The COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Effect on Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Beauty Standards

For many individuals, grooming is simply a form of self-care. Taking the time to paint your nails, put on make-up, or style your hair means that you’re intentionally taking care of yourself because it’s important to you. For others, these practices can take a destructive turn. Grooming or beauty practices can become driven, obsessive, extreme, or even dangerous. Read on to learn more about Body Dysmorphic Disorder and the impact of COVID-19.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

The Mayo Clinic defines Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) as a mental health disorder in which individuals become preoccupied with one or more perceived flaws in their appearance. Oftentimes, these imperfections are minor or even unseen by others, and yet, they elicit tremendous embarrassment, shame, and anxiety for the sufferer. Often, this extreme concern is associated with efforts to conceal or fix the “defect”. The prevalence of BDD in the general population is estimated to be 1 – 2%, which means approximately 5 million people in the United States alone would meet the criteria.

Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder include:

  • Being obsessed or extremely preoccupied with a minor appearance flaw
  • A strong belief that the defect makes an individual ugly or deformed
  • The belief that others take special notice or mock the individual’s appearance
  • Engagement in behaviors to fix the flaw, such as frequently checking the mirror, obsessive grooming, or skin picking
  • Attempts to hide the defect with styling, makeup, or clothes
  • Constant comparison of appearance to others
  • Frequently seeking reassurance about their appearance
  • Exhibiting perfectionist behavior

The most common features that people tend to fixate on include the face, such as nose, complexion, wrinkles, acne, and other blemishes; the hair, including thinning and baldness; skin and vein appearance; breast size; muscle size and tone (a condition called muscle dysmorphia that predominantly affects men); and genitalia.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected those struggling with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Last month, an online survey, completed by 216 Australian participants, addressed questions concerning appearance-focused behaviors and attitudes toward beauty service closure. The Dysmorphic Concern Questionnaire (DCQ) was used to categorize participants by low and high body dysmorphic concern.

For the low DCQ group, appearance-focused behaviors decreased during the pandemic, while the same behaviors for the high DCQ group remained unchanged. Additionally, the high DCQ group, oftentimes younger respondents who lived alone, reported greater distress over closures with an increased desire for future beauty treatments.

Overall, individuals with low dysmorphic concern felt the COVID-19 pandemic gave them a break from societal appearance pressure, but participants with high dysmorphic concern practiced the same appearance-focused behaviors despite stay-at-home orders. It will take time to determine the long-term impacts of appearance-related distress and to fully understand how COVID-19 pandemic affected individuals with Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

COVID-19 Impact on Beauty Standards

With COVID-19 changing everything about how we socialize and move through the world, one thing remains consistent: we continue to live under the influence of societal pressure to meet unrealistic beauty standards. If you engage at all in social media, you might have noticed an uptick (if that’s possible) during the pandemic with exercise, diet, and weight control messaging appearing more often than ever. “The COVID-15,” intended to make fun of potential weight gain during quarantine, became a well-recognized term. Beauty products continue to be peddled relentless online – counterintuitive given that across the globe, face to face interaction is so dramatically reduced.

As history has proven, beauty standards remain potent forces in our society even in the midst of crisis. For instance, during the Great Depression, women bought more lipstick than ever before – an idea that carried through to World World II, when lipstick was deemed a wartime necessity, a beauty product that kept spirits high. During the financial downturn in 2008, the sales of nail polish and mascara spiked.

Hannah McCann, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne who focuses on beauty culture, has an interesting perspective on beauty regiments during pandemic times. She believes that focus on appearance can be important for preserving normalcy in turbulent periods. “Maintaining your beauty rituals is a way to feel like you are in control and not losing yourself,” she explained in a recent New York Times article. Many of us can relate to feeling “better” when we finally get out of our pj’s, take a shower, brush our hair, and even put on a little makeup.

Treatment at Columbus Park

At Columbus Park, we’re constantly processing the impact societal beauty ideals have on self-image, self-confidence, and self-care. We work with our clients to navigate cultural expectations, clarify personal values (a central and healing task) and work toward more self-compassion and acceptance. For clients meeting the criteria for Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), the Columbus Park team utilizes an evidence-based treatment designed to target BDD maintaining factors and symptoms. Cognitive Behavior Therapy for BDD focuses on:

  • Helping the individual learn how negative thoughts and behaviors maintain body image problems over time
  • Challenging negative thoughts about body image and learning new, flexible ways of thinking
  • Learning different ways to handle urges to help reduce behaviors, including mirror checking and reassurance seeking
  • Exploring new ways to improve quality of life and overall mental health (i.e. reducing social avoidance)

If you or a loved one is struggling with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, please reach out to our team at to discuss telehealth treatment options.