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Body dysmorphia, more technically known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), is a condition which is “characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one’s own body part or appearance is severely flawed” (Wikipedia). There is a delusional variant where the flaw is imaginary. It is thought to affect 2.4% of the population, with high rates of suicidal ideation.

Wikipedia attributes BDD to “an interaction of multiple factors, including genetic, physical (e.g. disabilities), developmental, psychological, social, and cultural. BDD usually develops during early adolescence, although many patients note earlier trauma, abuse, neglect, teasing, or bullying. In many cases, social anxiety earlier in life precedes the development of BDD.”

One factor is notably missing from this list: unconscious shame. In fact, unconscious shame can be said to underlie many of those factors.

The symptoms of BDD manifest in many ways as sufferers seek to “hide or fix one’s dysmorphic part on one’s figure.” These can include cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, grooming excessively, avoiding mirrors and social isolation. This behaviour is often taken to obsessive, damaging lengths.

Muscle dysmorphia is a subtype of BDD where people (mainly men) take bodybuilding to an unhealthy extreme. In Gym, eat, repeat, a 35-year-old US soldier called Miles describes how muscle dysmorphia stealthily took over his life, destroying several relationships and leaving him prisoner to a regime of starving, exercising, eating and throwing up.

A quick look at the key characteristics of muscle dysmorphia described by Miles shows that it firmly belongs to the family of shame-based issues:

  • Cyclical behaviour (not a one-off)
  • Compulsive behaviour (can’t control it)
  • Unhealthy behavior (or a healthy behaviour taken to an unhealthy extreme)
  • No conscious decision to begin the behaviour
  • A justification for the behaviour (“I wanted a better-looking body”)

Shame-based issues, including eating disorders, self-harm and porn addiction, often share many of these traits.

BDD is classified as a mental condition. To me, it is an emotional condition that manifests in mental problem. Labelling it as a mental condition suggests that the solution lies in the mind. It doesn’t. Like all shame-based issues, it lies way down in the unconscious where a deep-seated shame exerts a subtle, invisible pressure for the sufferer to punish their body in some way. This punishment relieves this pressure, but only briefly, keeping sufferers of BDD trapped in an endless loop.

The only way out is through recognising and releasing the unconscious shame.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash