BDD: Don#039;t let an obsession dictate your life

by Beacon Staff • January 31, 2007

But when does it cross the line from a normal habit to a dangerous obsession?

Constant preoccupation with some minor or altogether imagined physical flaw is the main symptom of a condition known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).,Just about everyone has at least one complaint about his or her body: my thighs are fat, my nose is huge, my hair is flat, I have terrible skin. At some point or another, you look in the mirror and find something you're not too crazy about.

But when does it cross the line from a normal habit to a dangerous obsession?

Constant preoccupation with some minor or altogether imagined physical flaw is the main symptom of a condition known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People suffering from BDD will often let their obsession dictate their day-to-day lives, preventing them from engaging in social interactions or activities that they once enjoyed.

"It's like someone obsessed with whitening their teeth, who says, 'No, I can't go out, I can't go to the party, my teeth look horrible,' but you look at them and they look fine," said Robyn Kievit, registered dietician and nurse practitioner at Emerson's Center for Health and Wellness. "A person takes the level of preoccupation prominent in eating disorders and applies it to some other body part."

Kievit cites an article from the January 2007 issue of Eating Behaviors, in which 200 BDD patients were surveyed concerning their symptoms. The survey found that the body parts eliciting the most fixations from patients were the skin, hair, nose, stomach, teeth and weight.

According to the Massachusetts General Hospital's Body Dysmorphic Disorder Clinic, a person feeling this intense preoccupation with any part of his or her body may either be obsessive about looking in the mirror or completely avoid it. Kievit noted this problem as being of particular importance to college students.

"It's the time factor," she said. "Everyone that comes in here, whether it is for nurse practitioner visits or nutrition visits, they're so busy [with school and work]. If you spend all of your energy on your obsession instead of doing an assignment or going out with your friends, that's a problem."

According to MGH's Web site, BDD normally begins during adolescence and is equally prevalent in both men and women. BDD is not as widely known as other disorders and is often misdiagnosed.

Because doctors don't always have the information about it and sufferers of the disorder are usually too embarrassed or ashamed of their flaws to seek help, it often goes undiagnosed altogether. However, with cognitive and behavioral therapy and certain medications, BDD patients can see considerable improvement in their symptoms.

Kievit attributes much of today's body image issues to the constant pressures of the media to obtain the "perfect" look.

"Everyone needs to understand that pictures in magazines are airbrushed," she said, "and people on TV and on the news have people doing their hair and makeup and spend hours with trainers."

At a school like Emerson, where a lot of students are involved with on-campus activities including stage shows, on-camera acting projects, the Emerson Channel, and Emerson Independent Video, that pressure is always on.

"You have to dress a certain way, present a clean look," said junior broadcast journalism major Melanie Falcon. As a former EIV news anchor and current executive producer of "EIV News @ 6," Falcon knows from personal experience that the way you look is always important when you're on camera.

"Personally, I came here with an eyebrow ring, with four earrings on each side and really long hair, and I had to completely clean up," she said. "You can't have long, scraggly hair. You can't be fat. I know it's terrible, but it's true. I think some stereotypes are kind of changing now, but you still have to have a certain personal appearance."

All of that emphasis on looking a particular way can take a serious toll on someone if he or she already feels insecure. The entertainment industry is a big part of that, and examples can be found virtually anywhere.

"Look at Ashlee Simpson," said Kievit of the singer's highly publicized plastic surgery. "I think she's a case of BDD waiting to happen, if she doesn't have it already."

If you think that you are experiencing any of the symptoms of BDD, or are having any kind of depression or anxiety related to your body, Kievit strongly recommends a visit to the Center for Health and Wellness.

"If someone becomes so worried about one part of their body that it takes away from their daily life, they need to see someone," she said.

The center is located on the third floor of 216 Tremont St.