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Body dysmorphia is only getting worse and impacts both men and women, say experts

A male student wearing a plain blue T-shirt standing in front of a mirror and smiling. Behind him is a white wood wall.
Body dysmorphia is very common among both males and females.

It is estimated by the National Eating Disorders Association that about 23 to 32 percent of college females and 8 to 25 percent of college males struggle with some form of eating disorder or body dysmorphia. And experts warn those numbers will increase.

Dr. Kate McLellan, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences, said, “I’ve seen a big increase in students dissatisfied with their bodies over the last few years, and most notably in the last 18 months. This is true for male and female students.” She continued, “A lot of that can be fueled by misinformation they’ve seen on social media from ‘influencers’ selling junk products, diets or programs.”

Prevalent and getting worse

Niki Bennett, a licensed clinical social worker and adjunct faculty in the Faculty of Education & Social Work said body dysmorphia is “when [people] fixate on certain perceived flaws about their bodies that may or may not be accurate, and it becomes an obsession.”

For Bennett, this problem is personal. Growing up, she said, she would look at magazines and think, “What makes her pretty and me not? And I could dissect exactly what it was.” She continued, “Whether it qualifies under the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] or not, I think all of us struggle with the ability to love ourselves and to feel like we are enough. So, I think everybody could seek treatment or have someone to talk to.”

Before Bennett was a social worker, she taught second grade, and she said she recalled hearing a conversation between two little girls saying they couldn’t eat something because it had too many calories and they were on a diet. Bennett explained this happened 10 years ago.

“I think it is so prevalent, and it is just getting worse.” Body dysmorphia is occurring at a younger and younger age because of the societal pressures to look young, she said.“People now are not calling them diets. They’re calling them cleanses, ... nutrition plans, or health coaches. But it’s the same thing. It just has a different face. It’s a different mask.”

Rearranging priorities

Ammon Autele, a BYU–Hawaii alumnus from Samoa, said many people, especially men, are very self-conscious about their physical appearance and how others will perceive them. Taking part in bodybuilding competitions, Autele said, he never was satisfied with how he looked and was constantly obsessing over his physique. “Looking back now at that bodybuilding stage, I am amazed at how my body looked. But at that time, it was never enough.”

After quitting bodybuilding, Autele shared, he went through a hard time where he struggled a lot with body dysmorphia. “I had a very bad eating disorder, and I was constantly hard on myself and depressed because I didn’t look as chiseled and cut as I used to .”

Autele said it took him a while to realize that his body shouldn’t be his main focus in life and that there are so many other important things to care about. Taking care of family and friends, managing a career, success and commitment to one’s faith are all things that are more important than how a person looks, shared Autele.

Sometimes obsessing about the body can get in the way of caring for those more important things, he said. “Realizing life itself is important and that my family is my priority has helped me a lot in overcoming my negative self-image.”

There is a danger in obtaining a specific body type in a fast amount of time, explained Autele, and many people aren’t aware of unhealthy dieting regimes. “You are essentially starving yourself, and the moment you flip the switch, and you are not in the diet or bodybuilding mode, your body wants to retain every little fat it can, and you gain weight again. “

The whole process of aggressively putting your body weight down, with an aggressive diet and intense regimen, has a very negative impact on you in the end.” Letting go of scarcity Bennett said she believes the best action people can take is to “spark the conversation and have the courage to talk about it.”

By starting the conversation, Bennett said people can realize they are not alone. She added, “Not everybody suffers with [body dysmorphia] ..., but everybody knows what pain feels like. Whether it’s the pain of thinking you’re not pretty enough, or you’re not skinny enough, or you’re not manly enough, or you’re not smart enough, everyone can relate to that.”

Bennett said negative stigmas are ended by “sharing and being real.” When people authentically share their struggles, others realize they are not alone because everyone has issues and problems, said Bennett.

She added the more someone pretends not to struggle, the bigger the problem is.“[People need to] focus on who [they are] and what [their] body does for [them],” said Bennett.

She said she learned the following tactic from a friend of hers who grew up with an eating disorder: If someone is getting ready in front of the mirror in the morning and has the thought, “My stomach’s fat,” they can immediately combat that thought by looking at their stomach and saying to themselves: “Wow, that houses all of my internal organs to keep my body working. I’m so grateful.”

Bennett said doing this is an act of practicing gratitude. “It’s letting go of scarcity and recognizing that there will always be someone prettier. There will always be someone more fit. There will always be somebody wealthier or smarter or more athletic. It’s not about being the best. It’s about loving yourself where you are right now.”

Another strategy Bennett shared includes keeping a personal journal separated into columns: “Things I am grateful for,” “Things I accept,” and “positive ‘I am...’ statements.”

A healthy support system

Leiani Brown, a senior majoring in English from Taylorsville, Utah, said some people might not even be able to realize they have unhealthy thinking patterns because they never challenged their own thoughts. Having somebody there to share your thoughts with and who can tell you when you overthink or think wrongly about situations, is something Brown said benefited her.

“My husband has helped me a lot because I’ll say things like, ‘I look terrible today,’ or ‘This person hates me.’ And he says, ‘Okay, but that’s not real.’ It helps me to stay grounded and realize it is all in my head.”

Brown said she wished people would focus more on the health aspect of their bodies instead of treating it like an ornament. Growing up, Brown shared she always had a fast metabolism and was always very thin. People would come up to her and tell her how lucky she was for being that thin and how they envied her for eating whatever she wanted without the concern of gaining a lot of weight, said Brown.

“If they only knew how many issues I have with my health, just because I’m a very unhealthy person. I don’t exercise or eat healthy. ... It’s all about our habits and our actions and how we treat our bodies. It should be less about how we look.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with negative body image or an eating disorder, please use the Counseling Services Resources available on campus at or call (808) 675-3518. You can also contact the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.