It is a treatable condition suffered by at least 2% of the population, both male and female, that devastates the lives of those who have it and can lead to prolonged depression and even suicide. Now a fledgling charity, the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, hopes to raise awareness of the obsessive anxiety condition that leaves people convinced there is something flawed or “ugly” about their looks.
The foundation’s first conference, on 30 May in London, is aimed at health professionals, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) sufferers and their carers, and is being promoted by a two-minute film, You Are Not Alone, directed by Steve Caplin, which tackles one of the greatest issues surrounding BDD: the idea that the person with it is isolated and cannot fit in.
“One of the biggest problems is that this is an under-researched disorder which is not fully understood by either professionals or laymen,” says clinical psychologist Dr Annemarie O’Connor, director of themindworks, a London-based psychology practice, who will be running a workshop at the conference. “This is not simply a case of feeling low or having to change your clothes a couple of times before you go out. It’s an obsessive anxiety disorder which can lead to huge levels of distress.”
That distress in turn can lead to prolonged bouts of depression and often suicide. “There’s such a high level of hopelessness and a real conviction among sufferers that they are ugly to look at or flawed,” explains O’Connor.
“Many sufferers turn to cosmetic intervention, but when that doesn’t change how they feel or how they see themselves. They become utterly convinced that a better way doesn’t exist, and this makes suicide a real feature of the disorder.”
Robert Pattinson, who was catapulted to fame after getting the role of vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight films, told Australia’s Sunday Style magazine that he suffers from anxiety and BDD issues, which can become crippling before a red-carpet event.
“I get a ton of anxiety, right up until the second I get out of the car to the event, when suddenly it completely dissipates,” said Pattinson. “But up until that moment I’m a nutcase. Body dysmorphia, overall tremendous anxiety. I suppose it’s because of these tremendous insecurities that I never found a way to become egotistical. I don’t have a six-pack and I hate going to the gym. I’ve been like that my whole life. I never want to take my shirt off.”
Scarlett Bagwell’s 19-year-old daughter, Alannah, first began exhibiting signs of BDD at the age of 14. “I noticed that she had lost a lot of weight fast and at first I thought it was anorexia, but then other things began to happen – she would refuse to come out with us, didn’t want to leave her room … I still thought it might be teenage angst, but then one day she dropped out of school, despite having always loved it.
“There was so much turmoil in her head – she couldn’t get on the bus, I’d drive her to school but she wouldn’t go in. She really wanted to, but she couldn’t physically get out of the car. She’s a beautiful girl, but she was convinced there was so much wrong with her – she’d insist that her nose was too big and deformed, that she had tiny, piggy eyes and funny hair.”
As Alannah’s condition worsened, including bouts of self-harm and suicide attempts, so her family struggled to get a diagnosis. “I had to fight the system to get the proper treatment for her,” says her mother. “Just getting a diagnosis was so hard and meanwhile Alannah went from being very independent to being a baby again. At times I even had to force her to wash and I would wash her hair for her. Everything was a struggle. I felt I was failing my daughter.”
The hard-won key to her recovery was a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) specifically tailored for BDD sufferers and anti-depression medication.
Alannah is now sitting her A/S exams at a local college and intends to go to university. Her mother hopes that the establishment of a regular conference will lead to further understanding, help and support for those with BDD. “I think that because everybody has slight issues with their appearance – they don’t like their hair, or they think a particular dress makes them look bad – they can’t understand the struggle that actual body dysmorphics go through,” she says. “It stops you functioning. People with body dysmorphia are very isolated; they often can’t bring themselves to go out, no matter how much they want to, they don’t want to be seen.
“We were lucky that Alannah has had help and the support of her family, but I wonder how many people struggle without that support because they are diagnosed later, undiagnosed or misdiagnosed,” she said.