Everything You Need to Know About Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia goes beyond mere dissatisfaction with one’s appearance. It’s a debilitating condition that can dominate thoughts and disrupt everyday life. Discover the symptoms, causes, and treatments for body dysmorphic disorder, and learn how to support those affected by it.

Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta By Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Updated on May 24, 2024

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Body dysmorphia is more than body dissatisfaction. Most of us have something we think is flawed about our looks. But if you’re suffering from body dysmorphia, these perceived flaws can cripple you with social anxiety and shame to the extent of ruining your ability to function socially, at work, at school, and in every aspect of your life. You might spend several hours a day just fretting about how you look. Yet no matter what you do, things don’t seem to get any better.

If this sounds like you or someone you want to help, read on to learn about body dysmorphia symptoms, its causes, effects on daily life, survivors’ stories, and more.

Understanding Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphic disorder, also known as dysmorphia or BDD, is a condition that makes someone obsess over their body or appearance to the point it interferes with their normal daily activities.

What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), body dysmorphia is a mental health disorder since it causes significant psychological and emotional distress and brings notable changes in behavior. Two percent of the general world population have a body dysmorphic disorder, and both males and females can develop it. The number is, however, higher in certain groups such as teenagers and those who work in dermatology or cosmetic surgery settings. BDD often develops during the teenage years.

Body Dysmorphia Causes and Symptoms

If you have body dysmorphia, you may notice the following signs and symptoms:

What Causes BDD?

While causes of body dysmorphia aren’t known, common factors include childhood trauma, low self-esteem, genetics, and social media.

BDD-triggering traumatic childhood experiences include racism, sexual abuse, bullying, and psychological abuse. Many people with body dysmorphia struggle with low self-esteem, leading them to associate their value to their physical appearance. This unhealthy association can lead them to develop body dysmorphia. Some studies suggest that if someone has a parent or sibling with BDD, the chances of developing it are higher than those who don’t. Further, recent psychiatry studies suggest that social media is one of the major environmental factors that can trigger the development or worsening of BDD due to distorted perceptions of beauty and perfection.

Body Dysmorphia and Mental Health

Many individuals with BDD also have another mental health condition. “Body dysmorphia can be a symptom of other disorders, such as gender dysphoria and anorexia,” says Christy Barongan, a licensed clinical psychologist at Grow Therapy. However, there are some mental health conditions with similar symptoms as BDD, yet they have defining differences.

Body Dysmorphia and Anorexia Nervosa

Body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia nervosa (AN) both involve a distorted view of one’s physical appearance. Both manifest unhealthy behavior, like fixation on or avoidance of mirrors and avoiding social isolation.

When differentiating between BDD and AN, these questions help define the differences:

  1. What is the body focus? People with body dysmorphia focus on specific parts of the body while individuals with anorexia nervosa obsess over the entire body weight, shape, and size.
  2. Are there unusual eating behaviors? If an individual has abnormal eating habits like restricted diet and binging plus purging, they may be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or another eating disorder. People who have BDD do not necessarily have restricted eating behaviors.

People can have both BDD and AN. In such cases‌, a practitioner can administer treatment strategies that work on both disorders.

Body Dysmorphia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Body dysmorphic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are similar in that those struggling with either condition have repetitive and uncontrollable thoughts, compulsive repetitive behaviors like mirror checking, and experience negative feelings such as shame.

However, BDD and OCD differ in that:

One person can have both BDD and OCD. Therefore, experts in both BDD and OCD are better equipped to treat someone with both disorders.

Body Dysmorphia and Mood Disorders

BDD, when untreated, can lead to ‌mood disorders like anxiety and depression. But it’s unclear if ‌mood disorders can cause BDD. In a recent study, 13.9% of 1,112 university students had body dysmorphia accompanied by anxiety, depression, and stress.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Learn how Body Dysmorphia is categorized, diagnosed, and treated.

What Are the Types of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

The most common subtypes of BDD include:

Body dysmorphia can be over any body part including the face (from skin blemishes to the shape of the eye), body hair, buttocks, legs, thighs, stomach, and others.

What if I Have a Natural Physical Defect?

Visible flaws also need healthy acceptance. Otherwise, one may develop a body dysmorphic disorder. “It’s possible to have body dysmorphia while having a physical defect, but body dysmorphia can cause a distorted and exaggerated view of the physical defect or imperfection,” says Julia Preamplume, a licensed clinical social worker at Grow Therapy.

How Is Body Dysmorphia Diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with BDD, your doctor or therapist will consider the following criteria:

Typically, a mental health professional will find out the nature and severity of your BDD using BDD screening instruments and a specialized questionnaire. They’ll ask about your symptoms, how they’re affecting your lifestyle, experiences you think triggered this mental illness, and more. If you are concerned you or someone you love has body dysmorphia, you can take a body dysmorphia test before confirming with a professional.

How Is Body Dysmorphia Treated?

Psychotherapy and medications are the two main forms of treatment for body dysmorphia used by mental healthcare providers.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, shortly known as CBT, is the most common and effective form of therapy used for BDD. During CBT, a therapist helps their client work through negative thoughts and emotions about parts of their body. Mental health care professionals also use antidepressants (specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) in therapy to manage symptoms of BDD.

Coping With Body Dysmorphia

The safest and fastest way to your recovery is to seek a mental health expert to treat body dysmorphia.

However, you can also use the following practices to manage BDD:

How to Help Someone With Body Dysmorphia

The American Psychiatric Association recommends that you first learn about BDD to understand what your loved one is going through.

Here are some more steps to take to help a loved one with BDD:

Final Word on Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphic disorder can invade every aspect of a person’s life, making it unbearable. If any of the above body dysmorphia symptoms apply to you or your loved one, or if you have had increasingly obsessive or intrusive thoughts about your physical appearance, we encourage you to seek professional help.

If you’re considering seeking assistance from a therapist and need help figuring out where to start, don’t worry! We can help you find a therapist near you who matches your insurance and specific needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta is a licensed mental health counselor with over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She helps individuals overcome numerous issues, including stress and anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression, behavioral issues, and grief.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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