing BDD, and BDD is equally likely to develop in males and females.2 The average age of people diagnosed with the disorder is seventeen, but most research has been done on adults 35 years and older.1
In today’s society, it is virtually impossible to avoid expectations regarding body image. Media often sets an unattainable standard and expectation of beauty. Photoshopped models appear in nearly all aspects of everyday lives -- on television, billboards, and the internet. People are constantly being bombarded with images of the media’s strict standard of beauty. This constant exposure makes it exceedingly difficult to avoid comparing oneself with these unrealistic expectations of beauty. Though some people remain confident in themselves, despite the media’s constant presence, many people can become dissatisfied with their own bodies due to societal pressures.
Causes of BDD
The direct cause of BDD is unknown, but there are several social and biological situations that can increase the likelihood of developing BDD. Social factors such as the societal concentration on appearance and “perfection” and the cultural “beauty ideal” contribute to the formation of BDD in an individual.
Biological causes that may lead to BDD include a serotonin and dopamine imbalance, which causes the neurotransmitters to not send or receive signals correctly. Studies have shown that individuals with BDD struggle to read facial expressions and thus can falsely perceive others’ facial expressions as negative.
Personal Effects of BDD
Individuals with BDD often develop compulsive behaviors revolving around body image, such as persistent examining of the body in the mirror or picking at certain body parts. People with BDD may avoid social situations because they are concerned that they will be rejected or judged due to their perceived defect. The individual may imagine that others are paying attention to this perceived flaw and are laughing at it or judging them, when in reality others are entirely unaware of the invented physical defect.1
People with BDD can have preoccupations with their appearance that last for a few hours or an entire day. These compulsive obsessions are difficult to resist or control, making it hard for people with BDD to pay attention to anything but their perceived imperfections. The constant anxiety can cause problems at work or school, low self esteem, and avoidance of social situations. In extreme cases of BDD, people may not leave the house at all, have suicidal thoughts, or even commit suicide.2
Those suffering from BDD may execute compulsive or repeating behavior in order to try and improve their perceived flaws. Unfortunately, these behaviors generally result in only fleeting relief. Examples of such behavior include the following: camouflaging the perceived flaw to make it less noticeable (body positioning, clothes, makeup, hair), comparing oneself to others, seeking surgery, consulting a mirror, avoiding mirrors, excessive exercising, and skin picking.2
BDD Effects in Men
BDD has been shown to affect men and women differently. Men tend to be preoccupied with genital size, hair loss, musculature, and build. The body part may be seen as important to the individual’s identity based on the degree to which it is visible, controllable, and seen as a symbol of masculinity. These perceived flaws are seen more frrequently in the homosexual male population, but little research has been done.
Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD) is a type of BDD. It is often referred to as “Reverse Anorexia” or “Bigorexia” by the media. MDD is characterized by a preoccupation with having a large amount of musculature or a lack of body fat. Due to the obsession with body build, men tend to cope with BDD (and MDD) by exercising excessively. This coping mechanism can prove to be detrimental to the body if the individual does not receive proper nutrition or rest. Men suffering from MDD are more apt to over train their body, even if they have an injury.3 Men with BDD may also turn to steroid use in order to battle their perceived imperfection. Body-building and MDD can be differentiated because normal body-building is a strenuous lifestyle, but does not involve a distorted body image or a preoccupation with small muscles. Men are able to participate in body building in a healthy manner.3
Some men experiencing male pattern baldness (MPB) can become fixated on it as a perceived flaw and develop BDD. MPB is the progressive thinning of hair on the scalp. The thinning or loss of hair is often seen as less desirable than having a full head of hair. MPB is not usually the main concern of men with BDD. The lack of hair generally is a piece of the puzzle of a number of anxieties regarding masculinity. Many BDD “fixes” for baldness exist including: haircuts that hide baldness, hats, and wigs. Some men even turn to drugs, like Minoxidil, or hair transplants to feel better about themselves. However, there is not enough evidence and research to show if these methods help BDD sufferers in the long run.3
Lastly, height can be a concern of someone suffering from BDD. Some people might use their dress or environment to alter people’s perceptions of their height, while others turn to corrective surgery. These surgeries try to lengthen the leg bones in an attempt to make the patient taller. However, these surgeries are controversial. No research has been done to understand the psychological effects of lengthening a person’s leg on BDD.3
BDD Effects in Women
Women with BDD tend to become preoccupied with skin, limb size, hips and weight. Picking at the skin and going to excessive lengths to cover up the face and skin are common behaviors in women with BDD.1 Women with BDD are also more likely than men to have bulimia nervosa at the same time. Individuals with BDD may seek cosmetic surgery to fix their perceived flaws. Surgeries that women commonly undergo may include alteration of many different body parts, such as the breasts, nose, or stomach. Surgeries to change the physical appearance often tend to create new destructive body images in individuals with BDD.2
Treatment & Support for BDD
BDD is diagnosed by a trained clinician. In order to obtain an accurate diagnosis and suitable treatment, it is important for patients to voice their concerns with their appearance when they meet with their doctor or health professional.
There is a online self-test that can be taken in the privacy of your own home that helps suggest if BDD is present, but this test does not offer a definitive diagnosis. You can access the self-test here.
Treatments have proven to help people with BDD live healthy, fulfilling lives. BDD can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medications.2 Cognitive behavioral therapy is meant to regulate negative emotions including anxiety and depression, which can cause low self-esteem and a warped sense of appearance. CBT uses behavioral strategies to allow individuals to cope with obsessive behaviors and diminish self-deprecating emotions. It is essential that people with BDD concentrate on the underlying psychological issues and think less about their appearance and perceived imperfections. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), or antidepressants, have proven to be an effective treatment for BDD and may be used along with CBT. Treatment should be specialized for each patient, and thus it is essential for patients to talk with a doctor to create the most effective medical therapy and plan for their situation.2
It is important to communicate about BDD and related disorders, like eating disorders, with friends and family in order for treatment to be effective.
Many organizations have emerged to counteract the growing prevalence of BDD. Organizations such as Project Heal help support those suffering with disorders like BDD and its side effects, creating positive campaigns against the media’s depiction of idealized body image. Other organizations include the BDD Foundation and the BODY Charity. The main goals of these organizations are to educate the public, provide free help to people with BDD, run self-help classes, and re-educate health care professions on misdiagnosis around body disorders.
Many advertisements, especially in print media, are photoshopped and altered so much that oftentimes the models themselves are unrecognizable in the photo. It is important to educate yourself and those around you about how the media’s depiction of body image is unrealistic. Additionally do not be afraid to seek help if you believe you are suffering from BDD or other body image related disorders.
BDD & Sex
Individuals with BDD obsess over physical appearance, which can get in the way of sexual and emotional relationships. Feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem directly affect the ability to have a positive sexual self image. In combination with CBT and SRIs, individuals may gain a more positive body image and gain the ability to look past body image to enjoy sex. It is important to feel comfortable with yourself and love yourself before you can truly love someone else. If you are struggling with an eating disorder or BDD, a good partner will be supportive and understanding.
Are you or someone you know struggling with Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
If you think you may have BDD, it is not your fault. Seek help from a trusted family member, friend, or mentor. Many resources and support groups are available to help you cope with the disorder.
1. Friedman, Howard, CM Elliot, and S. Wilhelm. "Body Dysmorphic Disorder." Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Vol. 2. N.p.: Academic, 2016. 183-85. Print.
2. "Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)." Anxiety and Depression Association of America. ADAA, Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
3. "Muscle Dysmorphia & Body Image in Men." Muscle Dysmorphia and Body Image in Men. Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, 2016. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.
Last Updated 20 October 2016.