Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/29/2021
Whether it’s happened after a night out for cocktails or a day in, bingeing on your latest ‘convenience’ food delivery, you’ve probably looked in the mirror at some point and felt unhappy with your physical appearance.
From acne and water weight to unrealistic beauty standards and the expectations imposed by society, there are plenty of manufactured “reasons” for us to find flaws in our physical appearance.
However, there’s a big difference between wanting to drop (or gain) a few pounds because your healthcare provider recommends it and being so ashamed of your appearance that you avoid stepping out of the house altogether.
If you’re experiencing the latter, you may have a mental health condition called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is when your assessment of your own physical appearance becomes detached from reality.
Yet here’s the thing: Symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder can sometimes resemble those of depression and anxiety, and it’s important to know the difference and root cause, so you can heal in the best way possible.
Below we detail what body dysmorphic disorder entails, including symptoms and treatment options. Read on to learn more, and to start feeling like your best self again.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition, and specifically, a body image disorder.
It is characterized by frequent or persistent negative feelings and perceptions about one’s own body. And it can completely mess with your daily life.
Furthermore, BDD can keep you from experiencing or living life in a normal way, either due to the negative feelings about your body, or because of perceived shortcomings.
Like some other mental health disorders, body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by unhealthy and intrusive thoughts that are persistent, overwhelming and hard to control or suppress.
It’s a totally miserable place to be in mentally, regardless of your size, and it affects people of all sizes.
Body dysmorphic disorder also affects both men and women, and some may find it surprising that it affects men and women nearly equally.
More than two percent of the population of men and women will experience body dysmorphic disorder at some point in life.
The condition is also sadly tied to some of the most difficult years of youth; it often begins around 12 to 13 years of age (although it has been diagnosed in children as young as five), precisely when body change and the anxieties of high school kick in.
In short, BDD is equally common and complicated for both men and women, and can cause serious problems if left unaddressed.
Symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder result from powerfully misleading cognitive perceptions about how you look.
They have similar traits to the symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well — and in this case, those feelings are just funneled directly into how you perceive your body.
Typical symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder include becoming obsessed with or hiding your body, constantly grooming hair, skin or other body parts, picking at your skin, constantly comparing yourself to other people, avoiding mirrors and social activities that may make you feel self-conscious, feeling anxious or depressed or generally ashamed of your body, undergoing unnecessary plastic surgery procedures and even suicidal thoughts in some cases.
Some of these symptoms can also appear as obsessive compulsive disorder.
The mental effects of BDD alone can be exhausting. If you suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, you could find yourself obsessing over perceived flaws for hours each day, without any sense of control over your thoughts.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), people with BDD most commonly see flaws in their nose, skin, hair, stomach or chest — and that’s true for both sexes and all genders.
It is thought that BDD is caused at least in part by extrinsic factors, and we don’t need to look at all the bikini-clad influencers on social media to understand why.
Society has some very particular expectations for a woman’s body, and while ‘mom jeans’ may have come into vogue, body dysmorphic disorder is still partially caused by society’s expectations.
But it may not be movies and magazines doing the most damage. Experts cite factors closer to us as causes of BDD.
These might include a family history of body dysmorphia, or BDD as a result of bullying. Certain personality types and even chemical imbalances (in the brain) may also contribute to BDD.
You may have a genetic predisposition to BDD, and your neurobiological factors (including your serotonin levels) may be to blame.
Experts also suggest child neglect and sexual trauma as potential causes of body dysmorphia, so if you had particularly traumatizing events in your early years or suffered from PTSD from before you can remember, this may contribute to why you don’t like what you see in the mirror.
Body dysmorphic disorder is best treated with a combination of approaches. The first of these might be effective therapeutic techniques.
In person and online therapy practices like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been shown to be very effective in treating BDD.
CBT can help people suffering from BDD break intrusive and debilitating thought patterns at the root of false bodily perceptions.
And, furthermore, CBT can even help replace those thoughts with new, healthy behaviors and thoughts about your physical appearance.
Find out about other therapy modalities in this guide: What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Is It Right for You?
Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may also help you address the chemical imbalance that could be to blame for this condition. It’s one of the many tools a healthcare professional might employ to help you deal with BDD.
A mental health professional might also talk to you about prevention efforts. While you or a loved one may already be starting to show signs of BDD, catching it early before it becomes a serious condition can greatly help in the long run. This is particularly important if you have a teenager in your life, or you are one.
If you have a loved one showing symptoms of BDD, pay attention to how they talk about and treat their body, and look for the signs that they may be perceiving themselves negatively.
We all have slight defects in our appearances, and it’s perfectly normal to feel self-conscious in some social situations.
But when it becomes a debilitating problem — when your appearance makes you so worried about participating in your own social life that it feels like you have an anxiety disorder — it’s time to get help.
Compulsive behaviors like appearance-checking and over-grooming are the result of a mental health disorder, not of your own imperfections.
Whether body dysmorphic disorder is affecting you or someone you love, there are options available for treatment, and they should be explored.
We have a blog specifically on body image issues and mental health if you'd like to learn more.
Stop the mirror checking, drop the idea of cosmetic surgery, and get the help you need.
Symptoms of BDD can be difficult to deal with, and treating BDD will not be easy. It’s a complicated disorder, and many people struggle with it for years before getting the help they need.
But solo struggle is unnecessary and whether you love your body right now or not, you and your body both deserve love and support.
Talk to someone about these feelings. That may be a loved one you can text, or a family member you can call.
Ultimately, it’s best to contact a professional. You can contact a mental health professional now to explore treatment and support options for BDD.
But do it today. The body you have is the only one you’re going to get until we figure out that whole cloning thing, and even then, you should appreciate it.
It’s worthy of more love than it may be getting right now, and you have to be the first one to show it that love to start the ball rolling.