By: Dr. Laurel Schwartz
At the age of 101, my aunt refused to go to the community center to socialize with other retirees. “I don’t want them to see the ugly wrinkles on my cheeks,” she said. A healthy narcissism, where a person invests in themselves is a necessary and positive component of one’s emotional life. Caring about your appearance is part of that. But how far should it go?
At the extreme, a person can become obsessed with their appearance or some particular physical trait. When this behavior demonstrates a constellation of symptoms it’s diagnosed as “Body Dysmorphic Disorder.” The central feature of this disorder, according to DSM-IV is “a preoccupation with a defect in appearance. The defect is either imagined, or if a slight physical anomaly is present, the individual’s concern is markedly excessive.”
Examples of what might preoccupy a person would be thinning hair, wrinkles or scars. A person could also become focused on the shape or size of their nose, eyelids eyebrows, lips or teeth. They might excessively focus on a body part such as their breasts or hips. To constitute a disorder, the person must also experience emotional pain and impairment of their social functioning. Indeed, often a person with this disorder may think people are looking at them or commenting on their “flaw.” They may spend hours looking at their “defect” in mirrors or other reflective surfaces and try to camouflage it.
The mot famous example perhaps, of Body Dysmorphic Disorder is Michael Jackson who is reported to have had dozens of surgeries to alter his appearance. A far more subtle example in the social arena might be a woman who refuses to end an abusive romantic relationship because she feels no other man could possibly love her due to the cellulite on her thighs.
Of course, what we feel makes us attractive changes with the times. Today, we feel that a suntan makes us look healthy and appealing. Despite the threat of skin cancer, go to any beach and you will see people sunbathing. They even go to tanning salons. However, viewing a tan as attractive is a relatively new phenomenon that was introduced in the 1920’s by the fashion icon Coco Chanel. Up until that point, a tan was thought of as undesirable, indicative of being a member of the working class.
Teens are notoriously preoccupied with their appearance. Through their dress, hair and make-up they seek acceptance and a sense of fitting in. Do we ever outgrow that? On a deeper level, when we pursue “beauty” is that really what we are looking for? Perhaps what we really want is to know that even dressed in a pair of old jeans, and a flannel shirt with no makeup, we can be loved for ourselves.
For more information I can be reached at 203-539-1255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.