Internalized Racism and Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body Dysmorphic Disorder, as the Mayo Clinic puts it, is a “type of chronic mental illness in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance.” It’s a compulsive disorder that shouldn’t be confused with common vanity. People with body dysmorphic disorder—which is also known as dysmorphophobia (fear of having a deformity)—suffer a compulsive belief that they have an abnormality or defect in their appearance. It manifests in different ways, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders, excessive cosmetic surgery and self mutilation. Its causes can be biochemical, hereditary and/or environmental.

When we hear stories about it in the media, it is usually surrounding the issues of women suffering eating disorders vis-a-vis the daily bombardment of images and messages in the media and popular culture espousing a certain aesthetic standard for women. The message they receive is that “beauty looks like this; and if you don’t look like this, then you are not beautiful.”

North American culture being predominantly white-oriented, the stories we hear in the media are typically about young white women who believe they are overweight, that their breasts are too small, that their lips are too thin, etc. This distorted self view is so deeply ingrained that it drives them to obsessively work to alter (or “correct”) their appearance, sometimes putting their health at risk.

There is another dimension to the issue that often does not come up in mainstream discussion, and that is race. This heartbreaking—if not eye opening, at the very least—montage popped up on my radar today by way of Twitter thanks to Kwame Zulu Shabazz and his blog, Thoughts of a Ghetto Intellectual, where he brings up yet another often overlooked dimension.

For a great read on the subject of internalized racism, head on over to Alas, a blog to read Karynthia’s post. If you have any personal stories on the subject of internalized racism, please share in the comments below!

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One comment so far

  1. peace mike,

    as it turns out i have done a few inquiries on BDD and Michael Jackson. Below are some of the questions i put to a colleague doing her dissertation on BDD.

    “i, and many african americans, have always assumed MJ’s skin lightening, straightened hair (or wigs) and multiple face reconstructions were obvious manifestations of racism–of mike trying his best to comply with white aesthetic and racial norms. but a friend [she suggested that MJ had BDD]…how does BDD account or control for “normative” ideas that are the legacy of white supremacy? many black americans, myself included, struggle with imposed categories of beauty. black women, for example, have internalized white female hair standards as “normal.” If Michelle Obama is pressing her hair routinely to meet a white aesthetic is that compulsive or pathological? Where is the diagnostic line drawn for black patients? Indeed can it be drawn w/out some how incorporating the backstory of race and racism in America?”

    Here are a few things i learned from a colleague doing BDD research:

    1. BDD is not well studied as of yet. Its a relatively new field.
    2. As far as I can tell psychologists typically think of BDD something beyond racism. It is not, however, uncommon for BDD to have a racial component (she mentioned for example a BDD sufferer obsessed with their “Jewish nose.”) Because research on BDD is in its infancy, there is very no data on the intersection of cultural normes or “internalized racism” and BDD.
    3. MJ was never actually diagnosed w/BDD. It requires and consultation w/ a professional clinician. But two psychologists I consulted were confident that he suffered from BDD was not simply “trying to be white.”
    4. Diagnosing BDD is ultimately a subjective decision of the clinician but the symptoms are so severe that its reasonably straightforward to diagnose.

    I have been referred to a clinician who is actually doing research on the intersection of racism and BDD but I have not had time to follow up as of yet. kzs

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