Social media plays a very prominent role in how we feel about ourselves and our bodies. While this can be good in some cases, in others it can lead to an increase in mental health issues relating to body image, ranging from eating disorders to anxiety disorders.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (or BDD) is one of these mental health conditions, defined by the NHS as someone spending a lot of time worrying about slight flaws in their appearance. This could be a result of any kind of insecurity, from spots and wrinkles, to the appearance of bones through the skin. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, worrying about your appearance, spending a lot of time comparing your looks with other people, avoiding mirrors or actively looking in them, and going through a lot of effort to conceal flaws. This is more than just vanity or self-obsession.
BDD is categorised in the same class of disorders as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which you may be more familiar with. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describe it as a form of anxiety disorder, and BDD has been known to lead into other mental health conditions, such as depression, self harm, and even suicide.
BDD is not often represented or recognised in the media and this can make people feel like their symptoms aren’t real. Approximately 1.7%-2.4% of the population has been diagnosed with BDD and, as this is a relatively small number, many people feel as though there are more pressing issues to be concerned with, hence its lack of representation. Similarly, as BDD can be seen to fall in between an eating disorder and an anxiety disorder, the media seems to avoid mentioning it at all, which can lead to people feeling alone or isolated.
Offhanded comments can inherently make things worse. One comment I had from a friend a few years ago was that she wished she were thin enough that her skinny jeans didn’t fit properly. It’s comments like this which enforce ideas in peoples’ heads that they are inferior or that their body is flawed.
However, the biggest issue that we have as a society these days is that we are constantly idolising one body type over another. In past years it has all been about being skeletal or very thin, and that was the perception of a perfect body type. These days, with the body positivity movement, the focus has moved across to the larger body types, meaning that people who are thinner will now desire to be larger. While this is good in terms of a physical health perspective, mental health can suffer here, as people who were once validated by the media are now being told that they need to change.
The issue with many body disorders such as BDD, but also to a certain extent eating disorders themselves, is that people are focusing too much on the media’s opinions. It’s all very well and good having models taking photos of themselves and posting them online with the caption “feel comfortable in your own skin”, but that doesn’t help people suffering who want to love themselves but are mentally unable to. Quite often as well, those who are posting with those captions are trying to convince themselves to do the same thing.
A survey on woman found that 80% of those surveyed feel insecure compared to magazine, television or social media personalities (https://people.com/archive/cover-story-how-do-i-look-vol-54-no-10/) and, even more horrifyingly, 42% of girls between years 1 and 3 in school want to be thinner (https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/eating-disorders.html). These girls are at the age where they will get larger before they grow taller, and this ‘puppy fat’ weight is important for them. Precedencies like these lower self-esteem and forces people to focus on their flaws. This is where a predisposition towards developing BDD can form and often a trigger event, such as family stress, social pressure or academic pressure, can tip it over the edge.
Disorders like BDD aren’t taken as seriously as they should be. We need a wider, more diverse range of people on social media to help improve representation, and we also need to teach children from a young age that it’s okay to like how they look and that, actually, it’s important and healthy that they do. Instilling this in children will help reduce rates of disorders, such as BDD and other disorders related to appearance.
Fixing the problem at the root rather than when the insecurities are deeply engrained and normalized will make it much easier to helping those suffer with BDD and hopefully the next time someone posts a photo with the caption “loving myself”, we will all be able to relate.