How To Help A Friend With Body Dysmorphia

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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.

7 Comments

  1. Riana

    This is so sad! It’s horrible that some people have to go through life thinking they are anything but perfect, because we all are special in our own way. I didn’t know there was a name for this, but I know a lot of women who suffer from something very similar. They hate their bodies or parts of their bodies and always tend to compare themselves with others. So sad.

    • Eugenia

      Totally agree with you, as society we are obsessed of fixing thing that are perfectly fine, comparison is a big problem! as you said we are all individually unique, build differently for a reason, if we all can comprehend this and embrace our own and others uniqueness, self love, we can start concentrating on finding our purpose and creat a better future, great post worth reading, very informative thank you

  2. Tash T.

    I’ve always wondered if there was something actually coined for this type of behaviour/state. I’ve always been one to think that I am overweight, and not skinny enough even after losing 23 pounds. I now sit at 132 and still feel ridiculously fat and overweight and even despite knowing that I look beautiful to others, I can’t shake it.

    I get all sad about it, and even when I hear people call me beautiful, I still feel incredibly insecure and often hate myself because of it. I think I’ll be looking more into this to see what the treatable process is.

    Even though it’s really sad that people suffer from it, I am glad that it is recognized as a medical condition, because women and men need support through these types of conditions.

  3. Tina

    Coming from someone who suffered from mild anorexia and had a best friend who was bulimic, it is a very serious thing. When I was younger, I was around 30 pounds lighter than I am now. I was around 120. And you know what? I still felt fat. I would starve myself in an effort to lose a few more pounds but because I was already a healthy weight, I wouldn’t lose much of anything. As I got older, the weight started coming back and then some. So for all the young girls out there, do it the smart way. I have all kinds of issue from malnutrition and some days I feel like I am in my 50’s and I am in my 20’s. What does that tell you?

  4. Sissy

    Unfortunately, our medical system is slow to recognize certain conditions because they have been so stigmatized. Even medical professionals, who are (of course) part of the popular culture, are conditioned to pre-judge. An overweight person is just fat and lazy; a victim of trauma is just “taking it too hard;” a person with mental illness just “refuses to get a job.” There is a natural resistance to admitting new disorders to the DSM, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was also barred from being recognized for over half a century.

    Even if a professional prides himself or herself on being open minded, they tend to look at the DSM and if the condition is not listed, they are not so sure that it exists.

    As a culture, we’ve come a long way, but many individuals still harp on anyone who is struggling. (Perhaps they suffer from Empathy Deficiency Disorder – EDD).

    It is no surprise that in this day and age, with the ubiquitous and varied choices of media we have at our fingertips, people of all ages and both sexes are comparing themselves to certain “ideal” models of the human body and finding themselves lacking. No matter how toned a person is, there is somebody with a better body. It’s not surprising that so many suffer from body dysmorphic disorder.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the more you try to convince someone that there is nothing wrong with his or her body, that person will push back and try to convince you that there is. If the person does not push back verbally, he or she may still be pushing back silently. That is, cementing the position that yes, there is something wrong even though you are being kind enough not to act like you notice.

    This is the approach that works best for me. I look for opportunities to appreciate the good in the person who is suffering. I don’t always tell them what I’m doing, but I find aspects of the person I find pleasing. Sometimes I’ll make a list of those characteristics in my private notebook.

    Many times, the person will let his or her guard down and warm up to me, because I am not pushing my point of view. In that relaxed state of being, we can help each other find increased wellness. As our communication deepens, opportunities for sharing my observations present themselves in conversation. As a caregiver, this approach also helps me avoid burnout.

    You are right, Emily. Self-loathing and low self-esteem are often the root causes of the attack against the body.

    Thank you for presenting a balanced and compassionate explanation and suggestions for helping.

  5. Melissa V

    I think most people have things about their body that they don’t like, even hate. That double chin or red hair. The difference I guess is that most people don’t let it rule their lives. I suppose once you start obsessing about one thing in particular it can all go downhill from there. If something does bother you to the point where it is interrupting your everyday life then perhaps thinking about surgery to change this thing may be a good option. Could be cheaper than therapy.

    • Francie

      I’ve noticed the same thing — people who have straight hair want curly hair! People with curly hair wish it was straight! It seems like people always pick over the looks…

      Until you see movie stars watching themselves on the screen with their faces blown up big enough to cover a whole wall! Personally, I wonder how they can stand to watch themselves like that! But anyway…

      I agree with you that if it’s something fixable and you’re not compulsively criticizing yourself for every little thing, you might be able to fix it with plastic surgery and be done with it. Unfortunately, I think the article is stating that some people just can’t be done with it. It’s one thing, then another, then another.

      I think these people need help. Tina and Tash can both relate to that feeling, like nothing is enough. My compassion goes out to them both, and I hope both of you ladies are getting some relief from that pain.

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