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Body Dysmorphia And Its Relationship With Eating Disorders

Article Contributed by Sharon McConville, MB, BCh, BAO

body dysmorphiaBody Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), or Body Dysmorphia, is a condition that affects a person’s body image. This condition can be so severe that it affects the person’s life, well-being, and ability to function.

BDD is diagnosed when three criteria are met:

First Criteria: Preoccupation

First, the sufferer must be either preoccupied with an imagined defect in their appearance or excessively concerned about a slight physical anomaly.

Second Criteria: Distress

Secondly, the sufferer must be significantly distressed by their preoccupation or excessive concern with their appearance and/or be impaired in terms of what work-related and social activities they can participate in.

Third Criteria: Not Something Else

Finally, their preoccupation must not be better diagnosed under the heading of a different mental illness, such as anorexia, where body image is also a factor1.

What Are The Symptoms?

A person with BDD may be concerned about any part of their body, although there are common areas, including:

  • Skin
  • Hair
  • Eyelids
  • Nose
  • Mouth
  • Chin

While many sufferers are preoccupied with facial features, it is also fairly common for the breasts or genitalia to be the site of the perceived defect3.

Some people have a very precise complaint about a particular feature; others have a vaguer perception of ugliness2. Either way, people with BDD frequently attach strong personal meanings to their beliefs about their appearance.

For example, one man thought that his nose made him look like an unlovable crook; another thought that tiny flaws in his skin made him dirty2. People with these kinds of beliefs usually expect other people to have the same beliefs about them and to evaluate them negatively because of their appearance, which is very disabling socially2.

They Cannot Be Convinced By Normal Means

Other people with BDD may realize –often having been told many times – that others do not perceive them to have a disfigurement; however, the perceived defect remains very real to them personally3.

Because people with BDD are so consumed with thinking about an aspect of their appearance, they often spend a lot of time either examining the perceived defect or trying to disguise it2.

For example, a sufferer may:

  1. Gaze at the mirror for excessive periods of time
  2. Engage in long personal grooming rituals
  3. Attempt to camouflage the perceived defect with heavy make-up

People with BDD may also attempt ‘DIY surgeries’ such as flattening the nose with tape or reshaping it by placing tissue paper inside, and many go on to seek cosmetic surgery2.

Why Getting Surgery Doesn’t Work

When surgery goes ahead, it is frequently perceived to be unsuccessful, while in cases where satisfaction is achieved, 50% of people with BDD have been shown to develop a preoccupation with a previously unaffected body part2.

People with BDD are at a high risk for depression and suicide and have been shown to have a greater degree of distress than people with depression, diabetes, or bipolar disorder4.

body dysmorphia

They tend to avoid social situations because they do not want others to see and judge them, and because their perceived defect causes them to be afraid of dating or intimacy2.

They may employ unhelpful strategies to help them endure such situations, such as drinking alcohol to excess, or they may become housebound. Because of this, attempts at following a course of study or taking part in paid employment are frequently disrupted.

All of these factors may lead to interpersonal difficulties with family members who cannot understand the extent of the disability which the person with BDD faces2.

Who Gets Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

The proportion of adults living with BDD in the United States has been found to be 2.4%, with men and women affected equally5. It commonly begins in adolescence at the time when people are most sensitive about their appearance, but many sufferers live with it for years before seeking help for fear that they will be considered vain2,3.

What is more, BDD is often under-diagnosed, partly because treating physicians are not good at recognizing it6 and partly because patients tend to talk to healthcare professionals about other related symptoms such as anxiety or depression rather than revealing their underlying concern3.

Children can get BDD too, but they are often unable to articulate their problems; instead, signs that they are ill can include refusing to attend school and making plans for suicide2.

What Causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

BDD is under-researched compared with other disorders of body image such as eating disorders. There are both biological and psychological explanations for the development of BDD3.

    • Biological Model

a person has a genetic predisposition to the condition, which emerges after they are exposed to certain life stressors such as bullying or abuse. Once BDD has developed, an imbalance in neurotransmitters such as serotonin may perpetuate the problem3.

    • Psychological Model

BDD is related to low self-esteem and a tendency to judge oneself according to appearance. A person may develop false beliefs linking a perceived defect in their appearance to their worth as a person: “If I am unattractive my life is not worth living”.

In this model, the BDD is then maintained by extreme self-focused behaviors such as appearance checking and comparing the feature perceived to be defective with that of other people3. As further research is carried out, it is likely that a more inclusive bio-psycho-social model of illness causation will be developed.

Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder An Eating Disorder?

There is some overlap between characteristics of BDD and eating disorders including, for example, body image dissatisfaction and disturbance, rituals and behaviors relating to appearance, and a tendency to compare7.

However, although dieting can be a feature of BDD that involves a body part perceived to be large, eating and weight are not usually disturbed, and BDD is not diagnosed if an eating disorder is thought to be present.

People with an eating disorder can also be diagnosed with BDD and individuals who have both have been found to have more severe psychopathology7. They may, therefore, require a more aggressive treatment plan.

How Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder Best Treated?

At present, it is accepted that the treatment with the best evidence-base in BDD is a combination of an SSRI antidepressant with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)8. A form of “exposure with response prevention” is usually included in CBT for BDD3.

This means that the patient is exposed to their fear – for example, of looking in the mirror or being seen in public without make-up – without being able to respond in the usual way, such as by covering up, so that he or she becomes used to the experience and begins to find it less distressing. CBT can be delivered equally successfully to individuals or to a group of patients with BDD9.

A Personal Story About BDD

Danielle Nulty is 27 and works as a sales representative. She told her story to the UK Daily Mail,

“I was a tomboy up until the age of 13, but then my parents split up and everything changed. People are quick to blame the separation, but I believe there has to be a propensity within you to body dysmorphia from the start. I went from not caring about how I looked to layering on camouflage foundation by the time I was 14.

I used a special product intended for people who are physically scarred, called Dermablend, which I got from a junior make-up artist course. Applying it became a ritual – I would get up at about 6am every day to put it on. The reason was that in the mirror I saw my skin as pale like a corpse and heavily lined. On very bad days, in my mind my lines became really enhanced so I thought I looked wrinkled and old – even when I was still a teenager.

I used to be outgoing but I had become withdrawn and very tearful… I started to miss a lot of school and would not go out at all. I became obsessed with checking myself in the mirror, sometimes hundreds of times a day. It got so bad that sometimes I really believed I could see the lines deepening as I looked in the mirror…

Finally, at 25, I was properly diagnosed and given a medication called Cipralex (an SSRI antidepressant). I remember telling Mom that it was a ‘wonder pill’ as it made my skin look nicer. I realized then that the defects I had seen before were not so bad. Some people mistake body dysmorphia for vanity. But it’s not about wanting to look perfect, just normal so you fit in.10


Clearly, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a complex and devastating illness that requires specialist treatment. Problems occur when people are reluctant to ask for help or when health professionals fail to recognize the condition, so education and awareness campaigns are crucial.

While BDD is not an eating disorder, it can present to eating disorder professionals, who should be aware of the appropriate treatment and referral pathways.


  1. American Psychiatric Association, 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, text revision. American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Veale, D: Body dysmorphic disorder. Postgraduate Medical Journal 2004;80:67-71
  3. Mind. Body dysmorphic disorder. Web address: Accessed May 29th, 2013
  4. Philips, KA: Quality of life for patients with body dysmorphic disorder. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders 2000;188:170-175
  5. Koran, LM et al: The prevalence of body dysmorphic disorder in the United States adult population. CNS Spectrums 2008;13:316-322
  6. Grant, JE, Kim, SW, Crow, SJ: Prevalence and clinical features of body dysmorphic disorder in adult and adolescent psychiatric inpatients. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 2001;62:517-522
  7. Dingemans, AE et al: Body dysmorphic disorder in patients with an eating disorder: prevalence and characteristics. International Journal of Eating Disorders 2012;45:562-569
  8. Ipser, JC et al: Pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy for body dysmorphic disorder. Cochrane Database Systematic Review 2009;21:CD005332
  9. Prazeres, AM et al: Cognitive-behavioral therapy for body dysmorphic disorder: a review of its efficacy. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 2013;9:307-316
  10. Daily Mail (UK) Accessed May 30th, 2013


Page Last Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 6, 2017
Published on, Eating Disorder Assistance & Resource Information

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