While the poorly understood condition is often believed to be a simple case of people thinking they are larger or more unattractive than they are, it is actually a distorted view of how they look so much so they become preoccupied with it. It often involves focusing on one perceived flaw and the majority of people with the condition are preoccupied with an aspect of their face, but it can be about any body part. The illness involves avoidance and compulsions and it can have a significant impact on their daily life, becoming very debilitating. Affecting both men and women, the Body Dysmorphic Disorder foundation says the impact of the condition on a person’s life can be so severe they effectively become housebound. Many people who have the condition are also single or divorced, suggesting it is difficult to form or maintain relationships.
Omari, 29, told The Independent he can trace the origins of his BDD, which he was finally diagnosed with in 2012, to his 16th birthday. An aspiring model, he took part in a photoshoot yet immediately before became increasingly “tormented” over the appearance of his eyes – so much so that he even resorted to using his mother’s make-up to try and camouflage them. Things worsened when he went back to look at the photos and the photographer retouched an area around his eyes.
“I was waiting to see the first action he did and he went to the eyes. That was immediately it there, my evidence […] looking back he touched up other things I’m sure but I don’t have that in my memory. All I have is a really vivid, burnt image of him blending the area of my eyes.”
A year after first experiencing BDD symptoms, it was when Omari began studying at Oxford University that they reappeared and took over his life. Studying a humanities subject where he was largely outnumbered by girls and therefore admittedly “in his element” after attending a same sex school, Omari put pressure on himself for everybody to like him.
“I wanted to be the guy all the guys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to be with,” he says. The BDD obsession around his eyes continued and deteriorated to the point he feared not wearing glasses as his eyes would be exposed. One perfectly innocent comment from a girl he liked is something that stands out in his memory: “She said something like: ‘I like you in your glasses’ But what I heard was: ‘Thank god you put your glasses on’ and thought it was code for ‘Jesus, about time, it was horrible to look at you before now.’”
Part of the issue with BDD, Omari explains, is that you actually feel that you are a burden on people because of your appearance. “Part of it is: ‘If I go outside, I will make little children run away from me’.
Wearing his glasses became what is known as a ‘safety behaviour’ which are mental or physical acts aimed at reducing the threat of the perceived flaw, according to Dr Willson. “Examples of this might be checking or examining ones appearance in the mirror, avoiding bright light, avoiding being seen up close, concealing perceived flaws using make-up or seeking cosmetic or dermatological procedures.”
“My glasses became a permanent feature… it really limited my life as I was always active and sporty and couldn’t wear them for football or rugby. There would be days where I would put my contacts in and then put my glasses on top and I couldn’t see any more…. I had to look below the level of the glasses so I wouldn’t fall over. I would bump into someone and have these conversation where I had to pretend I was making eye contact with them, meanwhile they’re a complete blur and I would be getting headaches because my vision was really messed up.”
Further safety behaviours would extend from the accessories he wore to the words he spoke. “I would avoid phrases with the word ‘eye’ in it,” he explains. “I would never say ‘I’ve got my eye on you’ as I was worried that would trigger people to look at my eyes.”
Additionally, he avoided mirrors: “I would go weeks without looking in a mirror or I would only look in one if I had sunglasses on or I found a way to squint so I could never properly focus on my eyes.”
Omari dealt with the thoughts in his head alone for a very long time, scared that if he repeated them aloud they would be met with confirmation from others.
“At that time, I didn’t see any way I could talk to anybody about it because in my head if I told them then they would confirm it. There was a small part of me that thought ‘If I don’t talk about it maybe it’s not real or I’m getting away with it. I’m definitely not going to draw their attention to it’.”
This led him to withdraw from people leading him to sink into a “very deep depression” which he believes was made worse by feeling like he was pretending to everybody. In addition to struggling with the thoughts on his own, Omari felt like a “fake” and would beat himself up about the fact he was presenting a confident external persona yet suffering on the inside.
Eventually, his mother caught him in the midst of a near-breakdown and he told her about his BDD thoughts. However, for a while this strained relations between them as Omari pushed her away for fear she would confirm the thoughts.
“My thinking was that she was my mum and loves me unconditionally and thinks I’m beautiful but if she doesn’t then that must mean I really am hideous… I pushed her away and couldn’t talk to her about it at the time, I have since.”
Omari found out he had BDD when he was 21 after reading an article about the condition. He says most others he knows with the illness also “stumbled upon it” and the symptoms were not identified by a health professional.
After discovering he had the condition, he signed up for a trial of intense therapy dedicated to the illness where he learned to overcome the thoughts and tackle the safety behaviours and compulsions.
Therapy helped and he began to take up hobbies like dancing which he says has also helped with his recovery. Writing a book and tutoring students foreign languages, he now says he is in a good place and his life is “hugely on track now”.
He is currently in the midst of a social media campaign called “In the face of BDD” where he is taking a photo of himself – in any situation and with no filter, edits or retakes – every single day for a year and sharing it on Instagram to raise awareness of the condition and money for the BDD foundation.
“It’s sad because I look back on the years and at family photos and I’m not in any of them. I either made excuses and got away or, more likely, I wasn’t at the event,” he says solemnly.
But now, with his life back on track, he wants to help others overcome the condition.
“Recovery from BDD really is possible. It is a journey. The first step is talking about it and the second is realising that when you do you’re fine.