A video was released today of 20-year-old Tallulah Willis (the youngest daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis) candidly discussing her body dysmorphia diagnosis. In the video, which was for personal style site Stylelikeu, Tallulah talks about the devastating issues she’s had with her physical appearance for years now. This led a lot of people to ask one question: what exactly is body dysmorphia?
Body dysmorphia, also known as body dysmorphic disorder, is a chronic mental illness. A person suffering from BDD cannot stop thinking about a flaw in their appearance. That flaw might be real, or it could be entirely imagined. Either way, it doesn’t matter – a person with BDD feels awful and ashamed of it, despite what anyone says.
In this way, a lot of people assume that BDD is like another eating disorder, right along the lines of anorexia or bulimia. However, in the 2013 edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), BDD was categorized as a part of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. That’s because BDD is not only about obsessing over a physical flaw – it’s also about repetitive behavior.
A lot of us look in the mirror every day and (unfortunately) think things like, “Ugh, why aren’t my boobs bigger?” or “My nose is huge!” Almost everyone has something they don’t like about their body, something they wish they could change. This doesn’t mean we’re all walking around with body dysmorphia. If you have thoughts like that, but then push them out of your mind and don’t think about it again until a day later, you don’t have BDD. Body dysmorphia means you literally cannot stop obsessing over your flaw for hours each day. BDD affects your ability to function normally in everyday life. People suffering from BDD will spend a lot of time and money trying to “fix” their flaw, but nothing makes them feel better.
As Tallulah said: “I’m diagnosed with body dysmorphia, like reading those stupid f***** tabloids when I was like 13, feeling like I was just ugly, always. … I would sit there and… it was just a conviction. It was reality. You can tell me a thousand times that it’s not true, but it’s true.”
So, what else goes on when you have body dysmorphia?
People who suffer from BDD don’t only obsess over their flaw or spend a lot of time feeling ugly. They will try anything to hide what they hate about themselves, from constantly checking mirrors to wearing their hair in a certain way so their flaw is hidden to using clothing as camouflage. They avoid social situations, they’re into excessive grooming, they spend hours comparing themselves with others, and they don’t believe anyone who tells them they’re beautiful. It’s not surprising that BDD also brings along severe anxiety and depression. Many people with BDD experience suicidal thoughts or even attempt to commit suicide – this is how horrified they are about their appearance.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that people suffering from BDD are very worried about what others think. They’re not only concerned about other people seeing their flaws, they’re also concerned about other people thinking they are being superficial and ridiculous. Unfortunately, people usually do assume those negative things about someone dealing with BDD. That’s because there’s not enough information or awareness out there about the disorder, and people with BDD aren’t exactly shouting their diagnosis from their rooftops.
In fact, there is so little info out there that some doctors believe that BDD is severely under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed. When someone suffering from BDD seeks treatment, they can be diagnosed as having depression, social anxiety or social phobia. Body dysmorphia isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind.
What causes someone to have body dysmorphia in the first place? Are you born with it?
No one really knows where BDD comes from or how any specific person gets it. It may come from abnormalities in someone’s brain structure. It could be a result of genetics, because some studies have found that it’s more common for people to have BDD when someone else in their biological family suffers from it as well.
Not surprisingly, it can also come from someone’s environment. If someone has had a lot of negative experiences with their self-esteem or their body, that could lead to body dysmorphia. Other experiences, like how Tallulah said she got it from reading negative stories about herself in the tabloids, can contribute to the diagnosis as well. In other words, societal expectations about how men and women should look can actually cause something as serious as this. Bullying can also be a pretty big factor.
Is there treatment available?
Fortunately, there is. When body dysmorphic disorder is properly diagnosed, there are tools available to help someone get through it. Treatment can be successful, as long as the person is open to the idea of getting help. Remember, many people with BDD can’t develop close relationships with others or they don’t want to discuss their issues for fear of makign others notice their flaw.
People with BDD can be really scared to get treatment and go to the therapy, but it’s necessary if they ever want to get better. Treatment often combines cognitive behavioral therapy with medication. Patients will do things like learn how to deal with their obsessive thoughts, how to control their rituals, and how to have more healthy behaviors. They’ll also be given SSRI’s to help with depression, obsession, and compulsions.
Now I’m freaking out. How do I know if I have BDD?
Like I said, body dysmorphia is about way more than not liking something about yourself. Body dysmorphia will literally take over your life. It is something you can’t control. Here’s an example: I don’t like my upper arms. I hate how they look, I’m embarrassed by them, and I wish they were different. But despite these feelings, I don’t hide them every day in long sleeves. I still wear tank tops (even if I’m not thrilled with them), I still wear bikinis, and although I know I could do exercises to firm them up, I don’t always make the time. When I worry about people looking at them, I feel stressed, and then think, “Eh, whatever. I’ll work on it later.”
If I had body dysmorphia, it would go more like this: I would never wear anything that would show off my upper arms. Even in the hottest weather, I would wear sleeves to cover my arms. I wouldn’t think “eh, whatever” when thinking someone was looking at my arms – I would constantly feel worried that other people were staring at them, judging me. I would do every exercise possible to change them, and even if that happened, I still wouldn’t be happy with them. I would think about them obsessively, I would look at them every chance I had, and the site of them may even make me genuinely depressed.
See what I’m saying? If you feel this way about how you look, then yes, you may suffer from body dysmorphia. But please don’t assume that just disliking something about yourself means you have it. If you do think you have BDD, get support from your family and friends, and see a therapist to get help. It’s hard, but take inspiration from people like Tallulah Willis, who aren’t afraid to discuss their journey: you can get through this.
Are you familiar with body dysmorphia? Do you know anyone who has it? Do you think you suffer from BDD? Tell me in the comments.