Staring Back


straring back c blackman

Excerpt of article from Fernwood Fitness magazine.  Art Charles Blackman, ‘Children Playing’ (original in colour).

Warped Selfie .   

When does time spent in front of the mirror stop being about preening and start becoming a problem?  We look at the devastating impact body dysmorphic disorder can have on our kids and how you can foster a positive environment where appearance isn’t everything.   Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) describes a disabling preoccupation with perceived physical flaws.  Affecting both men and women, it causes excessive self-consciousness and, while onlookers might see nothing out of the ordinary, sufferers experience extreme anxiety causing them to withdraw from school and social activities for fear people can also see the ‘defects’ they see in the mirror.


While the condition is not a recent phenomenon, several mental healthcare professionals cite the damaging impact the media’s obsession with beauty can have.  “One recent development has been social media and its ability to turbocharge the cycle of self-consciousness.  Comparison is an essential feature of BDD, and in a digital context where selfies are everywhere it’s easy to compare yourself to other people,” says Dr Buchanan.

According to the UK-based BDD Foundation, each year one in 330 people diagnosed with BDD commit suicide and, while BDD is more strongly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety-driven conditions, around 50 per cent of sufferers will have experienced an eating disorder at some point.


According to Dr Madigan, the warning signs are, “excessive interest in appearance, for example hours spent gazing in the mirror at a non-existent ‘defect’ or totally avoiding looking in the mirror.  Blowing out of proportion some minor imperfections, changing clothes multiple times trying to disguise the perceived flaw, attempting to camouflage or alter the perceived flaw with make-up or exercise, and constantly asking for reassurance.” Symptoms included anxiety, shame, depression and disgust and, in addition to excessive self-consciousness, individuals with BDD often feel defined by their flaw and will avoid certain places, people or activities because of concerns over their appearance.

PREVENTION:  Childhood experiences can play a role in the development of the condition.  “If parents repeatedly praise a child for being tall or cute or having a certain body shape, the child might form the belief that appearance is terribly important.  Placing too much importance on appearance or sensitivity about one’s attractiveness is a risk factor for developing BDD,” says Dr Madigan.  There are several positive practices parents can adopt.  Consider the importance of learned behaviour.  “If we see our parents valuing or obsessing about certain things it can be contagious,”  says Dr Buchanan.  “Parents should reflect on problems they have had with their physical appearance in the past and think about whether they are in danger of transmitting their behaviour to their child.”

Avoid making lots of judgmental comments on how other people look, and correct your child when they make judgmental comments – don’t allow them to buy into the idea that people can be judged on appearance.  “And if you believe your teen evaluates people based on how they look, it’s a strong indicated that they evaluate themselves the same way.” adds Dr Buchanan. Watch out for bullying behaviour from classmates and friendship groups as sufferers often experience higher levels of teasing compared to their peers.  While this can be a dangerous cycle – sufferers might be more sensitive to rejection or more likely to ruminate on negative comments – it’s about finding ways to tell your child that they are valuable independently of their body.

Remember that BDD is a recognised clinical condition and can be treated, so if you are concerned this is something your child might be struggling with then seek medical guidance from their GP who, if necessary, can refer them to a psychologist who treats BDD and possibly recommend medication in conjunction with regular therapy sessions.


1.  Help them to understand and define the problem.    2.  Don’t blame them, and don’t blame yourself.   3.  Monitor your behaviour – avoid being overly critical of yourself and others when it comes to physical appearance. 4.  Don’t participate in obsessing about your child’s perceived flaws.   5.  Seek positive reinforcement in the form of social media sites that aren’t reinforcing unachievable physical ideals. 6.  Get medical guidance and persist with recommended treatment plans.  7.  Be your child’s own personal cheerleader by praising improvement, however small.