Looking into the Funhouse Mirror: Living with Body Dysmorphia

By Rebekah Harding

Affecting up to 2.9% of the population, Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), is a unshakeable fixation on a perceived flaw or imperfection of the body or face. To put that in context, that means that about two people in your 8a.m. lecture have most likely experienced some form of body dysmorphia in their lifetime, and they still might be dealing with it.

Illustration by ABBY STEINOUR for REFINE Magazine.

Illustration by ABBY STEINOUR for REFINE Magazine.

But despite affecting 1 in 50 people, media coverage of BDD is severely lacking and often based off incorrect assumptions about the individuals who suffer from it.

Body dysmorphia is not just the periods of insecurity we may go through from time to time about certain aspects of our bodies, faces, or personalities. It is a serious, mental disorder that occupies even the most precious moments of someone’s life. Treatment often requires intense cognitive behavioral therapy and sometimes intervention with medication.

“Dysmorphia is like looking through a funhouse mirror and your brain is forcing you to accept that what you see is the truth, even though it is not,” said Amanda Lien, Klein College Class of 2018.

Lien began experiencing body dysmorphic disorder in her early teenage years. For her, BDD is closely tied into her struggle with chronic illness and anxiety.

“Body dysmorphia affects me when I am talking to my health care practitioner because the weight, body, and health issues I have come from a lifetime of chronic illness,” Lien explained. “When my practitioner knows I have a history of dysmorphic thinking and I come in saying gained or lost a abnormal amount of weight, they are more hesitant to believe me. It can throw a wrench in my ability to get care, but I also want to be forthcoming like, ‘Hey, my brain chemistry is messed up so it makes me think I am a size that I am not.’”

Creating a catch-all definition for body dysmorphia is almost impossible. While online sources often portray it as extreme insecurity, attention seeking, or obsessive compulsive behaviors, everyone’s experience with the disorder is different. For some, it comes hand in hand with other mental and physical health struggles, eating disorders, and for others, it stands alone.

Dysmorphia is like looking through a funhouse mirror and your brain is forcing you to accept that what you see is the truth, even though it is not.

For senior Journalism major, Taylor Allen, body dysmorphia is tied into her experience with an eating disorder.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder. I was a very tiny person throughout most of my life and then the freshman 15 came and my metabolism wasn’t what it used to be. I found myself Googling how to lose weight quickly,” Allen said. “There was an app I had and I pretty much put in the goal to drop ten or fifteen pounds in a month and a half and it told me not to eat more than 1,300 calories in a day. My mood for the day generally depended on what the scale said. At night, If I felt like I had gained weight or had eaten something I shouldn’t have, I resorted to self-harming.”

Like Allen’s experience using an app to compulsively check her weight and caloric intake, BDD often manifests itself in repetitive behaviors that the person suffering from dysmorphia uses to temporarily find relief. The urge to check in the mirror repetitively for signs of weight gain or loss only minutes apart comes from the common BDD impulse to fix or check the perceived flaw.

However, the impulsive checking is sometimes the only effective way to calm down an intense wave of dysmorphia, and with controlled and monitored thought process with the help of therapy, it can actually be helpful.

Amanda Lien explains how she uses intentional and logical thoughts to relieve dysmorphic thinking with body checking.

“Body checking sounds unhealthy but is actually what I use to combat it because logic is what kills that dysmorphic place. Whenever I’m thinking that I’m gaining weight, I’ll get out a tape measure and measure the circumference of my thighs so I can see that they haven’t changed. So I can tell myself, ‘Calm down, you aren’t as big as your brain is telling you,’” she explained.

Media coverage and accessibility for people who have BDD also sits at the intersection of identity and financial means. The limited media representation of eating disorders and body dysmorphia is often framed as being a white, female experience, when in reality, anyone can experience the disorder.

Taylor Allen reflects on her experience as a Black woman with body dysmorphia, and how the media often doesn’t reach beyond the white, female box in the dysmorphia and disordered eating narrative.

Illustration by ABBY STEINOUR for REFINE Magazine

Illustration by ABBY STEINOUR for REFINE Magazine

“The media doesn’t touch much on eating disorders anyway, but if they do, it’s usually highlighting a girl who is white and wealthy, as if people of color don’t experience it,” Allen said, “They don’t cover the girl going to therapy or the girl going to see the nutritionist. On social media, it’s very much a ‘just realize that you’re beautiful, too!’ sort of thing. And even the women we see talking about these issues are still conventionally beautiful. People think that only thin people can experience this, and it’s not true. Someone can be overweight and still have an eating disorder.”

If you’re reading this and suspect a loved one is going through something similar, it can be tricky to show your support without making them uncomfortable (which is never the goal).

Marybeth Gerdelmann, a junior Journalism major at Temple, expressed her discomfort about being approaching her about her experience with body dysmorphia.

“Sometimes when people approach me about it, I’m not willing to talk about it just because it’s so personal, especially because I feel that a lot of times people just don’t get it.”

Taylor Allen advises that unless your loved one specifically opens up to you about their experience with dysmorphia, it’s best to not offer unsolicited advice.

“I think the best thing they can do is just listen. They really need to not try to give advice,” said Allen. “People who are experiencing body dysmorphia or eating disorders, most of the time they know they do but aren’t ready to resolve it yet and you can’t speed up that process. The best thing you can tell them is that someone’s recovery does not follow a timeline and you can’t speed that up for another person. Unless they specifically ask you, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘What should I do?’ then don’t offer them that information.”

If you feel as though you are experiencing more than just an insecurity and you suspect you may be dealing with dysmorphic thinking, there are resources and professionals that can give you the tools to cope and begin treating the disorder.

Marybeth Gerdelmann uses biweekly therapy to help with her body dysmorphia.

“I think it’s really important to reach out and talk to someone. Personally, I go to therapy every other week. And sometimes it feels repetitive, and when I go it’s usually the same thing every time, to the point that I feel like I’m being annoying, but I think that it’s important to talk it out and get tools together to help to see yourself in a more positive light,” said Gerdelmann.

Illustration by ABBY STEINOUR for REFINE Magazine.

Illustration by ABBY STEINOUR for REFINE Magazine.

Temple University offers free mental health screenings at Tuttleman Counseling Services on campus if you are looking for an accessible resource to begin working towards coping with dysmorphic thinking. You don’t have to deal with this alone.