Mirror, mirror .... image matters after all
What do you see when you look in the mirror? Most people see at least one part or aspect of their physical appearance that they don’t like. Constant exposure to idealised images of flawless human perfection can keep us aware of our physical shortcomings. Magazines, targeted toward women, advocate for self-love and acceptance yet are often filled with articles on how to get a flat abs, a tiny waist, toned arms … the list goes on. In the light of these ubiquitous messages, it’s not surprising that we see an increasing number of people with one body image issue or another.
These body image issues run the gamut from being slightly annoyed by a tiny flaw to an obsession with a body part that intrudes on one’s every waking moment. For those suffering from, Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) their physical flaws (real or imagined) come to rule their lives. One per cent of the population, men, and women alike, experience BDD which is a mental health disorder characterised with a continued obsession with one or more parts of their body, causing severe distress that interferes with their daily functioning. This particular aspect of their body may be only barely visible to others or even nonexistent.
People with BDD deal with symptoms that extend beyond unease when they look in a mirror; They have an ever-present obsession with their looks. There are five main characteristics of BDD that differentiate the disorder from an average range of discomfort with one’s physical appearance.
> BDD sufferers have a persistent preoccupation with a certain part of the body (common areas include hair, skin, nose, chest, or stomach). They can often dwell on a particular body part for hours and days on end.
> The believed defect may only be a slight imperfection or completely invisible and generally goes unnoticed by others.
> The preoccupation with the body part interferes with their daily life because they can’t focus on anything but their perceived imperfection.
> BDD sufferers experience social anxiety and tend to avoid social situations for fear that others may see their flaw and then ridicule and reject them.
Research finds that exposure to a mirror can reduce even common self-critical evaluations
> BDD sufferers perform compulsive or repetitive behaviours such as excessive grooming, attempting to camouflage the flaw with cosmetics, and seeking surgery and other physical alterations. These behaviours provide only temporary relief at best.
Researchers have discovered that BDD sufferers have a number of visual processing difficulties. Notably, because they habitually focus on one specific aspect of their appearance, their attention and visual processing can become very fixed and narrow; they have difficulty seeing the whole image of themselves. They also have difficulty recognising their own emotions when they look in the mirror.
Mirror exposure therapy comes in handy here. It involves asking the obsessed to observe themselves repeatedly and for prolonged periods in a full-length mirror. At first, one’s own image evokes negative emotions and critical thoughts, and then with prolonged and repeated mirror exposures, the negative reactions change and lessen through habituation — that is, through repeated exposure the association between their negative reaction and seeing the particular aspect of their appearance fades away. The mirror is used as a tool to challenge their distorted view of themselves.
Mirrors have also been used to treat body image distortions of those suffering from eating disorders. Eating disorder patients can see themselves as very fat when they’re actually quite thin. Therapists and loved ones are unable to convince them that they aren’t fat, but they can often to come to this realisation with the help of a mirror and a supportive therapist.
Even for those who don’t have seriously debilitating body image issues, looking in the mirror can still create a twinge of discomfort or criticism. Research finds that exposure to a mirror can reduce even these common self-critical evaluations.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, research suggests that one of the best ways to deal with selfcritical body image issues is to take a long look in the mirror. —Psychology Today Tara Well, PhD is a psychology professor at Barnard
College of Columbia University