Do you have body dysmorphia? How to recognize the signs and seek help.

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Do you have body dysmorphia? How to recognize the signs and seek help.
Body dysmorphia can co-occur with conditions like depression, anxiety, and OCD.praetorianphoto/Getty Images
  • Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition that causes one to fixate on a perceived flaw.
  • Causes of body dysmorphia include genetics, past trauma, and growing up in a body-hating household.
  • Body dysmorphia can be treated with therapy and certain depression and anxiety medications.
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Body dysmorphia is a mental health disorder that affects how a person thinks about and views their physical selves. An estimated five to ten million people in the United States experience it. Symptoms include comparing oneself to others and being preoccupied with perceived flaws.

Important: A person with body dysmorphia may spend hours a day preoccupied with their perceived flaw and take extraordinary measures to "fix" it, such as cutting down meals or exercising excessively, says Shena Jaramillo, a registered dietitian with her own practice that focuses on body positivity.

Body dysmorphia is not an eating disorder, but there are similarities between the two conditions, and it can eventually lead to one. Depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, and substance misuse are also common co-conditions.

"It is normal to obsess over an acne scar or belly bulge from time to time," says Paakhi Srivastava, PhD, an assistant research professor at Drexel University's Center for Weight, Eating, and Lifestyle Science. "But, if the preoccupation with the appearance causes intense distress or interferes with day-to-day life, those are signs that an individual is having body dysmorphia."

Here's how to recognize the signs of body dysmorphia, get a proper diagnosis, and seek help.

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Body dysmorphia symptoms

Symptoms of body dysmorphia include:

  • Extreme preoccupation with a perceived flaw that is minor or nonexistent to others
  • A belief that said "flaw" makes the person ugly
  • Behaviors aimed at fixing or hiding the perceived flaw that are difficult to resist
  • Fear that others mock their appearance
  • Constant comparison of appearance to others
  • Frequently seeks reassurance from others that they look good
  • Still think they look bad after cosmetic procedures
  • Avoids social situations

If you think you have body dysmorphia visit a doctor as soon as possible to confirm a diagnosis as body dysmorphia can be harder to overcome as time goes on, says Jaramillo.

Important: A person with body dysmorphia may have similar reactions to seeing themselves in photos as they do in person or in mirrors. "Often, individuals with body dysmorphia spend hours examining their image, obsessing over their perceived flaws or asking others for feedback on the photo," says Srivastava.

What causes body dysmorphia?

There is no known single cause of body dysmorphia. However, genetics, life experiences, and identity may play a part.

1. Genetics

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Some people may be genetically predisposed to body dysmorphia.

What the research says: In a small 2013 study, researchers found that a specific gene occurred more frequently in people with body dysmorphia. Although more research is needed.

2. Life Experiences

Societal expectations and life experiences can also contribute to body dysmorphia. These include:

  • Witnessing body dysmorphia
  • Hearing body-hating rhetoric growing up
  • Family members and health care professionals applauding weight loss or commenting on weight gain
  • Photoshopped bodies on social media
  • Advertisements focused on losing weight
  • Experiencing trauma

"There is a genetic component or it can be a learned behavior which is why I work with my adult clients on making sure they aren't putting themselves down in front of their children," says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a social worker with her own private practice.

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What the research says: In a small 2012 study, participants with body dysmorphia were more likely to report childhood physical or sexual abuse than those without the disorder.

3. Identity

People of any gender, demographic, and age can experience body dysmorphia. However, according to Jaramillo, some individuals are at a greater risk including those:

  • Aged 14 to 25
  • Identifying as LGBTQ+
  • With a history of dieting
  • With mental health conditions

Body dysmorphia treatment

Body dysmorphia is a treatable condition, but treatment varies based on the individual. It may include working with a mental health professional, physician, and dietitian.

"A patient's primary care physician that isn't trained in health at every size model can unknowingly perpetuate the issue by weighing the patient and discussing dietary rules," says Jaramillo.

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Receiving treatment for body dysmorphia may include working with a mental health professional, a physician, and a registered dietitian. These experts can help you through the various treatment options available, says Jaramillo, such as:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Taking anti-anxiety or depression medication
  • Replacing harmful behavior

Jaramillo says you can support a loved one struggling with body dysmorphia in many ways such as:

  • Expressing empathy.
  • Listen to their concerns about their body, their thoughts, and emotions surrounding the behavior.
  • Refrain from judging or identifying their concerns as irrational.

Insider's takeaway

Body dysmorphia is a serious mental health condition that involves obsession over perceived flaws. It can lead to co-occurring conditions like eating disorders, OCD, or major depression. A person can overcome body dysmorphia by seeking out targeted therapy, medication, and techniques to replace harmful behavior.

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