Your body image is all about how you see yourself. If you constantly feel that your body doesn’t measure up to expectations - whether those expectations are from society, friends, family, or the media - it’s possible that you’re being overly critical about the way you look and have a negative body image. From low confidence to obsessive grooming, this could have a huge impact on your life, but there are things you can do to overcome it.
Negative body image and BDD (body dysmorphic disorder)
If you’re suffering from a negative body image, you might find that you frequently compare yourself with others and then feel inadequate, ashamed, embarrassed, or lacking in confidence as a result.
Those who suffer from BDD (body dysmorphic disorder) also tend to feel this way, to the extent that it progresses to a mental health disorder. People with BDD might experience a continued obsession with one or more parts of their body, which will then cause severe distress that interferes with their day-to-day life, even though this aspect of their body could be non-existent or barely visible to others. A woman with a normal body mass index (BMI), for example, may persistently see herself as fat, or a young man with a small case of acne on his face might imagine it to look far, far worse than it actually does. BDD is fairly common, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults, and it’s experienced by around 1% of the population.
What are the symptoms?
Those who suffer from negative body image will often experience some of the following:
- Obsessive self-scrutiny
- Frequent comparison and envy towards others
- Thinking about yourself in an overly harsh way
Those who suffer from BDD might experience some of the above, combined with one or two of the following:
- A persistent preoccupation with a certain part of the body, often something that’s a slight imperfection or completely invisible (the most common features being the skin, hair or nose). These preoccupations tend to occur for 3-8 hours a day (usually for at least an hour a day) and are difficult to resist or control.
- An inability to focus on other things, to the extent that your preoccupation interferes with your daily life.
- An avoidance of social situations, at fear of being scrutinised by others.
- Compulsive behaviours, such as excessive grooming or repeatedly checking your appearance.
- Resorting to extreme measures to correct what you perceive as a flaw (such as plastic surgery carried out by a professional or even yourself).
- Feelings of depression, anxiety, distress or shame, or thoughts or self-harm or suicide.
What can cause it?
Despite being fairly common, there isn’t an awful lot of research into negative body image or BDD, and BDD in particular is very under-recognised. In terms of what can cause it, here are the common culprits:
Whether it’s the flawless heroine winning the hero’s heart in the latest blockbuster, the protein powder ad promising an easy solution for those who ‘need to bulk up’, or the glossy magazine guide on how to get beach-bod ready in five steps, we’re immersed in the media’s portrayal of body perfection every day of our lives.
This immersion is arguably even stronger on social media. Instagram models are making a living from showing an enviable body and glamorous life to match; Snapchat filters are filling your feed with airbrushed skin, chiselled jawlines and jewelled eyes; and YouTube is littered with guides on how to get the best eyebrows, reduce your waistline, and take the perfect selfie. Recent research has even shown that the average 16-25-year-old woman in the UK spends over five hours per week taking selfies – that’s 16 minutes spent perfecting each post. But the full extent of our need to meet these unattainable standards is perhaps best seen in the increase of ‘snapchat dysmorphia’, where young people are resorting to plastic surgery to look more like their selfies.
People are becoming more aware of these dangers, but there are still plenty of conflicting messages out there – social media stars will advocate self-love and acceptance one minute, throwing in the occasional #filterfree picture for good measure, but share photoshopped images of themselves the next. It seems that even with the increasing awareness of this issue, it’s not easy to escape the pressures of false perfection.
Other common causes
Alongside the media, there are a number of other factors which can lead to a negative body image or BDD, including:
- peer pressure
- professional pressure, for example, if you’re a gymnast or model who needs to attain a certain weight
- certain personality traits, such as perfectionism and self-criticism
- genetic predispositions, for example having a relative with BDD, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or depression
- having a hobby or career which requires you to be particularly aware of aesthetics, such as art
How to improve a negative body image
Mary E. Pritchard PhD, professor of psychology at Boise State University and specialist in body image and eating disorders, recommends the following approach to improving your body image:
- Start a media ban – you could do this by avoiding magazines, opting for ad-free streaming services over TV, and using apps such as App Detox, Space or Tracky to limit your social media use. If the temptation is too great, consider suspending or deleting your accounts. Counteract social media with more face-to-face time with friends.
- Stop saying negative things about your own and other’s bodies and refuse to listen to negative body talk – each time you criticise someone else’s appearance, you’re confirming to yourself and others that physical perfection is a necessary requirement.
- Take active measures – such as reading Thomas Cash’s Body Image Workbook, or watching psychotherapist Jean Fain’s YouTube series, Body Compassion.
- Try out Operation Beautiful – the mission of Operation Beautiful is to post anonymous notes in public places for other people to find, such as ‘you are beautiful just the way you are’. Pritchard suggests that you can also try leaving notes for yourself to find.
If you’re suffering from BDD
If you think you might have BDD, you should visit your doctor. They will probably ask a number of questions about your symptoms and how they affect your life, after which they might refer you to a mental health specialist for further assessment and treatment. Treatments can include a type of talking therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), antidepressant medication, or a combination of the two.
It can be very difficult to seek help for BDD, but it’s important to remember that you have nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. BDD is serious and can have disastrous consequences if left to develop, so try to strike up the courage to seek help.
- The BDD Foundation is the only charity in the world dedicated to BDD and you can view their website for advice on getting help for yourself or another sufferer of BDD, information on what to expect from treatment, and questionnaires that will help you to assess whether or not you have BDD.
- You can find videos that show you how much the ideal body shape for women and men has changed over time. If you have a negative body image, it might be useful to see how subjective our ideas of perfection really are, and how something you consider to be a flaw may once have been considered the pinnacle of beauty.
- Click here and here to learn how others have recovered from BDD.