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Dysmorphobia: imaginary ugliness

Do you think you look hideous, and despite all the tricks and courses of action you’ve followed, you simply can’t think well of yourself? What if it’s all in your head?

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Do you think that you aren’t handsome or pretty? Do you think people find you ugly? Well, no, actually you’re not the ugly duckling in the fairy tale. And this distorted vision of your body and how others see you could actually be an illness - dysmorphobia. Before you plump for cosmetic surgery or locking yourself away, read on...


As its name suggests, dysmorphobia is a phobia, but it’s nothing to do with heights, snakes or spiders. This time, what is causing an irrational fear is your own body. Of course, we’ve all had a few hang-ups at some point or other with our weight or size, or thinking our nose is too long or our breasts are too big or too small. But the problem is when that becomes an obsession.

Whether it’s their nose, bottom or breasts, the dysmorphobic person regards that particular part of their body as deformed. She’ll be convinced that all other people see is ‘that’ and talk about it behind her back, etc. Not a day goes by without her thinking about this ‘embarrassing’ part of her body... to the point where it turns into a real social handicap.

Incidentally, anorexia is an extreme form of dysmorphobia. However much they weigh, an anorexic is always convinced that she is too fat and that she has to lose more weight.

The who and why of dysmorphobia

So who is affected by this self-perception disorder? We don’t know the exact proportion of the population affected by this illness, but American studies put forward the number of one person in 50 who are obsessed with their looks.  This illness hits teenagers and young adults in particular. 

The causes of this disorder are still largely unknown, but it’s to do with an anxiety that’s expressed through a focus on one part of the body.  Dysmorphobia is often associated with other psychological disorders, such as depression, eating disorders, manic-depressive disorders, anxiety, compulsive obsessive disorders and other phobias (especially agoraphobia).

Treating dysmorphobia

The main treatment for dysmorphobia is NOT cosmetic surgery. For as the problem comes from inside, changing the outside will solve nothing. At the very worst, the person could find the result even more horrible than the originally perceived problem. At best, it will move the problem on to another part of the body.

The standard treatment for dysmorphobia is psychotherapy. But the main concern is convincing people who are ill that they need to go and see a psychologist! Because for them, it’s a real problem, not an imaginary one! Asking your GP to help in making the person realise can sometimes prove useful. Once they’ve reached that stage, therapy will allow them to overcome this illness. Cognitive behaviour therapy has proved to be effective for this kind of disorder and treatment with antidepressants may sometimes be prescribed.

And in a few months’ time, self-esteem can return and imaginary flaws disappear into thin air...

Posted 15.07.2010


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