Maybe at some point you wished your waist were a bit smaller like Barbie’s, or your muscles were bulkier like Superman’s.
However, those fleeting thoughts most likely passed.
Yet for some people those thoughts are constant, and lead to serious actions such as major plastic surgeries.
Consider Herbert Chavez, a 37-year-old man from the Philippines. He has spent 18 years trying to look like Clark Kent, Superman’s alternate identity.
Chavez has undergone liposuction, nose jobs, skin bleaching, and has gotten fillers. He has even tried to get doctors to give him “abs of steel.”
He’s also in the Guinness World Records for having the biggest Superman memorabilia collection.
Then there are seven women who are considered celebrities in the social media world for transforming themselves into Barbie look-alikes. This includes Valeria Lukyanova, the Russian-born, self-proclaimed “Human Barbie.”
There’s also blogger Kamilla Osman, who has gained attention for her uncanny resemblance to Kim Kardashian.
A Mask for Mental Illness
Are these drastic attempts to be famous more than they seem?
Some experts believe Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) may be to blame. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with BDD think about their physical flaws, whether they’re real or imagined, for hours each day.
“They have a general disgust for an aspect of their appearance that others may or may not see. Because of the distortion and fixation, they will do a number of things to try to counteract what they perceive,” Sari Shepphird, Ph.D., a Los Angeles psychologist, told Healthline.
Symptoms of BDD include engaging in social withdrawal or trying to change their appearance.
“Plastic surgery becomes the BDD ritual that one can do repetitively. People with BDD often times will get some kind of body altering surgery done because they’re not happy with the way they look,” Jenifer Cullen, Ph.D., a Massachusetts clinical psychologist, told Healthline.
“But they’re never happy with the surgery and they go back for more and more,” adds Cullen.
“Michael Jackson is a classic case,” she said.
In fact, that’s what makes a person with BDD different than someone who undergoes a nose job or breast implants and then stops.
“People who don’t have BDD and get plastic surgery are usually happy with the outcome. They may say, ‘I like my nose. It looks great. I’m going to get my breasts done now,’’’ Cullen explained. “Those with BDD are never happy with the outcome. They go back and get another nose job, and another, or they’ll be happy with the nose and switch to obsessing about another part of their body, and the cycle continues.”
Since BDD is on the spectrum of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Cullen notes that it needs to be properly diagnosed. Those with BDD may also have coexisting conditions, such as OCD, major depression, social anxiety disorder, and eating disorders.
“If someone is altering themselves to look like a Barbie doll, I’d ask why they are altering themselves to look like her. If they say they like her breasts, or hair, or a particular body part and then do what they can to look like that part, then I’d say it could be BDD,” said Cullen.
The same goes for Superman wannabes.
“If someone said, ‘I changed my eyes to blue cause they’re brown and I hate them, they’re disgusting’ then that could be BDD,” Cullen said. “But if he’s just obsessed in wanting to look like Superman, then that sounds like it’s an obsession.”
For the illness to be OCD, Cullen said the change in appearance would be driven by fear.
“It would be based on the notion that if the person doesn’t change the way they look, something bad will happen. So they might say, ‘I am obsessed with Superman because if I don’t look like him, I’m afraid no one will talk to me, or love me, or marry me,’” said Cullen.
While there are many reasons people may develop BDD, Shepphird says the following are common risk factors:
- genetic predisposition
- anxiety issues
- history of being teased or bullied about appearance
- drive for perfectionism
- social environment with pressures to conform to a certain image
Though it’s common for BDD to occur during the teenage and young adult years as a person’s identity is developing, Shepphird notes that BDD can occur at any age and equally between genders.
“Especially now since there’s an emphasis on maintaining the perfect ideal image across the lifespan rather than just during our youth,” she said.
Social Media Feeds the Flame
While it’s natural for humans to compare themselves to others in order to understand what’s socially acceptable, or where they stand in their culture, Shepphird says that the Western culture pushes the comparisons to unhealthy levels.
“We can look at changes in certain kinds of disorders over time, and we know that media in general, and Western media in particular, contribute to certain kinds of disorders, including eating disorders and BDD because we have a cultural ideal that we are confronted with and that we increasingly feel we need to conform to,” she said.
In developing countries that don’t have access to the kinds of media Western countries do, Shepphird says studies show rates of certain mental disorders, including BDD and eating disorders, are lower.
“That doesn’t mean that media causes BDD or other mental health concerns, but we do know it’s a risk factor. The more someone is exposed to certain kinds of media the greater that risk factor is. When combined with other risk factors, it’s a contributing issue,” she said.
Especially if the information that media presents is skewed.
“Studies show that reading one magazine for an hour for teens and adults tends to make them feel worse about their lives for a short period of time. So you can extrapolate that that’s the truth when it comes to having a constant bombardment of ideals and images on social media,” Shepphird said.
Plus, posting images on social media brings about wanted or unwanted comments about one’s appearance.
“We have a culture now that people feel they can say whatever they want about someone’s appearance whether it’s about someone they know or have never met. Many people tend to dismiss those comments and think they don’t have an impact, but they can, especially on someone who has risk factors for BDD,” Shepphird said.
Cullen agrees, and says even positive feedback can be disastrous for those with BDD.
“For someone who is trying to actually look like Superman, getting attention on social media perpetuates the behavior and even strengthens their obsession,” she said. “Even if they post a photo of their latest surgery and they get 200 responses, they might think ‘I only got 200, why didn’t I get 300?’ or they’ll feel better for a day and then the next day they’ll go back to feeling like nobody likes them.”
Cullen stresses that social media is so harmful for those with BDD that during treatment she suggests patients do not put any images of themselves on social media.
According to both Shepphird and Cullen, the best form of treatment involves cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) combined with antidepressant medication.
“CBT addresses distorted thoughts and uncomfortable feelings and how those affect your behavior. If you can address the distorted thoughts that someone has with their appearance, then you can make an impact on how they feel and the behavior that results from that,” said Shepphird.
Cullen adds, “Because those with BDD often respond well to antidepressants, we know brain chemicals are involved. Incorporating both forms of therapy can really help treat BDD.”