This post is by Natalie from Something In Mind.
Accepting the skin you’re in
How to support those with body dysmorphic disorder
Imagine introducing yourself to someone by saying ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I have terrible acne, which makes me a horrible person and not worthy of your time’. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But for many people who suffer from anxiety that stems from their perceived self-image, this may be how they think on a daily basis.
This type of anxiety is known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). It can cause individuals to become obsessed with something that they feel to be a flaw in their body image, this could even be an imaginary flaw or one that is so small it isn’t realised by others. The worry an individual feels can lead to emotional distress, making them depressed, want to avoid social situations or even want to harm themselves. The worry can also lead to an individual displaying obsessive compulsive behaviours, such as checking themselves in the mirror constantly or picking at their own skin (I’m guilty of both of these myself).
I personally have BDD specific to the skin on my face. I suffered terrible acne in my teens like most other people, but the spots have just never left. I’m now approaching 30 and although my skin is better, I still see myself as a 13 year old teenager struggling with acne. At my worst point I couldn’t even answer the door to the postman without wearing a full face of makeup and I definitely wouldn’t step outside without it on. To me, my makeup is like a comfort blanket but also a mask, blocking my shame from the outside world.
Throughout my life, many people have probably noticed some of my BDD behaviours. In my own personal experience some people thought I was self obsessed because of the way I behaved. They felt that I spent hours obsessing about how I looked because I was vain and loved looking at myself in the mirror, but they couldn’t be more wrong. A common misconception is that BDD is the same as being self-obsessed. Most people with BDD actually feel ashamed with the way they look and I personally find it difficult to look at myself in the mirror or in photographs, even with my makeup on.
Another common behaviour is when I mention that I hate how I look, a friend will reply with ‘I think you look really lovely’. Although this is meant in the kindest way, sadly these statements meant nothing to me at the time. With BDD I find it impossible to listen to the views of others as my own opinions on how I look are overbearing most of the time.
In this current era, people with BDD need the support of their friends and family more than ever. Sadly, the world isn’t on their side a lot of the time. We live in a society of photoshopped celebrities and instagram filters, making it difficult to figure out what people naturally look like. We compare ourselves and our skin to pictures that aren’t even real and set ourselves unfair standards. Businesses cash in on our insecurities, making us feel that we will be socially excluded and live a terrible life because we have a few spots on our forehead or some stretch marks on our tummy. Don’t get me started on the Proactiv adverts I regularly see on the TV, personally I think these adverts should be banned, especially because they are aimed at younger people. The solution to BDD is not at the bottom of a squeeze bottle.
So what can you do if you think a friend might have BDD? Based on my own experiences I think you could support them by doing the following three things:
- Offer them a safe space to talk – Having BDD is so difficult, but I found that having the opportunity to just talk about how I felt without fear of judgement was so helpful to me. I didn’t feel strong enough to talk to friends or family though, I talked with a therapist. If your friend appears to be struggling and wants to talk, offer them a safe and non-judgemental space. But don’t try and force them to talk, as they may find it difficult sometimes.
- Try to understand their mindset – For people without BDD it might be difficult to understand why a person feels the way they do. For example, my friends don’t understand why I hate how I look because to them I’m pretty. But just understanding that BDD thoughts are real and they really do have such an effect would make an individual feel a lot more supported. Also, try to understand that BDD can affect the way a person behaves, if they change their mind about meeting you on the weekend, this is nothing personal.
- Throw in a non-aesthetic compliment – You should compliment and highlight all of the great things about your friend that are not to do with how they look. Receiving compliments on looks can be really difficult for a person with BDD. Try to compliment them based on their achievements or personality as this may help to increase their self-esteem.
From my own experiences, living life with BDD can be tough. But I think through educating ourselves and teaching others how to support those with BDD, the world can be a slightly easier place for everyone.
You can find Natalie on Something In Mind.