Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. But you may feel so embarrassed, ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.
When you have body dysmorphic disorder, you intensely focus on your appearance and body image, repeatedly checking the mirror, grooming or seeking reassurance, sometimes for many hours each day. Your perceived flaw and the repetitive behaviors cause you significant distress, and impact your ability to function in your daily life.
You may seek out numerous cosmetic procedures to try to "fix" your perceived flaw. Afterward, you may feel temporary satisfaction or a reduction in your distress, but often the anxiety returns and you may resume searching for other ways to fix your perceived flaw.
Treatment of body dysmorphic disorder may include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication.
Signs and symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder include:
- Being extremely preoccupied with a perceived flaw in appearance that to others can't be seen or appears minor
- Strong belief that you have a defect in your appearance that makes you ugly or deformed
- Belief that others take special notice of your appearance in a negative way or mock you
- Engaging in behaviors aimed at fixing or hiding the perceived flaw that are difficult to resist or control, such as frequently checking the mirror, grooming or skin picking
- Attempting to hide perceived flaws with styling, makeup or clothes
- Constantly comparing your appearance with others
- Frequently seeking reassurance about your appearance from others
- Having perfectionist tendencies
- Seeking cosmetic procedures with little satisfaction
- Avoiding social situations
Preoccupation with your appearance and excessive thoughts and repetitive behaviors can be unwanted, difficult to control and so time-consuming that they can cause major distress or problems in your social life, work, school or other areas of functioning.
You may excessively focus over one or more parts of your body. The feature that you focus on may change over time. The most common features people tend to fixate about include:
- Face, such as nose, complexion, wrinkles, acne and other blemishes
- Hair, such as appearance, thinning and baldness
- Skin and vein appearance
- Breast size
- Muscle size and tone
A preoccupation with your body build being too small or not muscular enough (muscle dysmorphia) occurs almost exclusively in males.
Insight about body dysmorphic disorder varies. You may recognize that your beliefs about your perceived flaws may be excessive or not be true, or think that they probably are true, or be absolutely convinced that they're true. The more convinced you are of your beliefs, the more distress and disruption you may experience in your life.
When to see a doctor
Shame and embarrassment about your appearance may keep you from seeking treatment for body dysmorphic disorder. But if you have any signs or symptoms, see your primary care provider or a mental health professional.
Body dysmorphic disorder usually doesn't get better on its own. If left untreated, it may get worse over time, leading to anxiety, extensive medical bills, severe depression, and even suicidal thoughts and behavior.
If you have suicidal thoughts
Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common with body dysmorphic disorder. If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, get help right away:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Call a suicide hotline number. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use its webchat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
- Call your mental health professional.
- Seek help from your primary care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
It's not known specifically what causes body dysmorphic disorder. Like many other mental health conditions, body dysmorphic disorder may result from a combination of issues, such as a family history of the disorder, abnormalities in the brain, and negative evaluations or experiences about your body or self-image.
Body dysmorphic disorder typically starts in the early teenage years and it affects both males and females.
Certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering body dysmorphic disorder, including:
- Having blood relatives with body dysmorphic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Negative life experiences, such as childhood teasing, neglect or abuse
- Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism
- Societal pressure or expectations of beauty
- Having another mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression
Complications that may be caused by or associated with body dysmorphic disorder include, for example:
- Major depression or other mood disorders
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
- Anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance misuse
- Health problems from behaviors such as skin picking
- Physical pain or risk of disfigurement due to repeated surgical interventions
There's no known way to prevent body dysmorphic disorder. However, because body dysmorphic disorder often starts in the early teenage years, identifying the disorder early and starting treatment may be of some benefit.
Long-term maintenance treatment also may help prevent a relapse of body dysmorphic disorder symptoms.