Medically Reviewed April 2023, by Claire Clarke - Head of Surgical Services for The Harley Medical Group
Love them or loathe them, selfies are near impossible to avoid. They took off with a bang around 2011 and now never a day passes without waves of the self-portraits flooding our social media feeds.
In most instances we can dismiss the posy, pouting photographs as a harmless self-indulgence: we’re showing off, maybe even being a little vain, but nothing more. In some cases, however, research has found taking an excessive amount of selfies can be a symptom of mental health issues – particularly Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
We’re all aware of our appearance to some degree. We brush our hair, wear make-up and take care of our skin, little things to help us look and feel our best. Most of us would even admit to having a body part we feel dissatisfied with – a flat chest, sun damaged skin, wobbly upper arms –it’s a part of life, nobody is perfect.
In cases of BDD, however, these negative thoughts are taken to the point of obsession. Suffers have a distorted view of their appearance, fixating on a particular feature such as their hair, skin or nose. It’s an anxiety that can become so intense it affects their entire lives. They often become withdrawn, reluctant to leave the house or see friends in some cases, even go as far as to perform dangerous self-surgeries to try and alter their appearance.
The link between selfies and BDD is well established. It’s, importantly, not that selfies cause a person to develop BDD; but that taking a lot of selfies is a common symptom among BDD sufferers.
One of the best documented cases is that of British teenager Danny Bowman. Danny’s BDD manifested in an obsession with capturing the perfect selfie and he would post over 200 photographs of himself a day on social media.
Constantly unhappy with his selfies Danny became depressed, dropped out of school and avoided seeing his friends. At his lowest point, the 19 year old attempted to commit suicide. Danny eventually sought medical help and was diagnosed with BDD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Technology Addiction, which he received care for.
Danny’s case is extreme, but a recent study found that 16 – 25 year olds spend on average 16 minutes and seven attempts trying to capture a satisfactory selfie.
Selfie culture, experts argue, is placing additional pressure on vulnerable people as they try to emulate the sort of images they’re used to seeing in the media, and doctors are now calling for greater education about practices like air brushing.
As one BDD specialist explains, “[Young people] need to be taught some ‘media literacy’ to understand that all the air brushed images they see aren’t real. It is so easy to become a victim of this pressure if you are not socially robust enough.”
As many as 1 in 50 people suffer from BDD with varying severity. Doctors have had great success treating the condition with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) combined – in some cases but not all – with anti-depressive medication.
The biggest problems with treating BDD, doctors say, are faced at the diagnosis stage. Patients often feel reluctant to come forward because they worry about being dismissed as vain. Or, in some unfortunate cases, they don’t believe there is anything medically wrong with them at all – they just feel ugly.
The first professional advice a patient with BDD will seek is commonly from a Cosmetic Surgeon.
Cosmetic Surgery is not a long term solution for patients with BDD. Less than 10% will be pleased with the results of their surgery, and often their anxiety simply shifts to another body part, leaving sufferers no more satisfied with their appearance.
In one of the most famous cases, former glamour model Alicia Douvall spent £1 million on over 300 Cosmetic Procedures before being diagnosed with BDD.
Researchers are currently developing a questionnaire to help Cosmetic Surgeons spot symptoms of BDD and direct patients towards the appropriate care. At The Harley Medical Group we are committed to the ethical and morally responsible care of all of our patients. As Rachel Jones, Client Advisor from The Harley Medical Group explains,
The most important part of our consultation process is talking to you about why you want to have a procedure and what results you expect to receive. This allows us to manage your expectations, but it also us to identify if a procedure it actually right for you. No-one wants to be told "no", but sometimes not having a procedure, and instead talking to someone about why you want one, is the right choice.
If you are considering Cosmetic Surgery it is important you undergo your procedure for the right reasons and with realistic expectations. Your Cosmetic Surgeon will discuss this with you in detail during the consultation process.
If you are concerned about BDD, or would like more information about the illness you can find it here:
Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation http://bddfoundation.org/