Memorial Weekend And Body Image

I can almost hear some of you saying, upon reading the title of this post, OKay, Dr. Schwartz, now you have really lost it. What has Memorial Day Weekend to do with body image? Well, perhaps you are correct about my having lost it but, body image and the upcoming weekend and beyond are closely related. You see, here in the United States, Memorial Weekend marks the start of the summer season. The start of the summer season brings with it such activities as going to the beaches and pools, wearing more revealing clothes and, as a result, greater concern among both men and women, about how they appear to others. This is difficult for lots of people who are trying to lose weight in preparation for wearing those bikinis at the beaches and pools. Everyone wants to look good.

However, for those with Eating Disorders (EDs), with or without Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), this becomes a major crisis. BDD is a psychiatric condition that causes people to believe, wrongly, that they appear disfigured and ugly. When people with BDD look at themselves in the mirror, they do not see the whole picture. Instead, they focus on one feature of their face or body that they find awful. It's like the old saying, "They don't see the forest for the trees." In this way, it is similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where the focus is on details rather than the overall issue.

The situation is even more complicated for those with a combination of BDD and an eating disorder such as Anorexia Nervosa. Here, too, boy image is distorted when the individual looks at the mirror. Regardless of how thin they are, the anorectic person only sees fat.

A number of studies show that, for those with a combination of BDD and eating disorders (EDs), the parts of the body that are the targets of the greatest distortion are: skin, hair, nose, stomach, teeth and weight.

During the winter months people with BDD and EDs cover themselves with long and loose fitting clothing. Obviously, this becomes more daunting, anxiety provoking and depressing when everyone sheds their clothes for summer time relaxation.

BDD and ED are very serious mental health issues. While the statistics show that it is women who are most affected by this, there are also a significant number of men who have the same diagnoses. The anxiety and depression that accompanies these disorders bring with them the very real threat of suicide.

Treatment is available. It is vital that people enter psychotherapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy (CBT) for these dangerous psychiatric conditions. Sometimes medication is also called for and, in extremely life threatening situation, hospitalization can be called for.

On an encouraging note, I have seen many people recover from these disorders.

What are your experiences, questions and comments about this problem? You are encouraged to respond.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

  • jc

    Do people ever take antianxiety medicines to control eating issues? I am about 25 pounds overweight with a small stature. Two years ago I lost 25 pounds using a sensible weight loss program but have gained it all back. I know that the calories I take in after 9 p.m. are a problem. I know that if I could control what I eat in the evenings, I would not have weight issues. I don't think I'm bulemic, but I do purge with laxitives. I'm worried that I am using laxitives more often (1x a week or so). I feel very anxious at nighttime because I know I've eaten enough, but then I eat because I'm anxious. Thank you for any suggestions.

  • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

    Hi JC,

    You report that you are taking laxatives and, in my opinion or guess, you are suffering from Bulimia. No, I do not see how anti anxiety medications could help, and they are addicting. You really need to get yourself into psychotherapy with someone who is a specialist in eating disorders.

    Dr. Schwartz

  • jc

    Thank you Dr. Schwartz.

  • ActiveHuman

    The more I read about mental illness the more I realize that I too have various mental illness. I did not know the reason of my unhappiness until I decided to read about mental problems. Now after reading this article I now know that I too have "BDD" because I too don't like taking off my shirt in front of people. When I read about Anorexia in I knew that I had Anorexia and now I know that have "BDD".

  • jc

    Good luck to you ActiveHuman. I hope you are on the way to a healthier relationship with food and your body. Just a thought that I hope might help you...being slightly on the other side of the eating disorder coin, the amount of food that is ideal for your body really isn't all that much. To maintain body weight, I'm supposed to eat around 1600 calories for my height/age. That adds up quickly. If you choose carefully what you eat, and eat healthy, you don't have to eat tons and tons of food...just enough, and that can be measured. I don't know if that makes sense to you, but I thought I'd mention it in case it can help.

    New question/thought....There must be a similar body image disorder for people who really are overweight or are at risk of being overweight where they see themselves skinnier and healthier than they really are. Then there are the people who look fit but eat terribly, denying what they are doing to their arteries...