You’re standing in front of the mirror, your eyes painfully searching your body as you take in the fat that seems to be dripping from your skin. You force yourself to stare at it. The creature in the mirror repulses you to your core. How are you supposed to be around other people looking like this? The thing is — that isn’t you. It’s like looking at the wavy reflection of a funhouse mirror. The person in the mirror is just an illusion that your brain has constructed to sabotage you.
This serpent of anxiety and obsession that has so tightly wound itself around your psyche is called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). The constant hatred of your body—whether that be your weight or a specific body part — is a telltale sign of BDD. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you may feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.”
For many people, this disorder is easy to relate to, even if you aren’t diagnosed yourself. Almost everyone has, at some point or another, stood in front of the mirror and poked and prodded themselves, picking at every flaw they can find like a stubborn scab — it’s almost become normal for people to hate a part of themselves. However, this feeling becomes extreme in someone diagnosed with BDD.
Terina K. Lopez, a licensed mental health counselor with a focus on eating disorder therapy, said that the most common symptom of BDD is an intense anxiety about a specific flaw. “Anxiety is rooted in fear. There is a lot of fear of how the body will be perceived by another individual and how it will affect their lives,” said Lopez. “There is a continuous focus and over focus.” This anxiety is something that can cast a dark shadow over people’s daily lives. Even with the help of counselors and medication, it can be difficult to escape this constant cycle.
There is not a specific cause for BDD — it varies depending on each person. This disorder can affect people of any gender, age, race, shape or size. However, there are definitive links between BDD and family history, bullying and other childhood traumas related to weight or self-esteem, according to Lopez. The main way to try to manage it is by regularly attending therapy sessions and, in some cases, taking prescription medication.
Lauren Madonia, a junior at UM, has been battling symptoms of BDD since middle school. She explained that there are ups and downs, but it continues to rear its head. “I’ve been comfortable in my own skin, sometimes even proud, but there have been many more times when I’ve hated what I saw in the mirror so much I would cry for hours, isolate everyone around me and wear clothes so big that even I wouldn’t know what my body looked like,” Madonia said.
Madonia has also experienced the reclusive effects of suffering from BDD. Even though she was barely eating and was working out to the point that her ribs protruded from her skin, Madonia’s BDD was not satisfied. “I still wasn’t happy,” she said. “I was so terrified of people seeing me that I would only go grocery shopping at 3 a.m. at a store that was 15 miles from where I live, so I knew people wouldn’t see me. I wouldn’t leave my house, I would skip class and stay at home so that none of my friends, nor I, knew what I looked like anymore.”
In today’s society, where there is a constant push to look a certain way — whether that’s tall and thin or curvy like Kim Kardashian — this disorder is becoming more prevalent. Lopez attributes this to the omnipotence of social media in our daily lives.
“The pressures are much higher; body image is much more in people’s faces,” said Lopez. With influencers like the Kardashians and models like Emily Ratajkowski broadcasting their lives onto our feeds, it can be hard to not compare ourselves to this perceived ideal of perfection. Even seeing someone on Instagram that had an extreme, post-summer glow-up can trigger negative thoughts.
This superfluous influence of social media can sometimes yield unfortunate consequences. For one, it is hard for someone who is seeing a photo to know if that person floating through Mykonos with the seemingly perfect body is actually happy. Because of this phenomenon, people have developed unrealistic ideas of what they should look like. Lopez explained that this has created a mental link between appearances, both physical and constructed via social media, and success, both socially and in other aspects of life. People often think, “If I change my body, it will make me more successful, it will make me more popular, people will like me more,” Lopez said.
Although people often try to negate the effects that social media can have on people’s mental health, these platforms can be powerful triggers for those suffering from mental illnesses and disorders — especially in young girls. For Madonia, social media became a place of comparison that drove her to eat only 800 calories a day and not leave the gym until she had burned more than she had eaten. “When I saw all of the perfection on Instagram, I began to try to replicate what I was seeing,” said Madonia. “I turned into a shell of who I once was, and I couldn’t stop, because all I saw on my phone was beautiful girls with tiny waists and perfect skin.”
Even Instagram has begun to realize its adverse effects. In October, Instagram announced that they would be pulling filters from their app, specifically the ones that allowed users to fake plastic surgery in their stories. Users under 18 years old were also blocked from viewing content posted about miracle diet products, such as fit teas and diet-suppressing lollipops. This might be a step in the right direction, especially due to the fact that, according to Lopez, BDD is “happening at a much younger age.”
Apps like Facetune or photo-altering computer programs like Photoshop make it extremely easy for everyday social media users to tweak and change their bodies to fit the ideals of society. However, to the average Instagram user who only sees the final, edited photo, these changes seem real—and they can lead to unrealistic body expectations.
Victoria Nordquist, a junior at UM, said that she noticed this phenomenon when she saw that people’s online personas often did not match their appearances in real life. “The internet has become a warped version of reality, and we are comparing ourselves to people who don’t even look like the people in their own photos,” said Nordquist. “Society and social media definitely have a link to how we view our bodies, and when we don’t see bodies like our own in movies, TV shows and advertisements, we begin to feel unworthy — we have to take a step back and realize that is not real life.”
College campuses are also seeing an uptick in the diagnosis of BDD. This is partly due to the constant use of social media at universities and partly because of the culture of the institution—especially at warm-weather schools like UM, Lopez explained. The majority of the social culture at UM, whether we like it or not, is centered around partying, bikinis and showing off your best angles. “In this place of transition, adjusting to a new city, there is a lot of pressure to engage with others — to be accepted,” said Lopez.
“This campus can be a place where one can easily fall to the pressures of perfection instilled in our minds,” said Madonia. “Walking to class and seeing crowds of perfectly manicured beings can make one question themselves.”
Nordquist said that the combination of social media and the “pool party culture” that exists at Miami contributes to the pervasiveness of negative, anxious thoughts relating to body image. “Seeing other people’s content can make me feel like I’m missing something, especially because so many people are so gorgeous and have great bodies, and it can become a comparison game between yourself and others.”
As people continue to document their lives on the Internet, these pictures and experiences are easily accessible to younger and more malleable minds. Thus, BDD and other related illnesses are on the rise. Recently, a new term — orthorexia — was coined by social scientists. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is the obsession with healthy or “clean” eating.
Although people may not be purposely trying to starve themselves, orthorexia creates intense levels of anxiety around only eating foods that are considered healthy by society. Both body dysmorphia and orthorexia can affect people of all body types and lifestyles. “No matter what size you are, it is easy to fall into that negative mindset of ‘Could I be better?’” said Madonia. “It is always great to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly for the sake of your health, but taking it to unhealthy extremes to fit a standard that is not achievable is an evil cycle that will never end up well.”
Although unrealistic body types still dominate social media, campaigns like #AerieReal are making small steps to encourage self-acceptance. Despite the media and all of its unachievable perfection, it’s up to us to realize that people come in all shapes and sizes. Madonia said, “Learning to love the body you are in is a treacherous journey, but it is one that is worthwhile.”
This article was featured in Distraction’s winter 2019 issue.
words_olivia ginsberg photo_rj kayal design_avani choudhary