There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. But when body image concerns lead to behaviours that cause significant distress and impair one’s ability to function, this condition is known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
Dr Oliver Suendermann, Clinical Psychologist and Deputy Director of the clinical psychology programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: “People with BDD are preoccupied with self-perceived physical flaws that are usually not noticeable to others. They may engage in time-consuming compulsive rituals and behaviours like excessive exercise or grooming. But most of them do not like what they see in the mirror— in fact, they often feel ugly and hopeless for being stuck in their body.”
Anyone can suffer from BDD regardless of gender. Individuals with a negative body image and low self-esteem are most susceptible to developing the disorder, said Dr Chew Chu Shan Elaine, Senior Consultant, Adolescent Medicine Service, Department of Paediatrics at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Young victims of body-shaming – the act of mocking a person’s body shape or size – may also start to develop appearance-related anxieties.
Research suggests that frequent usage of social media may also trigger appearance-based comparisons, raising doubts about self-worth and potentially leading to BDD. According to Dr Suendermann, the use of photo-editing and filter apps in social media to create the perfect look has an adverse causal effect on the user’s perception of his or her body image. For men, social media pushes ideals of masculinity and muscularity, which can trigger body image issues. “Stigma towards mental illness and perception of BDD as a ‘female-only condition’ may deter men from seeking mental health help. This may result in a longer duration of untreated illness with poorer prognosis,” said Dr Chew.
Due to poor awareness of BDD, many individuals with the condition seek cosmetic treatment to change their appearance, not realising that they may need psychological support, according to Nicole Blanton, a US research psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr Suendermann cited examples of BDD sufferers who maintain an extreme weight-lifting or dieting regiment to the detriment of their psychological health.
Dr Suendermann said BDD is usually treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that is tailored to the individual’s condition. CBT helps patients to recognise their negative thoughts and behaviours and teaches how to manage them. He added that it is also important for patients to mention specific concerns about their appearance when consulting a doctor or mental health professional, in order to receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Help and resources
Singapore Counselling Center: Make an appointment booking.
Institute of Mental Health: Tel – 6389 2222 (24-hour hotline) or visit the website for more information on OCD or to book an appointment to see a doctor.
Elijah Ng is a freelance copywriter and a person of many divergent interests. Outside of writing, his other preoccupations are with AI, engineering, and psychology.
- S. Jiang. A. Ngien, “The Effects of Instagram Use, Social Comparison, and Self-Esteem on Social Anxiety: A Survey Study in Singapore”, Sage Journal, vol. 7, no. 2, 2020
- A. Bornioli et al, “Body dissatisfaction predicts the onset of depression of among adolescent females and males: a prospective study”, Jorunal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 2019
- Ryding, C. F. & Kuss, D. J., “The use of social media networking sites, body image dissatisfaction and Body Dysmoprphic Disorder: A review of psychological research”, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2019
- Blanton, N., “More than appearance concerns: What is body dysmorphic disorder?” Momentum, Blogs.bcm.edu, 2 July, 2019.