Mirror, mirror on the wall

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) might just be the iconic disorder of our age.

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You would never expect an article called “Best-Kept Beauty Secrets” to include an admission of body image issues, but that’s just what Nashville actress Hayden Panettiere confessed to in a 2012 interview in Women’s Health.

While elaborating on how she keeps her hair strong and shiny, and her skin imbued with its trademark glow, Panettiere said we should forget how other people view our appearance. She had to learn that at 16, while acting in Heroes, when a magazine featured a picture of her with the word “cellulite.” Neither success nor fame eased the wound. “I was mortified,” she said. “It gave me such body dysmorphia for so long. But I remember reminding myself that beauty is an opinion, not a fact. And it has always made me feel better.”

A quick search for celebrities with body dysmorphia reveals enough names to disavow any assumption that success and attention make us feel better about ourselves. Among them are Twilight actor Robert Pattinson, named one of People’s “Sexiest Men Alive” in 2009, who said when he approaches the red carpet, “I’m a nut case. Body dysmorphia, overall tremendous anxiety.” And Uma Thurman stated years ago that since the birth of her daughter, “I see myself as fat.”

BDD is not as rare as it should be—you probably know at least one person who suffers with it.

Others suspected by psychologists and journalists to have suffered the same anxieties include Michael Jackson, who had 30 plastic surgeries, artist Andy Warhol, who talked about being ugly and had his nose sanded, and the poet Sylvia Plath, who wrote in her autobiography, “My face I know not. One day ugly as a frog the mirror blurts back: thick-pored skin, coarse as sieve, exuding soft spots of pus, points of dirt, hard kernels of impurity—a coarse grating …” She waxes beautifully on her perceived ugliness.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) might be the iconic disorder of our age. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines it as “a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.” A cute, turned-up nose may be perceived as the size of the lying Pinocchio, or freckles as Martian pockmarks. BDD is not as rare as it should be—you probably know at least one person who suffers with it.

Most of us suffer occasional anxieties about our appearance, but it doesn’t affect our daily functioning. People with BDD can’t control their negative thoughts and they don’t believe it when people compliment them or tell them they look fine. Sufferers (both sexes are susceptible—men are diagnosed almost as often as women) identify as ugly, and may obsess for hours a day over whatever made-up or minor physical flaws they feel cursed with. The anxiety is often overwhelming. A BDD sufferer is more likely to undergo plastic surgery, and has a high risk for developing an eating disorder. Other behaviors may include constantly checking the mirror, excessive grooming, skin picking, and camouflaging. The fear involved can manifest as depression and it’s reported that approximately 80 percent of individuals with BDD experience lifetime suicidal ideation, with 24 to 28 percent attempting suicide.

Our mistake is that we’ve been persuaded to believe we belong to the media, and it belongs to us—we crave the media’s love and we aspire to its standards. But we actually do belong to one another.

Recently, Modern Family actor, Reid Ewing, made the courageous confession that suffering from body dysmorphic disorder led him to pursue multiple plastic surgeries, some of which were botched and rush jobs. He mentioned a history of depression, eating disorders, and a family history of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)—but not one of his four doctors required or recommended a psychological screening.

Ewing now regrets his surgeries, along with the pain, isolation, and depression he experienced surrounding them. He says the operations were addicting, and he realizes the problem was his self-perception—not his face. After resolving to cease his pursuit of anatomical perfection, he claims it took him six months before he was comfortable with people looking at him. And this from a man who makes his money by being watched.

Psychologists have suggested the media plays a significant role in BDD, and that it’s not just girls who are highly affected: boys in particular struggle with achieving ideal muscular male body images. Everywhere we turn there’s a seemingly perfect actress or model on a screen or magazine cover, not to mention all the visual candy on social media. Our saturation of flawless images is unprecedented.

We’re not made looking at ourselves! Your face isn’t for you!

Even Ewing’s first surgeon agreed that the actor needed facial alterations for his career. After all, Ewing does have to compete with many actors and actresses who’ve altered themselves to present the public with an ever more “perfect” version of themselves.

Whether by surgery or by Photoshop, the way these altered people look—and the way they seem to look back at us—changes the way we look at ourselves. Humans are wired to perceive ourselves the way others—parents, teachers, significant others, friends, and even strangers—view us. In a media-saturated world, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the physical attributes we possess just don’t measure up. Even if the “best me” costs thousands in gashes and stitches, we buy it—because we want to be loved. Because we don’t feel lovable.

There’s a truth hidden in this confusion: we seek approval out of an inherent sense that we belong to other people. Our mistake is that we’ve been persuaded to believe we belong to the media, and it belongs to us—we crave the media’s love and we aspire to its standards. But we actually do belong to one another.

In the gaze of another we experience the goodness of our very existence, much more than when we look in a mirror or take a selfie. When we regard others reverently, we help them to understand their worth in a culture that exalts false images of perfection.

A friend once exclaimed to me, “We’re not made looking at ourselves! Your face isn’t for you!” It was a strange outburst that has stuck with me. It might be silly if we never looked in a mirror again—at the very least, you need to check your teeth for chives—but my friend is onto something. When we bask in the radiance of others instead of fretting over or flaunting ourselves, we can become a mirror for what someone may be missing in themselves.

While it’s tempting to respond with either aloofness or rival self-obsession when we’re confronted with the vanity of other people, either response perpetuates brokenness. The best way to respond is to seek out what is genuinely good in the other person. And there is always something good to be found.

Kathleen Torrey
Kathleen Torrey
Kathleen Torrey lives in Virginia with her husband. An expectant first-time mother, she writes about Catholicism, myth, suffering, and education. She is also penning a fairy tale novel and poetry book.

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