If I had a time machine, one of the first places I’d go is my childhood home. I’d find 11-year-old me secretly flipping through my mom’s magazines and looking at photos of the thin, “flawless,” female celebrities that lined their pages.
Just after my younger self carefully returned the magazines to their proper place—and just before she approached her full-length mirror to compare, ultimately believing she had physical imperfections, I’d gently walk up to her and whisper, “There’s no other body you need to have than your own. You are just as you need to be.”
Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time and console my younger self. Unfortunately, I don’t know that even if I could it would shield me from the nearly 17 years of suffering from an eating disorder and body dysmorphia.
Fortunately, I can look back at my past self with compassion as someone who’s fully recovered from the daily routine that so long plagued me.
. . . . .
If body dysmorphia is robbing you of a wholesome life, know it doesn’t have to forever. In this post, we’ll walk through eight things you can do right now to cope with this all-consuming disorder.
What Is Body Dysmorphia?
First, let’s discuss what exactly body dysmorphia is and how it differentiates from general body image disturbance.
Body dysmorphia, also known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is a mental health condition characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with perceived defects or flaws in one’s physical appearance that are not observable or only slight.
Body image disturbance is often a precursor to or symptom of BDD and refers to a negative perception or dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance. While still a serious matter, body image disturbance is experienced by most individuals at some point in life, whereas BDD is a true mental health disorder indicative by the following symptoms:
- Repeatedly checking or comparing one’s appearance in mirrors, or avoiding mirrors altogether.
- Engaging in repetitive or compulsive behaviors, such as skin picking or pinching, grooming, or excessive exercise.
- Attempting to hide, conceal, or fix perceived flaws through makeup, hairstyles, clothes, extreme diets, disordered eating behaviors, or cosmetic surgery.
- Seeking reassurance from others about one’s appearance or avoiding social situations or activities due to concerns about one’s appearance.
- Developing beliefs that the perceived defect is a significant flaw or that it makes the person ugly or unattractive.
- Experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions as a result of one’s preoccupation with appearance that impacts day-to-day life and functioning.
Women, young adults, adolescents, men, boys, all can exhibit symptoms of BDD, but thanks to the proper treatment and coping strategies, we can not only heal our relationship with our body but drastically improved our quality of life, overall.
1. Tell Your Body Story
The first step in overcoming body dysmorphia is learning to understand how you arrived at this point of extreme dissatisfaction or hate toward your body. Niva Piran, PhD, award winning author and Psychologist speaks about ’embodiment’ and our body journey as one of the best ways to begin the journey of understanding our story:
Sit down with your journal and answer the following questions:
- Do I recall a time in my life when I felt free in my body?
- What every day life experiences contributed to my shift in body image?
- When did I decide to ‘act on’ my body and what motivated me to do so?
- What has my body been through?
It’s okay if you don’t have a clear-cut answer to each question. Honestly responding to them takes courage and vulnerability, but it paves the way to developing compassion for your suffering and allows you to choose what you want to do next.
2. Seek Help from a Qualified Mental Health Professional
Just like how seeking professional help for a physical illness or ailment is so critical for healing, it also is for treating body dysmorphia. Share your body story and struggles with a mental health provider—often a specialized therapist —trained to treat BDD and any related, co-occurring mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, social anxiety, and other anxiety disorders.
The following are some common treatment options used by therapists in treating BDD symptoms:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about your appearance to develop more balanced and realistic thinking patterns.
- Exposure and response prevention to carefully guide you through exposure to situations that typically trigger BDD symptoms, such as mirrors or social situations.
- Psychoeducation to provide you with information about body dysmorphia and understand how your thoughts and behaviors may be contributing to your BDD symptoms.
- Behavioral experiments to test the reality of your negative beliefs and assumptions about your appearance.
- Mindfulness techniques to help you develop awareness of your thoughts and emotions and learn to accept their presence without judgment.
3. Talk to Your Body As If It’s Your Most Precious Asset (Because It Is)
The path to body acceptance is possible when you learn to:
- Accept negative body thoughts and feelings without judgment; and
- Respond to said thoughts with neutral or reassuring thoughts in everyday life.
Learning to productively respond to unhelpful thoughts is best achieved when your emotions aren’t running rampant.
For example, some striving to detach from negative feelings leaned on mindfulness techniques like meditation and breathing exercises to calm their nervous system before responding to negative thoughts. These practices not only eased stress and anxiety; they also allow others to separate themselves from their thoughts so they could observe them with curiosity rather than judge or internalize them.
Once calm enough to access my prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that operates on logic rather than impulse), examples of ways to respond to negative thoughts come in statements like:
- My body is my home, and I’m going to take care of it.
- True, lasting happiness isn’t achieved by changing or concealing my exterior.
- I can let life pass me by as I ruthlessly chase a different body, or I can actually live my life by embracing what’s uniquely mine.
Learning to talk to your body with a combination of kindness, neutrality, and respect not only leads to better body image—it also allows you to see what a precious and vital gift your body is to your existence.
4. Use “Opposite Action”
The fixation you’ve had on your body or certain body parts has likely led to a degree of self-objectification and body image problems. You’re constantly monitoring your body and paranoid that each perceived physical flaw is being noticed by others.
As such, you’ve conditioned yourself to engage in compulsive behaviors like mirror-checking, avoiding mirrors, weighing, comparing yourself to others, exercising, and abstaining from social gatherings all connected to a perceived flaw or a need to feel safe.
While the first step is to identify your compulsive behaviors, the second step is to come up with ways to intercept them with an opposite action.
For example, if you are constantly mirror checking, perhaps you can cover the mirrors or place a sticky note on them that says, “Don’t check your body—hug your body.” If you constantly ask others if you look okay, you can tell those you trust to respond to you with, “I love and accept you not for how you look but for who you are.”
The more you intercept the conditioned, disordered behaviors with healthy reframes, the less impulsive they become and the more accepting of yourself you begin to feel.
5. Reject Systems of Body Oppression
Circle back to your body story and the reflection question about the things that have contributed to your BDD symptoms. Odds are, your response ties back to larger environmental and sociocultural factors like social media, diet culture, advertising, the beauty and fashion industries, sexism, misogyny, racism, gender-ism, and weight stigma.
Unfortunately, these powerful entities benefit from our individual suffering. They send messages that objectify and distort our views of beauty, health, and individual worth. It is only when we recognize their illegitimacy and immorality that can we see more in everyone around us, and especially in ourselves.
To grow more resilient to these oppressive systems and cultivate body-acceptance, consider reading the following books:
- The Courageous Path to Healing
- The Body Is Not an Apology
- Befriending Your Body
- Body Kindness
- Fearing the Black Body
- More Than a Body
- Body Respect
- You Just Need to Lose Weight: And 19 Other Myths About Fat People
6. Experience Your Body as an Instrument
In their book More Than a Body, twin sisters Lindsay and Lexie Kite convey a message all too different from the superficial ones we so often hear from the diet, fitness, beauty, and fashion industries. They fervidly state that one’s body is an instrument, not an ornament to be looked at.”
The power of this message comes not only from the words that form it but from the actions that evoke it.
To fully break free from body dysmorphia, you must (gently and at your own pace) allow your body to freely and naturally exist in the world.
Wear shorts on a hot summer day.
Post an unedited, unfiltered photo of yourself.
Exercise in a way that exudes your love for your body; not your hate for it.
Certainly, experiencing your body as an instrument without allowing your perceived flaws to impede on that experience can be challenging and downright scary. But the more you do it, the more you ease into it. And the closer you become to finding body peace and liberation.
7. Stand in Solidarity with Other Affected Persons
While connecting with yourself and working with a trained mental health provider (when possible) are key to overcoming body dysmorphia, communing with others affected by BDD and co-existing forms of mental illness can amplify your healing to new levels.
Joining a support group, book club, or advocacy group aligned with your desire to seek body acceptance and challenge body-oppressive systems offers a safe space to share your body story and find hope, inspiration, and fellowship in your healing journey.
Search online for support groups in your area or for virtual groups offered nationally or worldwide. Many are free, don’t expect you to speak, and don’t require your camera to be on if meeting virtually.
8. Practice Self-Care
Coping with and overcoming body dysmorphia is tough. Undoubtedly, there will be days when you feel hopeless or ambivalent about your ability to recover, and keeping your own cup full by practicing daily acts of self-care will help you stay centered and focused.
Some ways to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally include:
- Expressing gratitude to your body for the myriad ways it serves you
- getting enough sleep
- listening to fun or relaxing music
- eating foods that bring you energy and satisfaction
- engaging in gentle movement
- anything else that makes you happy and relaxed
. . . . .
Body dysmorphia is a crippling mental health disorder that can feel insurmountable to overcome.
Fortunately, you are the author of your own body story, and regardless of how much self-objectification, body hate, or body shame your recent chapters have held, know there are more chapters to be written.
Choose the ending you want for your body story.
Like me, you may someday share it with the world feeling more peace in your body than you ever knew was possible.