While researching for a story recently, I came across an article on a widely unknown psychiatric disorder called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). It caught my attention because years ago I had seen an episode of Oprah on the same subject. What I learned in that episode was so deeply upsetting that it had stayed with me even after all these years.

According to www.medterms.com, BDD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by excessive preoccupation with imagined defects in one’s physical appearance. People with BDD are obsessed by the idea that one or more part(s) of their body – hair, nose, skin, back and so on – are ugly or deformed, when in reality they are absolutely normal. The illness, however, is not as simple as it sounds like from this definition. Here's what Wikipedia has to say: BDD is a mental disorder, which involves a disturbed body image. It is generally diagnosed in those who are extremely critical of their physique or self-image, despite the fact that there may be no noticeable disfigurement or defect. Most of us wish we could change or improve some aspect of our physical appearance, and that’s quite normal too. But people suffering from BDD, believe that their defects make them so unspeakably hideous that they are unable to interact with others or function normally for fear of ridicule and humiliation at their appearance. Furthermore, they tend to be very secretive and reluctant to seek help because they are afraid others will think of them as vain.

If the graveness of the issue still hasn't dawned on you, please read on.

Three people who were at various stages of the illness were invited on Oprah. Needless to say, they were completely appalled by the idea of facing the audiences, not to mention millions of people watching the show on TV. It took months of convincing to bring them on to the show. And the only reason they finally came was to raise awareness for this illness and benefit others. One of the two women on the show, considered herself so revoltingly unattractive that she had barely left her home in years. However, when she walked on the stage, I was left absolutely baffled (as I'm sure were all the other viewers), because she looked nothing close ‘gross’. She was a rather attractive woman. I just could not understand why she would consider herself so ugly. 

Thankfully, for the benefit of laymen like me, a practicing psychologist and the author of a book on BDD, The Broken Mirror, Dr. Katherine A. Phillips was also present on the show. Dr. Phillips clarified that because of this strange illness, these people don't see themselves the way others see them. The illness makes them imagine facial and other physical deformities which they clearly do not have. When they look into a mirror, what looks back at them, due to this illness, is a distorted image of their face and body created by their own ailing mind.

As a result, a standard solution most of them resort to was to socially quarantine themselves. People who suffer from BDD drop out of schools and colleges, are not able to keep their jobs, have no friends or any other serious relationships and basically have no life outside of their rooms. It only gets worse – many of these patients have contemplated or even tried ending their lives. What makes it even more complicated is how little knowledge people have about this illness. For most people, the disease is nothing but vanity gone berserk!

The second case on the show was of Jesse, a handsome, 20-year-old man, who was too scared to look into a mirror because when he did so, he apparently saw a horrifying monster. The third case was of Jamie, a 28-year-old woman who had already had 26 plastic surgeries! Jamie suffered from BDD too, and because she was rich, she chose to do alter her looks surgically beginning from the tender age of 16. Jamie had practically gotten all her facial features altered and as a result was barely recognizable from her earlier pictures. But hers were a set of 'before-after' pictures that got transposed. The surgeries had left her looking unnatural, not to mention the tremendous pain and various physical inconveniences that came as side effects. Her latest rhinoplasty (because she wanted her nose to be just like Michael Jackson's), had left her nose in such a bad shape that she could barely breathe unless she cleaned her nostrils forcibly several times a day, just to keep them open. She had no option but to live the rest of her life with that asphyxiating nose, because her doctor had declared that her face could not take any more surgery. Thanks to the show, these three people received the psychiatric help that they so badly need.

When a beautiful girl completely ruins her face, her mental health and eventually her life, one surgery at a time, in the otiose search of perfect beauty; while ironically taking herself further and further away from it with every nip and tuck, one realizes what a dangerous illness BDD can be.

A five minutes researching online informed me that BDD is not an uncommon illness; it is just not very easily diagnosed. After all, it is not easy to discern, even for most doctors, where vanity ends and mental sickness begins. And vanity sure is in abundant supply. Look around and you will see examples of little overweening amour propre everywhere. In this day and age, where how one looks determines how one is regarded by society in general, and where one cares more about the number of ‘likes’ on one’s profile pictures rather than one's IQ score, what else do we expect?

‘Live for the likes’ is the ‘Myntra’, right? (Pun fully intended!)

Don't get me wrong. This isn't my crusade against the fashion and beauty industry. My Maybellines and MACs stay put in my purse and my quest for that perfect profile picture continues, but I do have an issue if we start to believe that's all there is to life.

The people on Oprah, the ones suffering from BDD, were clearly ill and needed help. But don't we all need some help too? Let's try and think of all those whom we can put on the list of people who have not yet contracted this piteous illness. My guess is the list wouldn't be too long. And if we are honest enough we might not even find our own name on that list! What else is to be expected in a world where the 30-second spinmeisters we all know as advertisements, would have us believe that if we want to marry the one we love or have the right job or even have an existence worth calling a life, our skin tone should be a few shades lighter. That it is outrageous not to do something about the greying of one's hair or the fine lines showing up on one's face with every passing year. That a few extra pounds mean the end of life as we know it.

I've been a victim of these thoughts too. And so has practically everyone I know. And let me reiterate again, I think it is perfectly normal to want to look good. But there’s a limit to it. No one should show up looking like a hobo at party but no one should also want to look like Katrina or Ranbir all the time. I bet even Katrina and Ranbir don’t look like their screen avatars all the time.

Being obsessed with one’s body and beauty is a slippery slope. Because before we would know it, the packaging would become all that there is to the product. It may start as something innocuous as the current epidemic of the ‘selfie craze’. It makes some people visit the washroom twenty times a day, trying to capture that perfect pose; and some it inflicts with an imprudence to pose with their grandfather’s coffin and worse still, post it on a social network thereby triggering viral outrage and mockery. I have seen people put up pictures which even an untrained eye like mine can tell, they must have been ‘Pixlring’ or ‘Photoshopping’ for hours; and it is accompanied by text which is either grammatically incorrect or has wrong spellings. I don’t know what is worse; the fact that someone puts up a picture unabashedly admitting that they are ‘feeling narcissistic this morning!’ or the fact that none of the 100 people who ‘like’ it or comment on it bother to point out that they spelled ‘narcissistic’ incorrectly!

It may start that way, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. Before we know it, men are pumping their bodies with steroids to get those perfect biceps ignoring the long-term side effects of it; and women are putting off pregnancies or cutting short breastfeeding because of the havoc it will wreck on their bodies. It pains me to acknowledge that I know of women who do not want to be photographed during their pregnancies because they don’t want eternal documentation of the time when the ‘looked like a cow’. It makes me both sad and angry. Sad, because they feel that way about the most magical time in a woman’s life, when she can get as fat as she wants and still feel absolutely divine about it. And angry because here’s life, blessing them with the biggest joy a human being can ever know; and all their baby is to them, is the harbinger of pigmentation, stretch marks and love handles that will refuse to go away for years.

I’m not quite sure how different (if at all) it is from what ailed the three people on Oprah’s show!   

There’s another aspect to this problem. This obsession isn’t always self-imposed. There was a woman in my antenatal classes who was super excited about having her baby but also terrified because her husband had given her a three months’ notice to get back in shape after the delivery. Makes me wonder, if my husband was like that too, would I be this nonchalant about reaching out every night, for that pint of Chocolate Chip kept in the freezer? I bet this kind of obsession, which is fueled by someone else's judgmental looks, is much harder to fight.

But it is not impossible. We want to learn something about disassociating self-esteem and confidence from natural beauty. Let’s look at the acid-attack survivors and their undying spirit to never stop feeling beautiful from inside.

Then look into your mirror, and look confidently. A wonderful creation, just the way 'The Creator' intended it, will look back.

Cherish the view.

About Author

Radhika Maira Tabrez

Member Since: 15 Apr, 2015

Radhika Maira Tabrez is the author of ‘In The Light Of Darkness’ - her debut novel, for which she won the Muse India – Satish Verma Young Writer Award (2016). In 2017 she was one of the winners of the Rising Stars India Award, presented by We A...

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