Written By: Jennifer Bowey
Photograph: Léa Cyrielle
Being insecure is, unfortunately, increasingly prevalent in our social media obsessed society. Young people in particular are often dissatisfied with their own appearance and, on top of that, preoccupied with what their peers’ opinions on the matter might be. Poor self-image is, then, one of the most common problems facing individuals today. In its most extreme cases, however, it could be attributable to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – an anxiety disorder that causes people to have a warped perception of their own physical appearance resulting in extreme distress. This condition, according to NHS statistics, may affect as many as 1 in 100 of us, yet is given minimal consideration.
Could it be this lack of understanding of the condition that leads some people to misconstrue intense, debilitating insecurities as vanity? It may sound strange for such polar opposites to be confused for one another but, as unlikely as it may seem, the symptoms of one end of the spectrum can bear surprising similarities to those of the other end. When somebody with bad self-image or BDD recoils at the sight of a camera, refuses to be photographed, or to go outside without makeup on, it’s not uncommon for those who don’t understand to perceive this as “always wanting to be seen as perfect”. Somebody standing in front of a mirror and examining every centimetre of their face and body may look like vanity, when in reality it is a feeling of crushing anxiety that affects all facets of their life – from leaving the house in the morning to even struggling to have face to face conversations with their own family.
In the past I, and I’m sure many others in a similar position, have been told to “get over myself”, to “stop taking myself so seriously”, and “to lighten up”. All of these pieces of advice are, ultimately, useless in any constructive capacity and, in fact, often result in intensified feelings of self-loathing and self blame. I have met complete lack of acknowledgment and outright rejection of my own feelings from people who don’t understand why I would feel the way I do, but my biggest fear by far is the prospect of somebody misidentifying my insecurities for vanity. Think about it, what could be worse for somebody who hates the way they look, than other people thinking that they love themselves in a near-narcissistic manner?
Of course, for people who have never felt this way, it is impossible for them to fully understand the insidious effects of such a condition. It must be irritating when you want to take a picture to celebrate a big event like climbing a mountain or a milestone birthday, only to be met with reluctance and lack of co-operation. The words “why are they being so difficult” may cross your mind, and I don’t necessarily blame you. As with all mental health conditions, learning how to best support those who are suffering is a lengthy and complicated process, but to those suffering this effort is invaluable. Listen to what they are saying, how they are feeling, and ask them what you can do to help. Sometimes just reaching out to the other person and letting them know you’re there is enough to lift a weight off their shoulders.
It is also important to remember that there is only so much you can do for somebody else. Trying to help someone come to terms with the fact that they may need some form of professional therapy in order to really see an improvement in their symptoms is sometimes the best approach. Unfortunately, because of the still prevalent stigma surrounding mental health in society, some people are fearful and reluctant to accept this.
The prospect of somebody mistaking your insecurities for something completely opposite can be terrifying, but these assumptions stem from a simple lack of understanding – they are no reflection on the person who is suffering. Hopefully, with further deconstruction of the mental health “taboo”, the time and resources that are extended to the treatment of physical illnesses will also be put towards treating mental illnesses and, with that, society will develop more empathy and understanding of these illnesses.
It is important to remember, particularly in times of self-doubt, that just because somebody else says, or thinks, something, does not make it so.
If you or anyone you know suffers from body dysmorphia here are some useful links for help and more information:
University of Glasgow mental health services: