Internalised criticism has to be one of the most irritating, tiring, and unproductive things to come from the human brain. Like the scene in Mean Girls where Regina, Gretchen and Karen gather round a mirror to complain: ‘My hips are huge!’ ‘I hate my calves’ and ‘I’ve got man shoulders’ before turning to Cady expecting her to have a go, some level of self-loathing is expected of most young people.
So it's almost unsurprising that a ginormous 81% of 18- to 24-year-olds have shown signs of body dysmorphia, according to new research from charitable social enterprise Better for Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Poor body image is overwhelmingly affecting young adults, with the same age group being the most likely to use ‘special diets’, supplements, steroids or cosmetic surgery to ‘enhance’ our appearance.
Questions about body dysmorphia have been piling up in a Reddit thread of the same name, which has seen a massive 70% subscriber increase since January last year as sufferers search for answers.
So, we’ve spoken to experts and medical professionals about the condition to try and gather answers, signpost treatment, and make having the symptoms feel a little less lonely.
How do I know I have body dysmorphia?
Body Dysmorphia is a mental illness where sufferers become overly concerned about how they look. Essentially, if you’re experiencing it, you’ll have a distorted perception of your body shape, which can damage your self-esteem, cause anxiety, and negatively affect the way you live your daily life.
Dr Bryony Bamford, founder of The London Centre For Eating Disorders And Body Image told Grazia that Body Dysmorphic Disorder is diagnosed on a number of specific criteria. These are:
You have a preoccupation with an imagined ‘defect’ or ‘flaw’ in your physical appearance
You think about this preoccupation for a minimum of one hour per day, every day
You have compulsive and/or repetitive behaviours because of this preoccupation: Mirror checking, excessive grooming, skin picking, reassurance seeking, frequent clothes changing, appearance comparisons, obsession photo taking or video watching can all be major signs.
You are so worried about this preoccupation with your appearance that it interferes with work, socialising and relationships.
‘Whether or not appearance concerns are causing significant distress is somewhat of a subjective criteria,’ noted Dr Bamford. ‘However, if appearance concerns feel enough of a problem for someone to consider seeking help, then they likely are causing significant distress.'
Where do you draw the line between really bad insecurities and body dysmorphia?
‘Everyone feels unhappy with how they look from time to time,’ Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists told Grazia. ‘For someone with body dysmorphic disorder, those feelings can be constant and overwhelming despite others telling them there’s nothing wrong with how they look. In severe cases, it can prevent people from going outside, or even drive them to want to end their lives.’
‘Individuals are trying to gain worth through their appearance, although this is not a conscious process’ explained Eating Disorder Dietician Renee McGregor. ‘It becomes a disorder when it creates so much anxiety that it impacts daily life. Where it feeds into other unhelpful behaviours but also takes up so much energy and space that it’s all the individual can think about.’
Why am I scared of mirrors and photos?
If you’re experiencing body dysmorphia, taking a photo or looking in the mirror can leave you feeling ‘very dissatisfied and upset,’ Rachel Matthews, Director for Mental Health at Beat’s partner the Schoen Clinic, explained to Grazia. This is because you're trying to avoid facing what you think is wrong with your body or face.
However, some people who are suffering actually find that they’re obsessively checking their appearance in mirrors of photos for hours of each day, instead. ‘Both behaviours are seen as safety or maintaining behaviours,’ Dr Bamford said. ‘Psychological treatment will attempt to reduce the time spent checking and/or avoiding [because] in both instances, looking at photos or in mirrors forces people to engage with their appearance concerns and can cause significant anxiety or distress. '
What is Snapchat dysmorphia?
As many of us are all too aware, Snapchat and Instagram have a range of filters that smooth your skin, shrink your nose, brighten your eyes and contour your cheeks. A reportlater found that these filters blurred 'the line of reality and fantasy' in a way that could be responsible for triggering BDD. In fact, the Female Lead's latest study even found that 78% of people believe that social media has negatively affected the way they view their bodies.
But there are ways to combat this. As part of the Female Lead's Disrupt Your Feed campaign, you can follow a curated group of women who are a force for good on their Recommended Follows list. You can also contribute to healthier social media use by avoiding comparison to others and being kind in the comments.
How do I overcome gym anxiety?
If you suffer with BDD or another eating disorder, there’s a change you experience anxiety when you go to the gym. From the huge mirrors to comparing yourself with others, it can be difficult not to focus on your flaws when stepping into a space designed for self-improvement.
‘Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been the most impactful for of therapy for those with BDD,’ explained McGregor of gym anxiety. 'Also, trying to focus on the positive impacts of exercising – participation, social connection and benefits to health rather than a fixation on a particular aesthetic outcome.’
Will I still feel this way when I reach my fitness goals?
The answer to this one is, unfortunately, yes. You might think reaching a goal will make you happy but experts explained that actually, this can cause your anxiety to get worse because you’ll just be more focused on appearance in general.
Ultimately, BDD anxiety is caused by another underlying issue, rather than an ‘appearance’ flaw and that’s what you need to focus on. As Dr Elizabeth McNaught explained to Grazia: ‘Like with anorexia, everyone will have an ideal body weight where they think “then I’ll be thin enough”.
'The truth is you’ll never be thing enough. It will never ever be good enough. Even if you loose that weight or tone that muscle it won’t take long before you find another issue that becomes important in your mind. You need to deal with you mental health instead and why it is that you feel so negative about how you look.’
Where does the self-hatred that causes body dysmorphia come from?
Dr Bamford explained to Grazia that BDD can be triggered by ‘significant life events such as bullying or trauma’ but this isn’t always the case. In fact, the root cause of body dysmorphia can be different for everyone, and like all mental health conditions there can be many contributing factors.
McGregor considers BBD a biological based illness, basically meaning that certain people are more susceptible genetically than others to the condition. But it’s this in combination with other psycho-social factors that make people feel like they need to alter their body to ‘feel better’.
What advice is there for someone with body dysmorphia?
Every single specialist and doctor we spoke to said the same thing: If you think you are suffering with body dysmorphia, get professional help. ‘Go and speak to your GP,’ said Dr McNaught. ‘Touch base with them, have a supportive session. They can identify if you need mental health support and refer you to their services like talking therapies.’
‘It’s important to get professional support,’ McGregor added. ‘It’s also worth remembering that our body is the least interesting thing about us. While it may feel like the focus when you have BDD, in reality the flaws often perceived are not noticeable by anyone else. Focus on how amazing the human body is and what it can actually do.’
Where can I get help for body dysmorphia?
If you think you are suffering with Body Dysmorphic Disorder or body dysmorphia symptoms, there are many organisations that offer help and guidance for free:
The BDD Foundation The Body Dysmorphic Foundation offers online support groups, podcast and book recommendations and online forums and an email helpline to help sufferers tackle the condition. Access the services here.
Mind offers mental health support with free helplines, daily tips, and a mental heal A-Z with listings of many conditions. If you call their helpline, they can offer advice and guidance on what's best for you to do next. Visit their website here.
Boots’ online mental health services
Boots pharmacy are now offering online mental health service to enable people to get the help they need quickly. On their site, you can access talking therapies, prescription medicines, and a support room where you can message a therapist via text, learn self help tools and have video call check-ins. Visit the site here.
If you visit your GP, they can offer you support and advice on the best steps for you to take. On the NHS website, they say cognitive behavioural therapy and Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) can help to reduce symptoms of BDD. However, treatment will be offered through different service in each area, so it's always worth chatting to your GP about what's available.
Beat is the UK's Eating Disorder Charity and have helplines that are open 365 days of the year. They also have chat rooms and online resources that can help you talk and learn about your body dysmorphia.