Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

Body Dysmorphia Scaled

What it is?

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental illness. People who have this illness constantly worry about the way they look. They may believe an inconspicuous or non-existent physical attribute is a serious defect. They respond to this by performing repetitive acts such as mirror checking or comparing their appearance with others.

The severity of BDD varies. For example, some people know their feelings aren’t rational or justified, while others are almost delusional in their conviction.

BDD causes severe emotional distress. It is not just vanity and is not something a person can just ‘forget about’ or ‘get over’. The preoccupation can be so extreme that the affected person has trouble functioning at work, school or in social situations. Any part of the body can be targeted.

It is thought that between one and two per cent of the population may have BDD, with men and women equally affected. BDD usually starts in the teenage years, when concern over physical appearance is common. Suicide rates among people with BDD are high. If you suspect you have BDD, see your doctor or a mental health professional.


Symptoms can vary according to which body part (or parts) is targeted, but general symptoms of BDD include:

  • thinking about the perceived defect for hours every day
  • worrying about their failure to match the ‘physical perfection’ of models and celebrities
  • distress about their preoccupation
  • constantly asking trusted loved ones for reassurance about their looks, but not believing the answer
  • constantly looking at their reflection or taking pains to avoid catching their reflection (for example, throwing away or covering up mirrors)
  • constant dieting and overexercising
  • grooming to excess – for example, shaving the same patch of skin over and over
  • avoiding any situation they feel will call attention to their defect. In extreme cases, this can mean never leaving home
  • taking great pains to hide or camouflage the ‘defect’
  • squeezing or picking at skin blemishes for hours on end
  • wanting dermatological treatment or cosmetic surgery, even when professionals believe the treatment is unnecessary
  • repeat cosmetic surgery procedures, especially if the same body part is being ‘improved’ with each procedure
  • depression and anxiety, including suicidal thoughts.


The cause of BDD is unknown. Theories include:

  • A person with BDD has a genetic tendency to develop this type of mental illness. The trigger may be the stress of adolescence.
  • Particular drugs, such as ecstasy, may trigger onset in susceptible people.
  • BDD could be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.
  • A person with low self-esteem who has impossible standards of perfection judges some part of their body as ugly. Over time, this behaviour becomes more and more compulsive.
  • Western society’s narrow standards of beauty may trigger BDD in vulnerable people.


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