Health

Changemakers: Body dysmorphia nearly killed me. Now I’m helping others

Eight years into his recovery from body dysmorphic disorder, Danny Bowman is committed to helping others

This Mental Health Awareness Week, 24-year-old Danny Bowman is leading the charge against stigma and silence. The up-and-coming activist was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder as a teenager, taking selfies 10 hours a day and feeling trapped by disordered eating habits. Eight years into recovery, he’s now a leading campaigner for better mental health care and an end to the narrative that eating disorders only affect women. Running campaigns for think tank Parliament Street while serving as vice chair for body image charity MaleVoicED, he has produced research for the government, given talks to thousands around the country, chaired events in parliament – and stuck it to Piers Morgan on live TV.

“I had a pretty normal childhood. I was happy and played rugby,” Bowman says, reflecting on his adolescence in Newcastle. But when he was 14, he developed an unhealthy fixation on his appearance. The combined pressures of moving to a different school, puberty, rejection from a modelling agency and growing white noise from the image-obsessed media led Bowman to develop body dysmorphic disorder, an anxiety disorder related to body image. “I associated popularity and success with the way I looked,” he says.

Bowman sought validation from friends through social media, but it didn’t help and he grew more critical of his appearance. He found himself positioned in front of a mirror for up to 10 hours a day, taking as many as 200 selfies in that time. He became so unwell that he had to drop out of school.

I didn’t feel like I could leave the house because I thought my appearance was so awful that I’d scare people.

Bowman was housebound for six months. “I didn’t feel like I could leave the house because I thought my appearance was so awful that I’d scare people. My day-to-day activities revolved around trying to perfect my appearance, reducing my food intake and purging.” When Bowman was at his lowest point, he took a deliberate overdose of medication before being discovered by his mum and rushed to hospital.

Bowman realised even then that accessing the services he needed wouldn’t be easy. He was put in contact with what he calls life-saving therapy, but he had to make weekly trips to the anxiety disorders and trauma centre at London’s Maudsley Hospital. Bowman was 16 when he started to “very slowly” recover, though he notes that this is not a linear process.

He linked up with youth charity Fixers. “I wanted to stop focusing on myself and start focusing on others,” he explains. He designed a campaign to improve services for young people with mental health and body image issues and recorded a short video which, to his surprise, went viral online and was picked up by national press. It was the first time he’d heard that sharing his story made others feel less alone.

Bowman caught the campaigning bug. He toured conferences round the UK talking candidly about his own experiences and what needed to be done, and got involved with Parliament Street as their head of communications. The activist has been doing research and producing reports on how mental health intersects with modern UK culture, and provided the government with evidence on how mental illness affects policing and education. Having been treated for technology addiction after Instagram became a vehicle for his body dysmorphia, he is outspoken about the responsibility social media sites have to protect young people from damaging content.

While he was building a career in activism, he went back to school. Desperate to get his education back, he enrolled in adult education classes and completed his GCSEs and A-Level equivalents – and was so successful that he
was admitted to the University of York to study social policy.

It’s difficult as a boy to open up about body image,

While studying he helped to launch MaleVoicED, a charity dedicated to ensuring men are included in the conversation around eating disorders, for which he is vice chair. As many as 1.25 million people in the UK have eating disorders with men counting for an estimated 25 per cent of those – “but people, and even services, tend to think of it as an issue exclusive to women and girls,” Bowman says.

“It’s difficult as a boy to open up about body image, it’s hugely stigmatised. But the more men there are who speak out about it the more men and boys can be honest and access services that can help them, which is absolutely crucial.”

Read more from our Changemakers here

Last week, Bowman appeared on Good Morning Britain to discuss the effect social media has on depression and loneliness among young people. He fended off Piers Morgan’s accusations that he and others like him simply need to “toughen up” with a smile, explaining that the digital giants were responsible for making sure vulnerable people could use their platforms safely. Later that day, he tells The Big Issue: “I’m really lucky to be able to have my voice heard in whatever way. Those of us who can use our platforms to help others – we’re very privileged.”

malevoiced.com

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health problems or body image issues, you can contact Samaritans – via jo@samaritans.org or 116 123 – or Beat on 0808 801 0677.

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