What exactly is body dysmorphia? And what can I do about it?

Woman looking in a mirror with her hand no her face.

When most people look in the mirror, they might see a flaw here and there. Maybe it's in their face, like their nose or smile. Or maybe it's on their body, like their arms or stomach.

Whatever the flaw, it can be frustrating and annoying, but it isn't going to severely impact their well-being. However, those with body dysmorphia (or body dysmorphic disorder) have a vastly different experience.

"The fixation or preoccupation with these flaws can create suffering that impacts all areas of the person's life," says Barbara Lee-Catania, LPC, a psychotherapist at Main Line Health's Women's Emotional Wellness Center. "It's important to remember that we are all 'perfectly imperfect' and it's easier to focus on the things that bring us strife versus the things that bring us joy."

This psychological condition causes you to fixate on real or imagined flaws for hours on end every day. "It can lead to serious emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, shame and disgust. And it can make you avoid work, school and social gatherings in fear of others noticing your perceived flaws," says Barbara.

Body dysmorphia affects roughly 1 in 50 people, and it affects men and women nearly equally. Despite its prevalence, body dysmorphia is sometimes misunderstood, leaving those with body dysmorphia unsure of how to navigate their feelings.

Here's an overview of body dysmorphia and what you can do about it.

Body dysmorphia: More than feeling self-conscious

Unlike occasional feelings of self-consciousness about your appearance, body dysmorphia can consume your thoughts. Not only can you not avoid these thoughts, but they can also impact your day-to-day functioning.

If you have body dysmorphia, you might feel:

  • Concerned about a specific body part, such as your skin, nose, hair, eyes or genitals
  • Generally unattractive
  • As if your body doesn't fit, or that it's not symmetrical
  • That you look too feminine or too masculine

How can body dysmorphia impact your life?

Body dysmorphia can put a significant strain on your life due to a preoccupation with your appearance. It can make it difficult for you to be around others in social situations, cause relationship problems with friends and family and lead to problems in the workplace or at school.

It may also cause you to:

  • Try to cope with how you look using repetitive behaviors, such as wearing excessive amounts of makeup or trying to cover parts of your body
  • Fixate on mirrors — or avoid them altogether
  • Spend a lot of time grooming (which is not related to vanity, but an attempt to fix perceived flaws)
  • Compare yourself to others, especially online
  • Perform repetitive actions, such as picking at your skin
  • Seek out solutions, such as cosmetic procedures
  • Engage in harmful behaviors, such as substance abuse or not eating (However, body dysmorphia is usually focused on a specific part of the body, while eating disorders are more generalized to a person's body weight and shape.)
  • Experience thoughts of self-harm
If you experience suicidal thoughts, get help immediately by dialing 988 on your phone to connect with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Diagnosing and treating body dysmorphia

Because body dysmorphia is sometimes misunderstood, it can be difficult to get the right diagnosis. It can be confused with other conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Or, people with body dysmorphia might be told that worrying about how they look is normal.

"If you feel like you might have body dysmorphia, it's important to advocate for yourself. Talk to your health care provider about how you are feeling, including what symptoms are related to body dysmorphia. They can help you get treatment, which usually includes therapy as a major component," says Barbara.

While some may want to turn to plastic surgery to correct the perceived flaw, this is not recommended, and it rarely helps.

Body dysmorphia is a serious condition, and it shouldn't be taken lightly. By talking to your health care provider and getting the help you need, you can ease emotional distress and find the happiness you deserve.

"Like all mental health disorders, there's a continuum of severity. If the preoccupation is impacting your functioning, your self-worth or your ability to carry out daily tasks in your life, then this is an indicator that you need support," says Barbara. "We're bombarded by unrealistic images and expectations of how 'we should look or feel,' so know that there's no shame in suffering, and that we're here to help."

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Barbara Lee-Catania, LPC
Learn more about behavioral health care at Main Line Health
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