The People Who See Monsters in the Mirror

Canda Loden's Reflection in Funhouse Mirror
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

People with body dysmorphic disorder have what you might call a complicated relationship with mirrors, to put things mildly. BDD, a psychiatric condition marked by a preoccupation with perceived flaws in one’s personal appearance, is the subject of a new paper published in the Journal of Health Psychology, spotted earlier today by Science of Us pal Christian Jarrett over at BPS Research Digest. (You can read the full journal article here, if you’d like.) In it, researchers from City University London share pieces of their interviews with ten BDD patients, specifically their feelings toward mirrors.

On the one hand, they hate them. One study participant named Jane called mirrors “the bastards” and can’t stand that they are “fucking everywhere.” And yet many of them are drawn to mirrors in ways those of us without BDD are not. A BDD sufferer named Louise told the researchers she’d once stared at her own reflection for 11 hours; Jane one day counted the number of times she looked at herself in the mirror and lost count at 68.

Ten people is not a huge number, so the researchers caution that there’s only so much we can extrapolate from these interviews; as always, more research is needed. But it’s an important step toward understanding more about what people with BDD see when they look at their own reflections.

Here are some of the most compelling quotes from those interviews:


I look like a monster[.] I just don’t feel sort of human … 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.


I once stared at myself in the mirror for eleven hours. When I look in the mirror I can’t go again until I’ve kind of made peace with the picture that I see there, so sometimes that can just take a couple of minutes, five minutes, ten minutes like anybody would. Perhaps if I am not at all stressed or anxious, sometimes I can just look and think ‘yeah, ok, that will do’, and I’ll go and then another time I just can’t get to that point, I just can’t get to the point where I feel good enough to be able to go out and let anyone see me. And that will go on and on and on, and the longer I’ve stayed there, the more distorted everything becomes and the worse it gets … And during that time when I am stuck I can’t do anything, I can’t pick up the phone, I can’t walk to open the door if someone comes round to try and help me, I can’t drink anything or eat anything or go to the bathroom. I am just stuck there completely.


Everyone else, everyone is beautiful. I just feel that I am that one ugly person, and I am with all those people who like say, the Tree Man or the Elephant Man, I am in their league … I see myself as lower than everyone else. Basically, I should be with the freak show … because I remember always watching those films and they had that really big fat lady and I think that should be me.


Fuck knows why you do it. I really can’t explain to you why I have to look in the mirror so often … There was one time when I stopped counting at like, I think it was about 68 times, and it was just sort of like, and at that time I wasn’t even planning to leave the house.


I do feel kind of bereft if there are no mirrors. I feel really like kind of an addict without their drug. It’s just like I need to look, in the same way that in the morning that needs to be the first thing I do. I couldn’t possibly fathom talking to someone or yeh doing, you know. And that’s why I really struggle with the idea of relationships and continuity, anything that becomes something regular where you can’t just get away with staying over and then just leave now.

The People Who See Monsters in the Mirror