The Grapevine

What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder? Filters, Selfies Hurt Body Image, Study Says

Perceiving certain features in ourselves as flaws, such as a crooked tooth or thighs with stretch marks, is far from being uncommon or abnormal. But the development of an obsession over these supposed flaws in our appearance is known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

BDD affects somewhere between 1.7 to 2.4 percent of the general population, which is about 1 in 50 people. The disorder, which can affect both men and women, is classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

This means the affected person is likely to resort to compulsive behaviors to deal with what they believe are imperfections. For instance, someone with acne may constantly pick at their skin.

Those with BDD may also feel very uncomfortable when looking in the mirror or spend an excessive amount of time comparing their body parts with that of others. The comparison is often performed with celebrities who are a common preoccupation among young people, particularly adolescents.

While the likes of airbrushed magazine covers and advertisement campaigns were called out in the past for promoting unrealistic standards of beauty, researchers from Boston Medical Center believe the same cycle is being propagated by social media and photo-editing smartphone apps.

Their new study was published in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery on Aug. 2.

The researchers argued perceptions of beauty are now being influenced by filtered selfies of our own friends and colleagues. They highlighted how people who suffer from BDD today can seek out social media in search of validation.

But the technology may have a damaging impact, as one of the cited studies showed how female teenagers manipulated their online photos when more concerned with their body appearance. Another finding revealed nearly 55 percent of plastic surgeons report seeing patients who come to them with the intention of improving how they look in selfies.

"A new phenomenon called 'Snapchat dysmorphia' has popped up where patients are seeking out surgery to help them appear like the filtered versions of themselves," said Dr. Neelam Vashi, director of the Ethnic Skin Center at Boston University School of Medicine.

"Filtered selfies can make people lose touch with reality, creating the expectation that we are supposed to look perfectly primped all the time." 

While most people can go about taking selfies without facing such problems, Vashi noted people who have symptoms of body dysmorphia may find their obsession starts to worsen. Teenagers are among those who are at highest risk for BDD, she said, making it important for health professionals to understand the implications of social media on body image.

Cosmetic surgery is not recommended by experts in these cases. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists cognitive-behavioral therapy as the first choice of treatment for those who suffer from the disorder.