- An estimated 1 to 2 percent of the population has body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a preoccupation with an imagined or barely noticeable defect in personal appearance. As a result of this perceived flaw, people with BDD are convinced that they are extremely ugly.
- The disorder can lead to depression, severe social anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicide. BDD patients also may engage in compulsive activities such as mirror gazing and reassurance seeking that take valuable time away from their work, family and other important commitments.
- Psychological factors such as low self-esteem, coupled with society’s restrictive definition of physical beauty, contribute to BDD. Many researchers now believe, however, that BDD also stems partly from a problem with the visual system.
At 19, Aron Cowen suddenly became distraught over his hair, considering its curliness a “bad condition.” He chemically straightened it every week for a year, giving up only after it became severely damaged and developed an orange tint. While on a trip to Israel when he was 25, Cowen glanced at his reflection in a store mirror and saw his nose as huge and grossly malformed, like a beak. After that, he spent up to two hours each day reshaping his nose in front of a mirror and obsessing over its ugliness.
Unable to shake his fixation, Cowen opted for plastic surgery, but the effect was short-lived. A week after the operation the young man from Sherman Oaks, Calif., was back at the mirror, intensely scrutinizing his nose and noticing new flaws. And this time he felt responsible. “Now I felt butchered and disfigured,” he recalls. “I felt I had destroyed my nose.”
This article was originally published with the title Imagined Ugliness.