When these people look in the mirror they see a monster staring back

One of the participants in an upsetting series of new interviews says she once stared into the mirror for eleven hours straight. She was looking, searching, trying to find a perspective where she felt good enough about herself to be able to go outside.

The woman in question, Louise, has Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), which is defined by psychiatrists as a disabling and distressing preoccupation with what she sees as her perceived physical flaw or flaws.

For their study, Joanna Silver and Jacqui Farrants at City University in London interviewed 11 people with BDD (4 men) about their relationships with mirrors – an important, but previously unexplored aspect of their condition. The participants’ reasons for mirror gazing were complex and contradictory. Jane describes mirrors as “f*cking bastards” and mirror gazing as a “form of self-harm”. Others spoke of the practice as masochistic and addictive and imprisoning. “It’s just like I need to look,” said Hannah. “I do feel kind of bereft if there are no mirrors.”

The participants also described what they perceived as the ugliness of the person staring back at them. “I look like a monster,” said Hannah. Jenny said she is “truly hideous” and “repulsive”. Lucy said “Everyone else, everyone is beautiful. I just feel that I am that one ugly person.” The participants questioned how other people could bear to look at them. Jane said “How don’t people throw up every time they seem me?”

To catalyse the interview process, the researchers asked their participants to bring in photographs that represented their experience of BDD and mirror gazing. Chris brought a photograph of the Sponge Bob cartoon character, which he said shows the “hideous” image with “really protruding teeth” that he sees in the mirror. Jenny brought a photo of a Raggy Dolls reject bin and Louise shared her “getting ready station” featuring stop watch and scissors for scratching the desk-top in frustration.

The researchers said their participants’ experiences could be understood in terms first described by the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty: “… it seems that participants do not experience their body as a ‘lived body’ but instead as an ‘objectified body’.” While they cautioned that the findings of this study may not generalise to all people with BDD, the researchers said their results highlight an important aspect of the condition that is not found in standard textbook accounts. “Detailed accounts given by participants suggest that mirror gazing in BDD is a complex and embodied phenomenon and it is vital that health psychologists ask clients open questions about their individual experiences at the mirror,” they concluded.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Silver, J., & Farrants, J. (2015). ‘I Once Stared at Myself in the Mirror for Eleven Hours.’ Exploring mirror gazing in participants with body dysmorphic disorder Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315581516

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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