Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone who doesn’t look like you. Terrifying, right? But this is the reality for many of the people suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
We all dislike something about our own physical appearance; it’s human nature. But for someone struggling with BDD, this dislike becomes an extreme preoccupation that makes them want to hide their perceived “defect” from others. Many get to the point where it’s difficult to go out in public, to be comfortable in their own skin or to interact with other people. They constantly struggle their feelings of “ugliness” or disfigurement.
The Facts About BDD
While it’s common among people who have eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, not every case of BDD manifests in a desire to control body weight. A person suffering from BDD may obsess over other physical traits like their hair, facial features, breasts or muscle tone.
In most cases, the perceived flaw either doesn’t exist or is hugely blown out of proportion. But when they look in the mirror, the “defect” is likely all they can see because their perception is distorted.
For people with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders, the preoccupation with physical “imperfection” often manifests as a desire to control one’s body weight through extreme dieting, exercise or episodes of binging followed by purging (typically through self-induced vomiting, exercise or use of laxatives).
Teens and Young Adults at Risk
Body dysmorphic disorder affects an estimated 1 in 50 people in the US, with a much higher rate among teenagers and 20-somethings. Like most eating disorders, it is more common among people who are prone to perfectionism. People with BDD often also suffer from low self-esteem, because they feel unable to control or manage their perceived flaw(s).
“I was twenty pounds underweight, but when I looked in the mirror, all I could notice was the fat on my thighs,” Laurie, a college student is in recovery from anorexia, tells me. “People were always telling me I was too thin and ‘need to eat something’ but I didn’t believe them.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy may be effective in treating the disorder, studies have found. In this therapy model, patients learn to resist compulsive behaviors and face situations they may have avoided, such as confronting their own body or body part. Anti-depressants, like Prozac or Zoloft, have also been found to aid in recovery for people with BDD.
Laurie says in-patient treatment – including CBT therapy and a 12-step program for people with eating disorders – helped her learn to learn to accept her body’s natural feel and shape.
“I still struggle with [disordered eating],” she says. “Recovery is an ongoing process. But I’m a much healthier weight now and I have a social life. I don’t love the way I look, but I’m okay with it…and that’s major progress for me.”
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