Written by Stephanie Kleanthous
Illustration by Laura Buckell
Body dysmorphic disorder, also known as BDD, is a widely misinterpreted and under-represented mental health issue. It is not to be confused with eating disorders. It is something I’ve had for 7 years. Currently my diagnosis is ‘mild BDD’, because I’ve put in a lot of hard work to progress and better the relationship I have with myself.
I decided to Google the definition of BDD to help myself try and explain something that makes complete sense in my own head but perhaps not to others. Lo and behold, the NHS definition is: “A mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. These flaws are often unnoticeable to others”.
Anyone reading this with BDD, I can guarantee, is screaming: What a fucking understatement.
So here is my more in depth description of how people with BDD actually feel.
In the past, whenever I’d explain how I viewed my body or face, those around me would express the most baffled faces. It became clear to me that I viewed myself completely differently to everyone else, and that’s probably the scariest part of it all – not knowing what I look like.
We target specific parts of our body and face which we deem to be flaws, this much is true. But it isn’t just time spent ‘worrying’, it’s an endless amount of time spent staring in the mirror at how disgusting you are and then the next day not being able to cope when a mirror is placed in front of you.
It’s seeing yourself differently in every photo until you don’t recognise yourself. It’s walking around thinking every person is staring at that feature or features you find sickening, convinced passers by are judging you.
I was so obsessed with having a flat stomach at school that I wore Spanx (those suck in your stomach knickers) to my sixth form Leavers’ Ball, terrified people would notice a bulge without them. I look back now and I can see how tiny I am. Often we start to realise how warped our view of ourselves was or is when we look back at old photos.
When I was 21 and single I couldn’t even be seen without my t-shirt on in bed, because of the crippling anxiety that men might see how ‘ugly’ my stomach was. If it wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t good enough.
Picturing myself differently each time in my head, I’d focus on the size of my forehead, nose and chin the most. I was often the friend who hated every group photo, asking for ‘just one more’ before giving up and then resisting the urge to beg people to take them off social media because I didn’t want to be “that guy”.
Getting dressed … let’s just say it’s an absolute ballache. My room is constantly covered in clothes. I have to try on about twenty different things because nothing ‘looks right’. For a while, I began sticking to shapeless garments and wide leg trousers so I didn’t have to be constantly concerned with how my body looked underneath.
With each outfit change comes time spent in the mirror twisting and turning to see exactly how you’ll look from all angles. If I were to give advice on how to improve your getting dressed routine, it’s to cut down the mirror time. Set an alarm if you need to. Discipline is key.
If you’re witnessing someone going through this in their room, don’t rush them. It only leads to more panic and distress. Hurrying could end up in them not wanting to leave the house at all. Approach people with empathy and understanding, help them put an outfit together if you can.
Another thing is the strive for perfection on one’s own appearance and comparing yourself to others.
When I was eleven you’d find me in class drawing before and after photos of myself. The ‘before’ was me with a huge forehead, nose and chin, the ‘after’ was me post-nose job, jaw reformation and apparently a smaller forehead. I’m still waiting for this groundbreaking forehead reduction surgery to be implemented. To finish off I always gave myself blonde hair and blue eyes, bombarded with Western beauty ideals on the covers of Sugar and Cosmo.
Love yourself again
Something that’s really helped me is taking a lot of photos of my body. I’m not a doctor and I’m not saying this would work for everyone but it’s worth trying. Put on some lingerie and snap away – you can just keep them for yourself and then if you like them, look back on how good you looked or felt when you’re having a down day.
People around you
The fact that the NHS has defined BDD as focusing on an imaginary flaw is incredibly misleading. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I had many comments about the size of my nose, chin and forehead.
Surrounding yourself with these types of ‘friends’ or ‘partners’ is extremely damaging and can only provoke a person’s BDD as this condition can stem from bullying and/or genetics (mine has stemmed from both).
If you suspect that you have it or have been diagnosed, only keep people that want to see you succeed around you. Don’t waste time on those who only wish to take their own insecurities out on you.
Due to the fact we don’t see ourselves how others do, we can end up trusting other’s opinions more than our own, especially if they’re negative because it only reinforces ideas we already had. I often found myself seeking validation in others rather than in myself. This gave those around me the power to control my confidence with their words.
I didn’t want this article to be dedicated solely to how BDD has impacted my life, so I asked a few people I know to share their own battles with it and how it affects their daily lives:
‘It can take me hours to build up the courage to leave the house’.Anonymous
I think this is one many people with BDD can relate to on those really bad days where nothing is working and ultimately, you just feel sick.
‘I would skip uni a lot’.Anonymous
When a mental health issue is having an impact on your education, it’s not just ‘focusing on a flaw’, it’s pure turmoil going on inside your head.
‘I think everyone’s looking at me and analysing my flaws’.Anonymous
One person I spoke to has been wearing Spanx since they were eleven years old due to feeling like their stomach wasn’t flat enough.
What to take away
If there’s one thing you take from this article as a person without BDD, aside from a deeper understanding, it’s to not always assume that someone looking for reassurance on their appearance is just ‘seeking attention’. There’s a lot more going on in a person’s head. Let’s stop judging each other and start approaching with empathy.
If you’re a person with BDD reading this, I hope it’s helped you see that you’re not alone, you’re not going crazy and you’re relationship with yourself can get better over time as most of the issues I’ve mentioned I no longer deal with. I would advise anyone struggling to seek help through their GP if any of what I’ve mentioned sounds familiar. Awareness is the first step to healing.
For a better and more in-depth description that what the NHS has to offer, click here.