Mirror gazing: A compulsive and addictive aspect of body dysmorphic disorder

The act of mirror gazing, the compulsive tendency to view and scrutinize oneself in the mirror, can play a major role in those who experience body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).  Researchers Joanna Silver and Jacqui Farrants examined this specific feature of BDD, and the results are striking.

Body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, is an obsessive-compulsive psychiatric disorder characterized by preoccupation with perceived flaws in appearance and repetitive behaviors—such as mirror checking— as noted by the DSM-V.  The disorder can be so severe that level of insight related to beliefs can be categorized as delusional.

Silver and Farrants noted a lack of specific research related to mirror gazing and opted to examine this aspect of BDD via qualitative research.  Ten participants, who self-identified as having BDD, took 10-12 photographs of themselves, in addition to identifying four pre-existing photographs that linked to their BDD experience; writing about this experience and BDD was encouraged.  Via a taped recorded interview with researcher Silver, participants explored their experience of BDD by examining their photographs.

Four major content themes were identified in the study: the Self as an Aesthetic Object, Striving for the ‘Good Enough’ Self, the Confused Self, and the Imprisoned Self. Additional sub-themes also were identified, with research results focusing on the theme of Omnipotent Mirrors Trap the Self, a sub-theme of the Imprisoned Self.

Self-report data were blunt and sometimes disturbing. For instance, “Jane,” a study participant remarked:

“On the bad days when you are using a mirror, it, it really is a form of self-harm. It’s kind of like,because you are looking at it, you know you know what your faults are going to be, and they are about how disgusting that you are, um and then you just get, you get really sort of like sad as well, because it’s like fuck what am I going to do? I can’t continue to live with this face. It’s just, I don’t, you know no good is going to come of you.”

Another participant, “Hannah,” conveyed how offensive she views her image:

“I look like a monster I just don’t feel sort of human, Um, I just sort of say jokingly if I get up in the morning, don’t look at me I’ve got the pox or, like sometimes I really feel that kind of, I look diseased, like people in movies when they kind of make them up and it’s like I should be groaning.”

Self-report data underscored the unusual relationship study participants have with mirrors and how pervasive mirror gazing can be.  In addition, the feeling of extreme shame emerged as a consistent byproduct of mirror gazing, and study authors link this feeling to defensive reactions and the inability to self-sooth.

The study is not without its limitations, most notable of which is the limited sample size of 10 participants. Additionally, given that participants in the study were required to take photographs of themselves and document their study experience, and were therefore able to tolerate such an experience, the authors surmised that those most severely affected by BDD may not have been captured within the study.  However, the results were sufficient to demonstrate how consuming mirror gazing can be among those who experience BDD.

The research, I Once Stared at Myself in the Mirror for Eleven Hours,’ Exploring Mirror Gazing in Participants with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, was published in the May issue of the Journal of Health Psychology.