The Normalization of Body Dysmorphia

The female body; it’s an obsession. A woman is often defined by how hers looks, and not by what it can do. So long as our western culture places precedence on the male gaze—the way we look at and assess the world from the masculine point of view—we will live beneath the pernicious presumption that the greatest accomplishment for any female is to look pretty at all times.

No matter how aware or awake we may be, this is a question of cultural conditioning. It’s how our identity can become inseparable from our appearance. Placing such emphasis on the perfect female form, however, can have serious implications for our mental health, which brings us to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

While BDD is considered a psychiatric issue, and one that is deeply disruptive to the lives of those who suffer with it, some of the symptoms reflect the common behaviors of many women on an average day. We cannot deny the severity of this disorder—nor can we deny that the culture in which we live could be the tipping point between body shaming and body dysmorphia for many women.  

What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

BDD has nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with shame. It’s an internal rejection of the physical self, based on anticipation of social evaluation. It’s also related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which brings unwanted thoughts that lead to repetitive behaviors. These behaviors, it’s believed, provide a sense of relief from the negative thoughts.   

While OCD and BDD can affect both men and women, it seems that women could be more vulnerable. Susie, a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, explained, “In a world where women are ‘empowered’ to do anything, we can end up doing everything, trying to be all things to all people. And with this comes the need for perfectionism, especially the appearance of perfection.”  

She added, “While a woman may not have BDD, consider the way she examines a photograph of herself, poring over her imperfections. What she sees will be different to what you see.”

Someone with body dysmorphia will worry about physical flaws that are unnoticeable to others. Many also report having experienced body shaming at some point in their lives, and yet body shaming is intrinsic to our culture.

What Are the Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

BDD manifests as excessive concern about a specific area of your body that you think is out of proportion, disfigured, or asymmetrical. This leads to persistent and destructive thought patterns that cause anxiety.

Those with body dysmorphia will constantly compare their appearance against that of others. They may wear baggy clothing to hide their shape or heavy makeup to conceal their perceived flaws. They may avoid mirrors altogether or check their appearance at every opportunity, but the reflection they see is rarely an accurate representation of reality.  

Jane works in technology. While she doesn’t suffer from BDD she’s a member of a support group that addresses compulsive behaviors around eating. She said, “It’s remarkable how weird our perceptions are. There are morbidly obese women in the group who see skinny in the mirror, and women who are thin and see fat in the mirror. We’re never looking at a true reflection of ourselves. The brain is constantly shifting and changing what we see.” And our brains are wired by the dominant culture of the male gaze.  

What Causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

BDD can be genetic. You are more likely to develop the disorder if you have a relative with the same. You could also become susceptible if you’re prone to OCD or depression. It can be attributed to chemical imbalances in the brain, but it can also develop as the result of a traumatic experience in the past, such as bullying. This becomes more apparent if the bullying focused on the victim’s appearance.

Considering a woman’s worth is often drawn from her appearance, the obsessions that she develops as a result should be addressed with equal gravity as those caused by body dysmorphia. “If a woman feels the need to constantly seek reassurance about the way she looks,” Susie added, “she’s asking someone else to validate her. She may yearn for respect, but there’s a deeper yearning to be desired. The fact that a woman can be both intellectual and sexual jars with the culturally conditioned mind.”

Birth Bodies and Bikini Bodies

Instagram, for example, is awash with filtered flesh offered up for consumption. These semi-pornographic accounts are deemed normal, which is why the likes of Motherhood Rising and Empowered Birth Project aim to challenge the status quo. Both share images of women in the graphic throes of the female experience as they give birth. What you see is visceral and certainly not pretty.  

Demystifying childbirth also demystifies the female body. It counters this idea that women should not be seen bleeding or birthing a baby. What we witness in these mothers is strength and power, unlike the weak and emaciated body of a bikini model. Jane, however, isn’t convinced. “I want to see greater focus on what women can do, rather than what their bodies can do. We should be celebrating our strong minds, the fact that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Michelle, a musician, agreed, “I only choose to cover up because I don’t want to be goggled at, not because I have anything to hide. When I’m on stage, I want people to respect me for my music, not my cleavage.” Michelle still censors her body, but not out of the belief there’s something wrong with it. She does it in order to be taken seriously. A woman cannot be separated from her sex, it seems, which is why working to overcome taboos around menstruation and labor is a step in the right direction.

The more we are visually exposed to the full spectrum of the female experience, the blood and sweat and milk, the more we can chip away at the overarching belief systems that plant the seeds of body shaming and BDD. While we may feel squeamish at first, these images can become normal too, given time, but our efforts to instigate this change must be continual and consistent.

Susie added, “Beauty, and the value we place on it, has nothing to do with appearance. It prescribes a type of behavior. It’s a cultural requirement that serves men, not women, under the status quo. That’s why we have to make the move from being male-identified to self-identified.”

Body Positivity

The very existence of the body positivity movement also tells a worrying story. Conventional beauty standards are such that we assume negative self-judgement is the default setting. The need to praise bodies of all shapes and sizes is still inherently tied into the sexualization of the female form.

The celebration of voluptuous thighs and soft bellies still focuses, to an extent, on appearance rather than the power that lies beneath the surface. Michelle added: “My band released an album recently and I felt compelled to write some lyrics. The words that came out were ‘love thy form, there is no norm.’ Self-acceptance is absolutely the foundation of everything, but I have to look inside for my strength.”

Body confidence therefore comes from within since we cannot separate the inside from the outside. And breaking cultural taboos around the overall female experience is intrinsic to helping women find their worth. But we must not assume that a woman who is unhappy with her looks has BDD. Instead we can challenge the cultural context in which all of this plays out.

Finding Freedom From Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Those for whom BDD has become debilitating are recommended to explore cognitive behavioral therapy, which deconstructs the thoughts negatively impacting someone’s life. Antidepressants can also be prescribed, yet these provide prevention rather than cure.

Jane added. “I’ve found therapy immensely helpful in identifying repeating patterns of behavior that have played out over many years. These patterns have prevented me from seeing what’s really there.” We may not always see ourselves, but neither do we always see the culture in which we live, let alone its impact, since the male gaze is so normalized.

But we can create a new “normal,” or dismiss the word from our vocabulary altogether. We have everything to gain by sharing the female experience in its entirety—mind, body, and soul. Having been censored for so long, this sharing cultivates a sense of solidarity that infiltrates all areas of our lives, not just those pertaining to our physical existence.

Our bodies, however, seem like the natural starting point. The way a woman looks tells a hundred different stories of who she is, where she’s been, and what she’s capable of. So the more of us who own these stories, and the more of us who refuse to self-censor, the more we disrupt the status quo.

Featured image by Núria Estremera and Leia Goiria

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