Many people have heard of body dysmorphia, but they do not really have any sort of idea what it actually means. It is an incredibly difficult mental disorder to live with, but it can be even more difficult to process when it is one of your loved ones that is struggling with it. Body dysmorphia is hard to have, but even harder to help. That is why we have put together this quick guide to body dysmorphia: what it is, how our understanding of it has developed, and some practical tips that you can use to help your loved one.
What is body dysmorphia?
Body dysmorphia is actually called body dysmorphic disorder which is a mental illness that can affect men as just as women, and people of absolutely all ages. People who have body dysmorphia are under the belief that their body is particularly wrong and needs to be fixed. There is no actual problem, but they become convinced that there is. Their worries and concerns about it affect their lives to such an extreme that they find it difficult to live their normal lives. In a very similar way to people with OCD, their lives become overtaken with their worries and compulsions. Body dysmorphia is a relatively common issue for people, affecting around two percent of the world’s population.
When someone has a very extreme case of body dysmorphia, they actually find it impossible to look at themselves in a mirror because they cannot believe the image that they see, or they only see the negative points of their body. Many people with severe body dysmorphia have difficulties concentrating at work, an inability to function and progress academically, and they will struggle with their personal lives, both with family and friends. Many people who have body dysmorphia will also be more likely to suffer from social isolation, drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
Put bluntly, that means that a person with body dysmorphia is convinced that there is something wrong with them physically. For some people, it is that they think their muscles are not big enough. Others believe that their skin is terrible. Still more think that they are over weight, or that their breasts are too big or too small . . . for each and every person, there is something in particular that makes them hate their bodies. The hatred of that flaw, as they see it, can manifest in many different ways, and that will obviously depend on what the ‘problem’ is. Those that think that they do not have enough muscles will spend hours and hours in the gym. Those that feel that they are overweight prevent themselves from eating. Whatever the perceived problem, they will try to create a solution for it.
It goes without saying that these issues are totally non existent. Sadly, it can be very difficult to convince someone with body dysmorphia that there is actually nothing wrong with their body. They become so convinced that there is something wrong with it, that almost nothing can convince them otherwise.
The history of dysmorphia
Like many other mental disorders, there has been very little understanding of body dysmorphia until a couple of years ago. The very first case that was ever documented was discovered in 1891. A scientist called Enrico Morselli called the condition dysmorphophobia. Although he very carefully documented and cared for, it took a very long time before the international scientific community recognised that body dysmorphia is a real and very treatable condition. It was not until 1987 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally recognised that body dysmorphia was a real condition.
Since that time, more and more understanding has been built into the scientific community, and that means that more people are being diagnosed early enough to be given help, and those that have struggled with it for years are finally being given the psychiatric care that they so desperately require.
Here are some practical tips to help your friend or family member who is struggling with body dysmorphia:
Believe them. One of the most upsetting things for a person with body dysmorphia to go is to try and convince their friends and family that there is something wrong with them. Of course, there is nothing wrong with them physically, but they are having problems, and you should not diminish that.
Don’t expect a change overnight. Even when they accept that they are not seeing their body properly, that does not necessarily mean that they are automatically able to completely change it. It will be a long process to reaching a healthy outlook to their body.
Encourage them to do charity work. This sounds bizarre, but actually this can be incredibly helpful. One of the biggest problems that people with body dysmorphia struggle with is an issue with self-hatred and self-loathing – as well as a very low sense of self-worth. Encouraging them to look outside of themselves, and engage with other people, is a really great way to encourage them to realise that they are a wonderful person that can do a real amount of good in the world.
You will have to prepare yourself for a lot of ignorance about body dysmorphia. It is a little known condition, and many people will have pre-conceptions about it that you will undoubtedly find upsetting. However, as long as you are able to remain calm, you should be able to educate them and help them to a better understanding.
Not all coping mechanisms are bad. Obviously any that harm that person should be discouraged, but many copying habits such as counting, washing, or fiddling with food before they eat it should not be completely refused if it helps them through the process.
We hope that this short guide has been helpful for you, and we hope that you and your loved ones gain some comfort for it. Of course it goes without saying that nothing can replace advice from a professional. If you think that you or someone that you love is struggling with body dysmorphia, then you should seek professional medical help.