When Concern About Appearance Becomes an Obsession

WHEN most of us look at ourselves in a mirror, we see areas that we feel could be improved. So we rearrange our clothes or hair or apply a little makeup and then get on with our day. Such concern about our appearance is normal and proper. But for some people concern about their looks goes to extremes, giving rise to a condition that has been called body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD.

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy defines BDD as “preoccupation with a defect in appearance, causing significant distress or interfering with social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” * Because sufferers may imagine a certain defect or exaggerate a minor flaw, their view of themselves has also been called imagined ugliness.

Professor J. Kevin Thompson of the University of South Florida, in the United States, says that BDD is probably rare, “perhaps affecting between 1.0-2.0% of the general population and 10-15% of psychiatric outpatients.” However, he adds: “Some researchers believe that the prevalence is on the rise, as diagnostic methods become better at detecting the problem and as society becomes even more obsessed with appearance.” Although the condition can affect people of all ages, it usually begins in the teens. As far as adults are concerned, it appears to affect males and females equally. This is in sharp contrast with eating disorders, which are far more common among females.

 The morbid preoccupation with looks that is typical of people with BDD usually leads to compulsive checking in the mirror and, in some cases, even to social isolation. Worse still, the “distress and dysfunction associated with the disorder can lead to repeated hospitalization and suicidal behavior,” states the Merck Manual. It is not surprising that some sufferers seek cosmetic surgery. “I usually advise against it,” says Dr. Katharine Phillips, who has written a book on BDD. “Surgery is irreversible,” she explains, “and most people with BDD usually feel like it didn’t work anyway.” *

Occasionally, BDD surfaces at a very early age. The George Street Journal * reports on a six-year-old boy “who believed his teeth were yellow, his stomach was ‘fat,’ and his hair looked wrong. None of his ‘defects’ were discernible to others. He would brush his hair for nearly an hour each morning, and if he could not get it to look ‘right’ he would dunk his head in water and restart his grooming routine, often causing him to be late for school.” One day, when he arrived at a doctor’s office, he even crouched to examine his image in the chrome on a chair.

Do Not Let the World Govern Your Attitude

Glossy magazines, newspapers, and television advertisements bombard people with images of the ideal body. The advertisers’ logic is simple: Present a certain image as the norm, and people will part with their hard-earned money to achieve that look. Add in a little peer pressure with perhaps a few thoughtless remarks from family or friends, and it is not surprising that some people become unbalanced about their appearance. * Of course, an unbalanced attitude may be a far cry from an obsessive psychiatric disorder.

It is both abnormal and untrue to think that if you do not look beautiful or handsome, others will take no interest in you. People do not usually choose friends according to physical appearance. True, looks may be a factor at first, but personality, moral standards, and values are the true cement of friendship. In some ways each of us is like a book​—it may have an attractive cover, but if the contents are dull, readers will soon put it down. However, regardless of the cover, if the book is interesting, people will hold on to it. So why not focus on your qualities as a person? That is what God’s Word, the Bible, encourages you to do.​—Proverbs 11:22; Colossians 3:8; 1 Peter 3:3, 4.

And let’s face it, our appearance changes as we get older. If life, friendship, and happiness hinged on youthful good looks, what a sad future would lie before us all! Yet, our situation can be very different. How is that so?

Beauty That Will Last

Proverbs 16:31 states: “Gray-headedness is a crown of beauty when it is found in the way of righteousness.” In the eyes of Jehovah God​—and in the eyes of all who share his viewpoint—​people who grow old in God’s service do not become less attractive. In fact, because of their record of zeal and godly devotion, they achieve their crowning beauty in gray-headedness. Such precious individuals merit our love and deep respect.​—Leviticus 19:32.

What is more, Jehovah, in the coming new world that he has promised, will reverse the effects that inherited sin has had on all his loyal ones, old and young. With every passing day, they will see and feel their body improve until they eventually reach the peak of physical perfection. (Job 33:25; Revelation 21:3, 4) What a thrilling prospect that is! Would you like to be among them? If so, then strive to focus on the beauty that really matters, and do not let the shallow, and often heartless, thinking of the world govern your attitude. You will be a much happier and more attractive person for it.​—Proverbs 31:30.


^ par. 3 “Preoccupation with physical appearance is a common symptom of a number of psychiatric disorders,” says The Medical Journal of Australia. These include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. Hence, BDD can be difficult to diagnose.

^ par. 5 Please see the article “Young People Ask . . . Should I Have Cosmetic Surgery?” in the August 22, 2002, issue of this journal. Of course, a person with a serious psychiatric disorder may need the help of a mental-health professional.

^ par. 6 A publication of Brown University, Rhode Island, U.S.A.

^ par. 8 For further information, please see the chapter “How Important Are Looks?” in the book Questions Young People Ask​—Answers That Work, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.