Looking in the mirror sometimes feels like a gamble, a chance taken not always knowing what you’re going to see. Sometimes it’s as if someone put too much air in your midsection; other times it seems like you’re in a house of mirrors, with your chest too small and your bottom half cartoonishly engorged. You just keep looking, hoping and praying that it changes to something other than the gaunt eyes and mutated form staring back at you.
Body dysmorphic disorder is defined by the DSM-5, the psychological glossary of mental disorders, as a disorder closely associated with OCD that is denoted by an obsessive preoccupation with one or more specified physical flaw. This perceived flaw often has little to no basis in reality.
The distorted perception of one’s self goes beyond vanity. It can wreak havoc on everything from relationships with friends and family to one’s relationship with personal betterment. Statistically, 2.2 percent of women and 2.5 percent of men in the United States have had experiences with BDD in some way or another, but because of a lack of information and an aversion to professional help, it goes undiagnosed and is allowed to harm how one sees themselves.
In my experience, BDD rears its ugly head when I am scrounging up the last bit of daily motivation to go to the gym. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t struggle with a lot of the issues I talk about in these wellness columns. In the past, I dealt with BDD in juxtaposition with chronic dieting. Now, I am in a place where I eat well and exercise for the sake of self-love. The feeling that there is something inherently wrong with my body still remains a cross to bear.
According to the DSM-5, BDD is most often characterized by repetitive behavior, such as hair-pulling, mirror-checking or skin-pinching, as well as consistent obsessive preoccupation with a specific part of the body. Another symptom can be the persistent need of validation from friends and family or making attempts at fixing the perceived flaw through chronic dieting, skin treatments or corrective surgery.
It is important to note that BDD, while also being linked to illnesses like eating disorders, is only diagnosed independently when the person is focused on one specific flaw. People who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder often experience an eerily similar lack of perception regarding overall body weight. While this is considered clinically different from BDD, any level of dysmorphic disorders can cause major damage in the lives of people who experience them and warrant professional attention.
On some days, when I look at my reflection and see an unfamiliar body shifting before my eyes into a caricatured version of itself, the very thought of going to the gym feels unbearable. The idea of eating anything makes me nauseous, and all I want to do is roll up into a ball and hide myself in the dark.
As I have grown in my personal wellness journey, those kind of days are not lost to me. The only difference is a year ago, those days would have evolved into full-on shame spiral. But today, I have the mental and emotional tools to pick myself up and force myself to do what I need to do to feel good about life.
BDD is a serious clinical disorder that can negatively affect multiple aspects of a person’s life. If the mirror is a source of existential dread and you find yourself constantly pinching, pulling or asking for validation, know that you aren’t alone and that it may be worth it to consult a professional about the nature of your self-perception. From personal experience, it is absolutely worth it in the end to acknowledge a problem and work toward a solution than to perpetually bury it.