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Body dysmorphic disorder: UAE expert warns of the risks and offers help

Imane Bougueffa, Counsellor at The Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

By Staff

Lots of people feel unhappy or insecure about how they look at some point in their lives. When individuals become obsessed with their appearance and worry excessively about small or imagined flaws, though, it’s something a bit more serious: a little known illness called Body Dysmorphia.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is thought to affect one in 50 people and is a disabling preoccupation with perceived defects. It usually develops in adolescence, a time when people are generally most sensitive about their appearance, and can affect both men and women, making sufferers excessively self-conscious.

Imane Bougueffa, a counsellor at The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, specialises in eating and behavioural disorders. She says she’s seeing a noticeable increase in patients at the centre being diagnosed with BDD or showing clear symptoms of its development.

“For many with BDD, their appearance is the only currency by which they can judge their value or worth. Obvious symptoms can include patients obsessively checking their appearance in the mirror, or constantly applying make-up and grooming themselves.

Overly focusing on perceived flaws such as facial features, skin, hair, height and weight can often, and worryingly, also lead patients to undergo needless cosmetic procedures.

“The impact of BDD on a patient’s quality of life can be severe. They withdraw from social situations and events. Some end up with lives so limited that they effectively become housebound.  Many patients are single or divorced because they find it so difficult to form or maintain relationships.”

The explosion of social media doesn’t seemed to have helped matters. It’s frequently been cited as a contributory factor in influencing body image. A survey showed that 16-25 year olds spend on average 16 minutes and seven attempts to take the perfect selfie.

Imane says: “There is a fine line between being unhappy with a certain aspect of your appearance and developing BDD. But, I strongly believe social media, in particular Instagram, has a huge part to play in projecting and normalising unrealistic body images.”

Many people who suffer with BDD try to change their bodies with frequent and repetitive cosmetic surgery. But fewer than 10% are happy with the outcome and even if they are their anxieties can transfer to another aspect of their appearance. However, fewer than 10% of BDD patients will be satisfied with the results of the surgery, and their anxieties are often transferred to another aspect of their appearance. It is thought that around 15% of people seeking plastic surgery have BDD.

To help provide support to a loved one suffering from BDD, Imane has given us signs and symptoms to look out for and some ways in which they can help the person refute such feelings and take control of their lives again.  

• Obsessively checking their appearance in a mirror or reflective surface

• Cutting or constantly combing their hair to make it “just so”

• Picking their skin to make it smooth and feeling for imperfections and flaws

• Constantly comparing themselves against models in magazines or friends/ celebrities/social media

• Disproportionate amount of discussion about their appearance

• Using make-up to camouflage and hide behind

• Highlighting certain body parts as being disproportionate and inadequate. For example, constantly describing the stomach or thighs as big, or muscles as being too small

• Social withdrawal - frequently missing work, school or other social situations out of fear others will notice one’s flaws

• Feeling anxious over one’s food choices, exercise routine and surroundings. This can include excessive exercise for weight loss or for muscle gain

• Increased irritability and judgemental of others

• Experiencing relationship problems, such as extreme jealousy and a constant need for approval and reassurance from others

• Showing signs of social phobia or social anxiety, including severe blushing, sweating, shuddering, shyness, trembling or nausea when around others

BDD is not something that can be easily overcome. It will take time, commitment, and the right guidance to improve everyone’s quality of life. Friends and family can help provide support to patients in the following ways:

• Avoid blaming the patient for experiencing negative thoughts in the first place

• Encourage the patient to seek help. Often the patients thoughts are so far removed from reality, they do not have enough insight to understand that he/she has a psychological problem

• Don’t participate in BDD by reassuring the patient, seeking ‘magic’ solutions for them, or changing your lifestyle to make them feel more comfortable. This will just exacerbate and prolong the problem.