The main idea I’ve tried to put forth so far as a writer on this blog is that mental illnesses are inherently tied to the ruling norms and taboos of the surrounding culture. The mental illness I want to talk about today is very important to me, both as an individual with mental health issues and as an outgrowth of my particular time and place.
I want to talk about body dysmorphic disorder.
From the Mayo Clinic:
People with body dysmorphic disorder have a distorted or exaggerated view of how they look and are obsessed with actual physical characteristics or perceived flaws, such as a certain facial feature or imperfections of the skin. They often think of themselves as ugly or disfigured. People with body dysmorphic disorder often have problems controlling negative thoughts about their appearance, even when reassured by others that they look fine and that the minor or perceived flaws aren't noticeable or excessive.
Some studies show that BDD is as prevalent among men as women. However, the manifestations of the disorder vary according to the idealized body type for each sex. Men tend to have Muscle Dysmorphia, where they believe that their muscles are puny, no matter how normal or even excessively large they are. Other common BDD issues for men are baldness, chest size, and obsessions with chins, noses or other facial features.
For women, BDD manifests itself as extreme dissatisfaction with breasts, hair, skin, nose, eyes, legs, and weight. BDD goes hand-in-hand with anorexia and bulimia as disorders involving highly distorted self-perceptions. BDD also goes hand-in-hand with contemporary American culture, which provokes the individual, particularly the female, to be obsessed with with her appearance to the detriment of her well-being.
Psychology Today conducted surveys on body dissatisfaction over time:
In 1972, 23 percent of American women were dissatisfied with their appearance but by 1997 that figure had risen to 56 percent. In 1972, 15 percent of men were dissatisfied with their appearance but by 1997 that figure had risen to 43 percent.
This rise in body dissatisfaction stems from the capitalist response to women’s liberation of the 1960s and ’70s. Whereas corporations and ad agencies had previously profited off of appliance sales to housewives, career women had little use for each new home improvement widget. As a response to decreased consumer interest among women in general, capitalist industries led by the women’s magazine industry shifted the focus to the female body.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes, “Stripped of their old expertise, purpose, and advertising hook, the magazines invented … a 'problem' where it had scarcely existed before, centering it on women’s natural state, and elevating it to the existential female dilemma.”
The other main contributing cause was, of course, patriarchal fears about the potential outcomes of women becoming truly liberated. But what no one foresaw in this feminist backlash was the bleeding over into the territory of the male body.
In the last decade, gay male culture and metrosexual culture have brought body obsession back around to the people who were supposed to be benefiting from the Gaze. We’re now at a point in our culture where the individual is so heavily bombarded by images of bodily perfection that a certain percentage of the population, namely those people raised to look beautiful by their parents and those already inclined to OCD, are debilitated by their distorted self-perceptions.
BDD is often confused with social anxiety disorder because people with BDD feel so disgusted with a particular part of themselves that they can’t stand to be seen by others. They will take drastic measures to correct their flaws, including unnecessary plastic surgery, peeling and scratching at their skin, and wearing excessive makeup or clothing. BDD leads some sufferers to suicide.
The reason why I write this lengthy post about BDD is because I used to feel immense shame and anxiety about a part of my body that I secretly thought looked hideous. It took me years of torment before I finally confided in a friend about my deformity, only to be shocked when my friend, who was very surprised herself, reassured me that I looked fine, that people didn’t stare at me or have conversations about any one part of my when I left the room. I continuously have to reassure myself that this is the case.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental illness just like any other, but it’s also a social problem specific to certain cultures, just like eating disorders (which America exported to less developed nations over time). In an environment where obsessions with physicality are allowed to flourish, it is important to discuss the internal and external aspects of the situation in unison: my obsession-turned-self-distortion isn’t just in my head, it’s in magazines, on TV, in films—it’s everywhere. Only by discussing our mental illnesses in the context of the environment that fertilizes them can we begin see the full picture to address these problems head-on.