Tomorrow, London-based artist Leigh de Vries brings to the United States for the first time the work that has come to define her artistic career, with a screening of her film Exposure: Broken Reality Tunnel. The film is a revelation of her deepest, darkest secret.

Until she made the film, De Vries suffered in silence from body dysmorphia, a psychiatric illness similar to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), in which people misperceive defects in their appearance, disrupting their ability to function. A person with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) might compulsively check a mirror (or avoid mirrors altogether), become fixated with a blemish or a feature of their body, seek constant reassurance about their appearance or repeated cosmetic surgeries. Overall, they experience disturbing preoccupations or emotional distress like anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

The layman’s term for body dysmorphia disorder is “imagined ugliness,” but for those afflicted, it’s far from imaginary. In the throes of a budding music career, De Vries found herself immobilized with anxiety in anticipation of music video and photo shoots, to the point where she couldn’t leave her house for weeks on end.

“At [that] point I realized that the only way that I was going to be able to overcome it was by using my art form to create this very distorted version of myself in physicality and wear it out in public — and from that learning be able to understand in my head what was real and what wasn’t real.“

In collaboration with U.K. special effects makeup artist Shaune Harrison, De Vries designed and wore a lifelike tumorous facial prosthetic, making her distorted self-image a tangible reality. Then, the artist and friends used surreptitious cameras to document De Vries going about the habits of a normal day, taking public transportation and walking in public in Manchester, England, filming the artist’s isolation and the public’s reaction to her.

Credit: Courtesy Leigh de Vries

Credit: Courtesy Leigh de Vries

In the film, the echoing digitized voice of the artist recites a cyclical inner monologue: “Don’t look at me. I am grotesque. I’m sad. I want to hide. I can’t let anyone see me looking like this. I am a monster.” Over and over, the voice becomes an oppressive mantra, as slow-motion and stuttering images of De Vries in black-and-white create an experience that's at once detached and deeply personal — the viewer is suddenly in between her ears, behind her downcast eyes.

“Before [creating the film] my BDD was an 8 out of 10. After I did the piece, it became a 2 out of 10,” she explains. Wearing her self-perception had a profound effect on De Vries, providing what she describes as “massive catharsis.”

“There was a clocking in my mind when [we] took the prosthetic off — there was nothing wrong with me. I was fine. It was actually the first time in my life where I felt, wow, I’m actually beautiful.”

Credit: Courtesy Leigh de Vries

Credit: Courtesy Leigh de Vries

The experience of making the work was therapeutic in and of itself, inspiring De Vries to dub the process “radical exposure.” Psychologists have a name for it too: “flooding,” a form of desensitization used to treat phobias, where a person is intentionally exposed to distressing stimuli for a prolonged period of time. Eventually the subject exhausts her anxious response and calms down, rewiring the experience in the brain. This is an example of “classical conditioning,” a theory that originates with Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s iconic dog experiment, with which he proved behavior is a learned response. Though flooding has proven effective, many psychologists don’t use the technique for fear of exacerbating trauma.

It’s the equivalent of learning how to swim by throwing someone in the deep end of a pool; the jury’s out on that one.

What originated as the artist’s personal examination has become the linchpin of De Vries' work: engaging broader discourse around BDD, through multimedia exhibitions, educational workshops and youth outreach. Now, her crusade has brought her to Los Angeles, where she and body dysmorphia expert Dr. Jamie D. Feusner at UCLA are brainstorming virtual-reality therapy for the disorder. So far, virtual reality has proven promising for psychological treatment, especially for post-traumatic stress disorder, and Feusner is exploring VR for treatment of eating disorders.

According to De Vries, Feusner was impressed with how well Exposure: Broken Reality Tunnel explains BDD to people who don’t know about it. As with mental illness in general, BDD’s invisibility can make it difficult for others to detect or understand. “If you have a child who has BDD or a family member or a friend, you can’t understand that they’re suffering the way that they are or why they have the anxiety or why they are isolating themselves,” De Vries explains. “It doesn’t make sense — you see them and they look normal. What are they talking about?”

Although the disorder has been on the radar for more than a century, BDD remains under-recognized and under-diagnosed, according to the National Institutes of Health, whose website states people with BDD “are typically reluctant to reveal their symptoms due to embarrassment and shame, and they typically do not recognize that their beliefs about their appearance are inaccurate and due to a psychiatric disorder.”

Someone with BDD is more likely to go to a cosmetic professional such as a dermatologist or plastic surgeon than to a psychologist, which is why widespread education is important — for medical professionals and everyday people alike. Body image isn't a gendered problem, either. BDD affects as many men as women, up to 7.5 million people in the United States alone. 

Credit: Courtesy Leigh de Vries

Credit: Courtesy Leigh de Vries

De Vries emphasizes the urgency of BDD awareness given the rampant image obsession that plays out daily on social media feeds. “We don’t understand how much technology is actually affecting our lives at the moment,” she says, lamenting the fact that young people take the filtered, highlight reel of their peers’ social media projections at face value. She likens the habit to smoking in the 1950s: “Everybody did it everywhere, but nobody knew how bad it was for you.”

Though De Vries is seeking change on a societal level, on a personal level she found a deep power in her own vulnerability. She also found her calling. “I now have a purpose and an outlet,” she says, amazed at her own transformation. “The first time I ever spoke about how bad I felt about myself was when I made the film. Had I kept my secret to myself, I’d probably still be just hiding away in my house.”

Leigh de Vries will present her film Exposure: Broken Reality Tunnel at UCLA’s De Neve Auditorium, alongside BDD research program director Dr. Feusner, on Thursday, March 2, 6-9 p.m.

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