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Body dysmorphia: the everyday struggle

Characterised by a preoccupation with an imagined defect in a person’s appearance, BDD affects around 0.5 - 0.7% of the UK population. So what's everyday life like for a sufferer?

By Helen Bowman

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of looking in the mirror and fixating on the smallest imperfection in the reflection. But at its most disruptive, Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) causes anxiety and depression and isn’t easily treated.

BDD From a Clinical Viewpoint

Shamshad Shah is a dietitian and wellbeing consultant who has experience of working with people with eating disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She tells us about her experience in recognising and treating BDD.

What is BDD?

According to NICE guidelines, around 0.5%-0.7% of the British population suffers from BDD.

It’s characterised by a preoccupation with an imagined defect in a person’s appearance. Sufferers spend their time looking in the mirror, comparing a particular part of their features to others and using excessive camouflaging tactics to hide a defect, such as make up or tattoos. They may also look for reassurance about their appearance more than non-sufferers.

Is BDD something that most of us suffer from in varying degrees?

I think it could be argued that we all suffer to a certain degree. I believe that social media and the airbrushing techniques employed by the advertising industry have been very damaging in recent years. Young girls in particular are set false standards by the way the media portrays prominent figures, and through the rise of influencers on platforms such as Instagram. Clinically, many young girls may not be diagnosed with BDD, but they do develop harmful habits such as intolerance of the slightest blemish on their features.

As a nation, we’re all becoming more preoccupied with our looks, and perhaps the prevalence of social media has added to this rise. There’s been a huge increase in the number of apps available which enable users to alter their complexion or figure to fit into the ‘aesthetic’ on platforms like Instagram. It’s crucial that young people and parents are educated in the dangers of mental health issues caused by social media so we can help ourselves to fight against disorders like BDD and OCD.

How can someone seek help if they’re suffering from BDD?

Your GP is always the best first contact if you’re concerned about yourself or a family member who is displaying signs of BDD. In the first instance, a GP will consider how distressing the symptoms are and how much these symptoms are affecting quality of life. Mild BDD is manageable on a day to day basis, but severe BDD can affect a person’s everyday life.

Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have been proven to be successful for many sufferers, and medication is available through GPs should symptoms be extreme or severe.

Find out more about BDD and the available treatments here.

Shamshad Shah is a dietician and wellness consultant – find out more.

Our Expert in Residence, therapist Sian Barnard from Peaceful Minds has a wealth of experience using CBT and hypnotherapy to help BDD sufferers. 

Kookie's Story

High Life North also spoke with Kookie, a 27-year-old model, actress, athlete, personal trainer and nutrition specialist. Based in Northumberland, Kookie has modelled for eight years and competes as a female bodybuilder and Strongwoman.

What’s your story with Body Dysmorphia?

I’ve suffered with BDD since I was about 12 years old. I was surrounded by negative influences from family members and was bullied as a child. By the time I was 14 I had developed an eating disorder. All I saw in the media was the size zero model and I became obsessed with looking like the women I saw portrayed in the press and on television. I kept my eating disorder a secret until I was 16 and it’s something that I have never really received any help with, and I struggle with it daily.

Bodybuilding helps me control my eating disorder because I need to fuel my body in the right way to compete. Nutrition is crucial in my sport and I’ve enjoyed some amazing success. From my overall win at the UKUP Scottish championships in 2016 to my fourth place in IBFAUK UK championships in 2018, I’m determined to compete and succeed, and bodybuilding gives me the motivation I need to keep fighting.

How difficult is it to combat the feelings brought on by BDD?

It can be soul destroying. It controls every aspect of my life.

I don’t go out with friends, I freak out if I miss a workout. It impacts my marriage and my work. I live every day in the pursuit of a perfection that will never be there. When I look at my reflection it’s like looking in a fun house mirror; my mind magnifies every flaw, every imperfection. To me, what I see is real and I can’t convince myself otherwise. I see everything I want to change, and bodybuilding gives me a positive and less destructive outlet for it.

I’ve lived over half of my life with this disorder and I struggle every day to cope with it. I suffer self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. I’ve suffered with depression since I was 15 and I believe a huge part of that is due to my BDD. I’m also a sufferer of fibromyalgia which adds to the struggle of attaining the physique my brain demands.

I started getting tattooed when I was 15 because I wanted to cover what I so passionately hated with things that were beautiful. It draws people’s eyes away from my other flaws and they help cover a number of scars. I have someone else’s beautiful work on my body which makes me feel more comfortable with my appearance.

Find out more about Kookie’s journey by following her on Instagram and Facebook.

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