Understanding body dysmorphia among newcomer youth 

By: Vivian Nguyen

Published on: January 16 2022

Content warning: This article talks about body image, suicide, eating disorders, and trauma. 

Photo: Alex Green (Pexels) 

There is a popular saying that goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” By saying this phrase, the speaker demonstrates that they are not bothered by the unpleasant things that others say about them. On the surface, this phrase can be empowering. It implies that the only opinions that matter are your own. 

But what if you view yourself negatively? Can those thoughts hurt you? 

What is body dysmorphia? 

Body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is “a mental health condition in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived flaws in your appearance.” These flaws are not seen by others and can be easily casted aside as “fake.” However, to someone experiencing body dysmorphia, these perceived flaws feel very much real. 

They can even cause the person to feel extreme shame and anxiety, which affects their daily life.  

Symptoms of body dysmorphia 

One sign of BDD includes hyper focusing on one’s appearance and body image. Body image refers to a subjective view of one’s physical appearance established by self-observation and the reactions of others. 

Individuals with body dysmorphia are often preoccupied with one or more perceived flaws in their appearance. They may engage in behaviours to fix or hide the perceived flaw(s) by skin picking or styling with, for example, makeup. Those with body dysmorphia often check the mirror and/or seek reassurance from others. “My nose looks big… is it?”  

Such fixations on their appearance lead some individuals to follow through with cosmetic procedures for temporary satisfaction. These “fixes” are temporary because the negative thoughts and perceptions return even after the procedures, and only get worse without treatment.  

To better understand if you have BDD, check out eMentalHealth’s questionnaire. If you answered “yes” to several questions, read more about the disorder and seek treatment. 

What are the causes and risk factors? 

According to Mayo Clinic, body dysmorphic disorder typically begins in adolescents—during the early teenage years. BDD can affect a child’s academic performance and their ability to interact with others. One study has even found that 18 percent of students with BDD dropped out of school due to severe symptoms. 

Body dysmorphia affects everyone regardless of gender, though males usually worry about their muscular build. Some even develop bigorexia, the belief that their bodies are “too small,” even if they can lift hundreds of pounds of weight. 

Causes of BDD include negative experiences or evaluations about your body or self-image. These experiences can be self-inflicted or initiated by others, including media and societal expectations of beauty. Trauma through childhood bullying and teasing or abuse are also triggers for body dysmorphic disorder.  

Additionally, body dysmorphia can be hereditary meaning that if you have a blood relative with BDD or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), there is a high chance you have it too. OCD involves uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts—called obsessions—and/or behaviours (compulsions). 

Other elements (caused by or associated with BDD) include: 

  • Low self-esteem 
  • Major depression and anxiety 
  • Eating disorders (ED) 
  • Social isolation 
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviour 

Although there is no known way to prevent BDD, early identification of the disorder will lead to earlier treatment. 

Photo: Polina Zimmerman (Pexels) 

How can parents support their children with BDD? 

  1. Be empathetic. When they check the mirror or seek reassurance, do not mistake these actions for vanity—great pride in oneself or one’s appearance. Many individuals with BDD believe their reality even if you cannot see the flaws they are perceiving.  
  1. Encourage your child to engage in social activities. Start off small by playing a board game with them. 
  1. Be cautious about the way you view and speak about your own appearance. Afterall, children mimic behaviour. Create healthy habits to demonstrate body acceptance by accepting your physical flaws, such as stretch marks and acne in front of them. 
  1. Shift the focus away from appearance and more on their skills and passions. Compliment your child’s abilities instead of their appearance. Instead of saying, “you look so cute!” say, “you are so creative!” 
  1. Encourage your loved one to seek treatment. To do so, focus on how they would benefit from talking to a professional who deeply understands the disorder, instead of expressing how negatively you are affected by their behaviours. This eliminates guilt which makes it easier for them to accept help. 

If you need tips on how to talk to your child about mental health, take a look at this MHA article


Body dysmorphia is an under recognized disorder as people with BDD genuinely believe something is wrong with their appearance, not as misperceptions. Many young people are not diagnosed until well into adulthood.  

Treatment for BDD includes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which seeks to change people’s negative thoughts and behaviours. 

You can find additional resources through Anxiety Canada and Children’s mental health centres


If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, contact 911 or the emergency services in your area immediately. 

Kids Help Phone 

  • Call 1-800-668-6868 

Kids Help Phone is a 24/7 mental health service that caters to kids, teens, and young adults. They offer online and telephone counseling and volunteer-led text support in English and in French across Canada. In addition to URGENT HELP and if you need someone to talk to, Kids Help Phone provides data and activities to help build your knowledge about mental health. 

Access Alliance 

Access Alliance provide services for vulnerable people living in Toronto. Your first 16 one-on-one counseling sessions, which last 45 minutes to one hour, are free! Access Alliance offers group therapy, art classes (art therapy), and services in over 180 languages, including American Sign Language (ASL). 


Good2Talk supports post-secondary students in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Their services are free and confidential. Use the above information to get in contact with professional counselors and trained crisis responders. Good2Talk now also offers services in Mandarin. 

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) 

  • Toll-free: 1-866-NEDIC-20 (1-866-633-4220) 
  • Toronto number: 416-340-4156 

NEDIC is Canada’s only National Toll-Free Helpline, focusing on awareness and prevention. Unfortunately, they are not 24/7, closing at 9pm EST. Find a provider here

Remember, finding the right counsellor may take trial and error. It is important that you pick a service that works best for you. 

Minor or not, body dysmorphic disorder can get worse as time goes on and if left untreated, it can lead to severe anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts and tendencies. The more convinced you are that you need “fixing,” the more distress and interference you may experience in your life, making body dysmorphia a mental health disorder.  

More resources from The Newcomer

5 Low cost or free mental health services in Canada 

Mental health issues in immigrant communities 

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