Battle Creek

Voices of Youth: Breaking free from the mirror and understanding body dysmorphic disorder

Editor's Note: This story is by Lila McCarthy as part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA Foundation, City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The artwork is by Voices of Youth's Robin McCarthy.

What is Body Dysmorphia? Well, body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, is a mental illness involving obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in one’s body. The perceived flaw may be minor or even imagined, but the person may spend hours every day trying to hide it or ‘fix’ it. The person may try cosmetic surgeries, excessive exercise, or really anything that they think will fix the ‘flaw.’ People with this disorder may examine their bodies in a mirror excessively, compare themselves to others, and even avoid photos or social situations. 

Who is affected by body dysmorphic disorder? Everyone has it to some degree — most people speak negatively about their own bodies or flaws that they may perceive in their bodies. Most commonly though, more severe cases of BDD occur in teens, especially teens who were assigned female at birth or identify as female. Savannah Odem, MA., TLLP of Battle Creek sheds some light on what BDD is and what teens might do if they suspect they have it.

Most people do struggle with body dysmorphia, but it isn’t really talked about often. What are your perceptions of how it exists in our society, and what comes from it?

Savannah Odem, MA., TLLP of Battle CreekOdem: In my opinion, a large majority of body image issues stem from unrealistic beauty standards within society. We as a society build these unrealistic beauty standards by having almost constant social media, advertising/marketing, and celebrity entertainment which are being rewarded and/or praised to sell beauty standards and a certain “lifestyle” to others. Over time, this constant messaging influences our interpretations of what beauty is at that moment in time. Additionally, I think Americans generally have a poor relationship with food/diet (which is a whole different issue) and this contributes to self-guilt, self-blame, and shame over body image. Trauma can play a role in the development of body image issues.  There also could be genetic and/or biological or chemical imbalance influences, as well. With the human brain, there are often many factors contributing to a mental illness, instead of just one. 

It’s important to keep in mind that body image issues and clinical body dysmorphic disorder are two different struggles; while body image issues can lead to body dysmorphic disorder, body dysmorphic disorder is more extreme and causes more difficulties in daily functioning for the individual within many areas of their life (personal, work, academic, interpersonal relationships, finances, and more).  

Why do you think people find having body dysmorphic disorder uncommon or embarrassing?

Odem: I think similar to most mental health concerns, it can be stigmatizing or feel isolating to individuals. More specifically with body dysmorphic disorder, the individual is often genuinely not seeing how unreasonable their fixation is or how much they are exaggerating an issue they perceive on a specific body part, which leads to feeling invalidated when they bring up this concern with others. 

How common do you think body dysmorphic disorder is in actuality? What sort of groups or populations are affected by it most?

Odem: While body image issues are extremely common and may even affect almost everyone at some point in their life (which is normal), by contrast, actual clinical body dysmorphic disorder is much less common.  

What in a teen’s life or society do you believe contributes most to causing BDD? How so?

Odem: I think teens are especially at risk for body image issues because they’re at a specific developmental intersection in which they are already experiencing a lot of changes. Physical changes in the body can be alarming to individuals and can be difficult to adjust to. Our physical body is part of our overall identity development and individuals incorporate what their body looks like into their identity makeup. Therefore, as the body naturally changes every decade or so, it can feel like we are constantly having to adjust to the differences, which takes intentional processing and accepting of the changes. For teens, these are the first major physical changes that they have conscious awareness of, in conjunction with puberty and hormonal changes, in conjunction with constant social media exposure; ultimately it’s a lot to handle all at once.

Considering that there are many different thought processes when it comes to BDD, what kind of thought processes do you think are the most common?

Odem: For body dysmorphic disorder, the perceived flaw is typically not real or the flaw is significantly exaggerated in the individual’s thought process.  Typically the perceived flaw is something that only the individual would notice themselves anyways, but they feel that everyone can see it and everyone is judging them for it. It can be something big or small. For example, a person could gain five pounds, which is relatively insignificant and could have been caused by a wide variety of factors (holiday eating, water retention from their menstrual cycle, seasonal changes that make it difficult to exercise, aging, etc.), but the individual will fixate on it, blame themselves or their bodies, will likely see significant changes in their body that actually aren’t there, and start trying to change it via unhealthy habits.  It’s a form of delusion about themselves and their body.

How does BDD present itself most frequently in your opinion? Why do you think that is?

Odem: High rates of anxiety, excessive social avoidance, potentially delusional thoughts/perceptions about perceived body flaws, and extreme body modifications via surgery, disordered eating, or disordered exercising. 

What are some less frequent ways you’ve seen it present itself?

Odem: Sometimes people genuinely hate their body or what it looks like and experience excessive perceived flaws, but don’t engage in behaviors to modify their bodies. 

Artwork by Robin McCarthyWhat do you think causes BDD for most people?

Odem: Unrealistic beauty standards, trauma, and poor relationship with their diet and body.

How do you think sibling or family roles could affect body image? (ex. The pretty one, the smart one, the fit one, etc.)

Odem: I think that family dynamics can affect body image, especially if other individuals in the family also struggle with body image issues. For example, if a parent is hyper-focused on food, diet, body image, and fitness, these ideas can also be unintentionally or intentionally instilled in children.  

Who do you think is most affected by BDD based on your experience?

Odem: I most often see body dysmorphic disorder among teen girls, young women, and transgender individuals. I believe that unrealistic beauty standards affect these populations the most. Not to say that unrealistic beauty standards do not harm everyone, because they absolutely do; however, these are the populations in which I see the most body image issues and body dysmorphic disorder. It’s important to note that the factors that contribute to body image issues or body dysmorphic disorder are typically different for each of these populations.

How do you think people could begin to heal from the effects their body dysmorphia may have had on them?

Odem: I think it starts with mindfully and intentionally reconnecting with the body by trying new foods, exercise routines, and clothing options that make the body feel good as opposed to being drained. Over time, listening to the body and how it positively responds to healthier options can be a powerful experience.

How can people who experience body dysmorphia learn to heal mentally from it and have a more positive view of themselves?

Odem: Working with a mental health professional who specializes in this area is the most important first step an individual can take.  A huge part of healing from body image issues and body dysmorphic disorder is unlearning unhelpful core beliefs that may have contributed to the development of these struggles.  Cognitive-behavioral therapy and Person-centered therapy have been researched and found to be helpful in these areas of struggle.

What do you recommend people look into to help prove that their perceived flaw isn’t a flaw after all?

Odem: While working with a mental health professional, individuals can start to unlearn unhelpful core beliefs, toxic societal opinions, and unnecessary self-blame and shame, so they can start challenging these cognitive distortions about themselves and their bodies.  

Societal beauty standards are something that frequently contributes to BDD, and yet these standards change so rapidly that there is almost no way to keep up. To what degree do you recommend following these trends and standards?

Odem: So this is something that I actually use as a tool to challenge internalized unreasonable beauty standards and unhelpful critical thoughts about self not “matching” current beauty standards.  If you pay attention or do some research on the topic, you’ll notice that every single body type, every single fashion aesthetic, every single makeup trend, every single hairstyle, and almost anything else you can think of has been in style or has been a beauty standard at one point in time AND these trends really just repeat themselves over time.  To me, that says that all bodies, looks and trends are appreciated, just depends on what society is fixated on at that time.  Therefore, I think it’s important to remember that beauty really is subjective and there is no one type of beauty that people love, as society has shown time and time again. So follow a trend if you like it or if it makes sense to you, and if it doesn’t, don’t worry because another one is coming soon and maybe you’ll resonate with that one more. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject?

Odem: Physical body changes over time are normal and it literally means you’re alive, growing, and evolving, which is a good thing.

Lila McCarthyLila McCarthy is a little bit… odd, but what can you do? They love writing (mainly fiction, but the occasional article is fun too) and absolutely adore music. She wants to be in a band one day. He has a lot of pets, but their favorite is their family’s pig, Sir Francis Bacon (don’t tell the other animals). They also draw and sing and dance, and have been in a few musicals before. She loves writing about things that he feels need a bit more attention and care from society, and hopes to do something good for society one day.

Writer's Statement: I chose this topic because it is something that I know impacts many, many people, and something I know a bit about, but I felt like I didn’t know quite enough about the scientific side of things. After reading Savannah Odem’s answers to the questions, I feel that I have a greater insight and understanding of the subject, and feel like it will likely be easier to do two things: 1.) Help stop the spread of misinformation on the subject; and 2.) Understand more about the disorder itself and how to understand it in many different people.
Robin McCarthyRobin McCarthy is a sixteen-year-old guy who’s a sophomore in high school, as well as being dual-enrolled in college courses at Kellogg Community College. Robin’s been making art for as long as he can remember — he is the kind of person who if you leave alone with art supplies, he’s sure to make something. He enjoys reading comics, listening to music, and trying to learn bass guitar in his free time. 

Artist's Statement: Working on a project about something like body dysmorphia was quite an interesting process for me, I know there are a lot of clichés out there about body image artwork and such, and I tried to make an impactful piece where everyone’s body type is reminded that they’re okay the way they are and that it’s perfectly normal to feel insecure sometimes.
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