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Body Dysmorphia Disorder kills, Rankin invites brands to join photography fightback

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By Rankin Waddell, Photographer

July 12, 2023 | 8 min read

World-renowned photographer Rankin shares a personal story about his discovery of Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) in the studio and the tragic circumstances of how it shaped his agency.

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Back in 2016, I did a BBC Documentary called 'No Body's Perfect' with the extraordinary artist, Alison Lapper. It attempted to question the beauty norms in society and saw me working with a small group of people, all of who struggled with body image. My mission was to create a photo that they were finally happy with.

Each of my subjects had fascinating and, at times, heartbreaking stories - but there was one person in particular that really stood out to me. Alanah Bagwell. In all the thousands of portraits I’ve taken and people I’ve met over the years, Alanah’s shoot stayed with me. Maybe because the universe was bound to bring us back together.

Alanah suffered from a condition I didn’t fully understand at the time; Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Her BDD meant that she had a deeply distorted view of how she looked and was perceived by others, resulting in what I now know to be classic symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder; obsessive mirror checking, extreme social anxiety (due to her perceived appearance) and an overwhelming phobia of having her photo taken.Her condition affected her so much that it was touch and go as to whether she’d even turn up for the TV shoot.

She did turn up but during the photo shoot, after many photographs, she couldn’t find a single image that she wasn’t “disgusted” by.

This was a first for me.

And, I say this with a heavy and embarrassed heart, I genuinely couldn’t understand or fully process what she was struggling with. To me, she seemed like a beautiful, strong, young woman with the potential of an incredible future ahead of her. If I knew then what I know now, the experience would have been very different.

Seven years later Alanah walked back through the doors into Rankin Creative, fully recovered and thriving. Motivated by the personal experience of one of our employees, whose partner died by suicide after losing his battle with BDD, we invited Alanah to come back to the studio to do a talk and increase awareness, share her journey and talk about her volunteer work with the BDD Foundation (the only charity in the world dedicated to Body Dysmorphic Disorder and also the one that saved her life).

When she heard I was writing this piece, Alanah had this to say: "Looking back at these photos seven years on is a reminder of just how far I have come. I see things with a totally different perspective now and I can genuinely say I love the photos and how I look in them."

And here they are.

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But at that time, I was hit hard with facts that shook me to my core - even after working on everything from Cancer to Endomiteriosis campaigns.

  • One in 50 people has BDD - some without even knowing it due to the extreme lack of information among the public and medical professionals themselves.

  • One in three of those die from suicide.

  • It affects men, women and everyone in between and doesn’t discriminate on age.

  • 50% of sufferers are unemployed due to anxiety and the debilitating nature of BDD.

  • 60% of sufferers are unable to attend school for the same reasons.

  • 10 years is the average gap between symptom onset and diagnosis.

  • The most shocking statistic of all? BDD is up there with the deadliest mental health conditions that no one knows about.

  • Statistically, you already know six people who are suffering from BDD. They might be a family member, an employee, a colleague or a good friend.

But, here’s the good news; 76% can recover with proper treatment. I knew at once that this was something that we as an agency had to work on due to the size of the issue. There was an unbelievable level of suffering, and literally no one was talking about it. We had to do our bit in spreading the word, reducing the stigma, and ultimately help to save lives.

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Lead by creatives Opal Turner, Luke Lasenby and Eva Howells, we have been working alongside the BDD Foundation to ensure we’re able to represent Body Dysmorphic Disorder in the most authentic way, we are now wanting to find a brand that wants to work with us to support this important work.

So here is our pitch.

To take this to the next level, we are looking for a serious partner to help us tell the world about BDD.

To make the symptoms as common knowledge as the signs of an eating disorder.

To finally step up to the world’s deadliest mental health condition.

We want a brand that wants to challenge beauty norms. A brand that dares to speak the unspoken. A brand that wants to action real change. A brand that wants to use the power of its voice to educate, support and save the lives of so many.

Our industry has played a big part in changing the mental health discussion around the world, and we have a chance, and a responsibility, to do it again. This is where marketing goes beyond the purpose and becomes a force for genuine positive change.

So if you are, or know a brand who we should be collaborating with to tell this story, then please put us in touch.

Learn the symptoms yourself, arm yourself with the knowledge and, as always, check in on your loved ones - because knowledge is power and you have the chance to change, or save, someone's life.

Visit the BDD Foundation here.

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