Facing Up to Self-Hatred

Article excerpt


Inside Story: Looks That Kill (BBC1); Giving Up For Good (BBC1) UNTIL a month ago, few of us, I assume, had ever heard of an illness called body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, but already it's on TV and we're told there are 400,000 sufferers in the country.

It would be comic if it weren't so tragic, for this is the psychological disorder that only recently came into the news when a Scottish surgeon - at the urgent request of the patient, and in what was judged to be in his best interests amputated the perfectly sound limb of a victim of BDD.

Thus, it was scarcely necessary for last night's Inside Story to bother explaining that BDD is a condition in which the patient hates some aspect of their body or their looks, and will severely harm themselves, even to the point of death, to try to change their appearance.

Now it seems there are hundreds of thousands of people with BDD.

How do we know if that's true, and does it include anyone who dislikes mole or thinks their nose or backside is too big?

It sometimes seems that the entire country has some collective form of hypochondria: no wonder the NHS can't cope.

The first part of this documentary, with its grisly title, Looks That Kill, I found almost unbearable to watch.

It concentrated on one individual, 21-year-old Gail who is struggling, with the help of a psychiatrist, to overcome BDD. In director John Furse she met the ideal filmmaker, for, as he revealed early on, he too suffered from BDD more than 30 years ago and conquered it.

First, however, we heard the shrink talking about cases of BDD he had come across: people giving themselves a facelift with a stapling machine, or filing down their teeth to improve their jaw line (though, thank goodness, he didn't get into amputations).

Gail, he said, was cutting herself to reduce what she thought was fat - a kind of do-it-yourself lipo-suction.

Gail is a perfectly pleasant-looking girl, with a trim figure and a charming smile, a boyfriend, a job, and a talent for singing, and her case turned out to be rather more complicated than we'd supposed.

Tragically, she insists that she looks like the Elephant Man or Punch and Judy, 'really, really old', and that her appearance disgusts people.

As someone who thoroughly dislikes all medical matters, I almost switched off the TV as Gail told John Furse: 'The thing I think about a lot is chopping myself up into little pieces. I get excited by the thought because I'm going to do that one day, and that's what needs to be done.' AND I became more alarmed still as she displayed the evidence of her compulsion to hurt herself - the myriad scars on her left arm - and spoke of sticking her hand down her throat to try to rip her insides out. …