Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a fairly uncommon condition in which a person sees her/himself as having a severe flaw with her/his body and obsesses about it to the point that it interferes with normal social functioning. The perceived flaw is exaggerated and distorted from the reality of their appearance. Watch a good, informative but not too technical multimedia Q&A with a doctor from the Semel Institute’s Body Dysmorphic Disorder Program who describes the condition, how it differs from vanity (it’s distress, not pride) and related issues. There’s also a companion video interview of a man in recovery from BDD, describing his experience.
Often eating disorders have an element similar to BDD, but BDD exists as a distinct diagnosis. As well, nearly everyone has some sort of dissatisfaction with their own body image but what separates that from this disorder are extreme levels of distress, fear and obsession, with a maladapted lifestyle that tries to hide the perceived flaw. BDD is much more than the pathologizing of a normal worry, and people don’t go into treatment without good reason. Sometimes people with BDD will undergo multiple cosmetic surgeries or other drastic measures without feeling relief, before seeking out a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.
Less severe body image issues are widespread in Western culture due to fashion and celebrity worship as well as peer pressure. Every day on newsstands we see magazines with stories cajoling us to lose 20 pounds or criticizing a starlet for her weight (and all women by extension). Recently, though, I’ve been noticing medical news seeping into popular media that may be contributing too.
We all know that obesity has negative effects on health, but now women are hearing that if they don’t have a slim waist they’re going to die of cancer or develop Alzheimer’s at higher rates. Let’s keep perspective. In the article Belly Fat Doesn’t Bode Well for Women we’re told that a thick waist even at normal weight makes us 3 times more likely to die of heart disease, and more likely to get cancer. It isn’t until the final lines of the article that we learn it’s only a correlation. The study didn’t show cause and effect (or even attempt to explain a link-how about genetics, for example?).
What disturbs me is that the article is at WebMD, a site I used to regard as a reasonably reliable source for legitimate medical news. Instead now I see in the sidebar that 7 out of 10 of their most popular stories are weight-hysteria related, including “Lose 10 Pounds in 3 Days” “The Flat Belly Diet” “Timeline of Your Tummy” “10 Most Fattening Foods” and “5 Weight Gain Shockers.”
Given our society’s obsession with weight I suppose it’s not surprising, but next time you see a headline about how a bit of extra weight causes everything from cancer to dementia to suicide, sprinkle a grain of salt on that media snack.