Unpretty: Discussing Body Dysmorphia and Body Image

I grew up in the 90s and have always been a big fan of the group, TLC. When their song, “Unpretty,” shuffled onto my playlist this morning, I felt inspired to finish this post, which has been sitting as an undeveloped draft for several months. After I define what body dysmorphia is, I’ll provide more context for why my mind associates “Unpretty” with body image concerns. Throughout the post, I’ll share some lyrics from the song.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (Body Dysmorphia)

Body Dysmorphia is listed in the DSM 5 under the category obsessive-compulsive and related disorders (OCD is a separate diagnosis included in that category of the DSM.) The DSM 5 describes Body Dysmorphic Disorder with the following symptoms:

  • Obsession with one or more believed defects or flaws related to one’s appearance, attractiveness, weight/size, and/or abnormalities (not based in reality).
  • Any body part(s) can be a source of preoccupation in Body Dysmorphia such as teeth, weight, face shape, lip size, skin, hair, nose shape/size, eyebrows, and even genitals.
  • The perceived flaw(s) are not observed or may appear  slight/minor to others (such as family, peers, strangers, etc.)
  • The person performs repetitive behaviors and/or has ruminating thoughts related to the perceived flaw(s); more specifically,
    • Behaviors: Looking in the mirror constantly, excessive grooming (shaving, plucking, makeup application, etc.), constantly making adjustments, covering up perceived problem area(s), requiring validation from others. Folx with Body Dysmorphia may even seek cosmetic procedures (breast/butt implants, face reconstruction, skin bleaching, etc.) Americans spent over $9 Billion on plastic surgery in 2020 (Source: The Aesthetic Society.)
    • Thoughts: Negative self-talk (“I’m fat” or “My nose is deformed.”) or getting caught in the comparison trap (magazines and social media don’t help with this…)
    • These thoughts and behaviors usually result in anxiety and depressive symptoms.
  • The aforementioned symptoms result in physical, psychological, and/or social distress, impacting the individual’s overall quality of life.
  • Note: The aforementioned symptoms may be diagnosed as Body Dysmorphia if they’re not better explained by actual health conditions (ex. injury, car accident wounds, burn victim, etc.) or an eating disorder (though BDD can be comorbid with eating disorders.)
  • This condition impacts both men and women; in fact, Body Dysmorphia is sometimes defined in males as “Muscle Dysphoria,” which is characterized by a preoccupation that one’s body size is too small, lanky, or lacking a defined muscular build. This is often where we see the abuse of anabolic steroids in addition to extreme dieting and exercise.

“My outsides look cool, my insides are blue. Every time I think I’m through, it’s because of you. I tried different ways, but it’s all the same. At the end of the day I have myself to blame… I’m just trippin'”

While not all folx struggling with body image concerns meet the clinical criteria for Body Dysmorphic Disorder, I’d like you to consider the aforementioned symptoms as existing on a spectrum. See below for a sophisticated rendering from my iPad.

The green star is where I believe body dysmorphia falls on the spectrum whereas “insecurity” finds itself on both sides of the baseline as you approach the two extremes of self-hatred and narcissism.

“You can buy your hair if it won’t grow. You can fix your nose if he says so. You can buy all the make up that M.A.C. can make. But if you can’t look inside you, find out who am I to… be in the position to make me feel so damn unpretty.”

Conclusion

Growing up in the 90s, music videos were a big deal for me. I remember being moved to tears when I first saw the video for “Unpretty.” I resonated deeply with the biracial girl in the video that struggles with bulimia. Though I didn’t have bulimia, I definitely had bouts of binge eating behavior like the character in the video. Binge eating paired with the bullying I received from peers and family of origin regarding my body image (unfortunate, given that I was 7 at the time…) made the video an emotional experience for me.

TLC was known for their portrayal of taboo topics in the 90s (for example, their song, “Waterfalls,” was one of the first to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic), so being able to see a biracial and overweight person struggling in the video helped a 7-year-old me to feel seen and understood. I love the part at the end where she begins learning to accept her body and to let go of the comparison trap. I’ve shared in the past about my own body image issues but have only just recently gained awareness of how Body Dysmorphia has been at play for most of my life. Therapy works, y’all.

Perhaps in some small way, this post will normalize body image issues for someone out there (especially other men.) Below is the radio edit of the music video. For the full-length version (unofficial), keep scrolling for more context.

In the original uncut version of the video, there’s also a vignette of a student (Played by T-Boz) being bullied. There’s also more detail in the scene related to the character considering getting breast implants, where another patient is painfully having her implants removed (I remember what an impact seeing that breast implant being cut out was… no wonder why this was left out of the edited video.) I can’t find an official version of the unedited video, but you can see it below (Note: the music quality is distorted.) 

Thanks for reading!

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4 thoughts on “Unpretty: Discussing Body Dysmorphia and Body Image”

  1. Ashley says:

    Such a powerful song. I’d never actually seen the video before.

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I actually binge watched a lot of their videos after posting this. Such an iconic group!

  2. Keisha says:

    So many emotions and memories tied to this song. <3

    1. Thanks for reading, Keisha!!

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