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Dr. Theo Bouman: ‘The longer you spend in front of a mirror, the more critical you are of yourself’

23 September 2008

The media is flooding consumers with programmes about their appearance. The sky’s the limit – from group dieting to a slimming race for ‘ugly ducklings’ to a complete metamorphosis with the help of a plastic surgeon. And all of it in front of the cameras, of course. Two weeks ago a new programme joined the ranks – De naakte waarheid [The naked truth]. And even though he is not usually a fan of this type of television, this time Theo Bouman, clinical psychologist at the University of Groningen, can see the plus points. ‘They at least show you that there are more ways to feel better than submit to the knife’.

Each episode concentrates on one person. Someone whose life revolves around his or her negative self image is given all kinds of advice about how to change matters. New (well-fitting) lingerie, sport, a new hairdo or different clothes, they are all options that can help you feel better without resorting to the knife.

Bouman: ‘The main problem I have with this type of programme is that they give a very black and white picture. Either you submit to the knife and everything will be fine or you’re doomed.’ And this despite the fact that the problem with people with a skewed self image is not their body but the picture they have of themselves in their head. The question then is whether fiddling with the body will help. It’s much better to build up a positive relationship with your body. ‘Care for and pamper your body as if it were your favourite cuddly guinea pig. Spoil yourself instead of regarding your body as something negative.’

An important part of ‘De naakte waarheid' is taking a good look at your body. And then not in one but in three full-length mirrors. This is the part that Bouman does have doubts about. ‘It might sound a bit disrespectful, but this is a typical example of an idea by an intuitive amateur psychologist. At first sight it looks sensible, but there have been several studies which have revealed that this is not really the best way to generate a positive feeling about yourself.’
‘The longer you stand in front of a mirror – or in more general terms, the more you think about your body – the more critical you become’, explains Bouman. ‘Stare at your hand for ten concentrated minutes. After a while you become distanced from it. It’s a very strange experience. You suddenly start asking yourself why five of those odd things are attached to it. That’s what happens with people with a distorted self image. It’s the paradox of paying something attention. The longer you spend in front of a mirror, the more critical you are of yourself. They become obsessed with one aspect, with the source of their unhappiness.

Although confronting people with a mirror is not perhaps the wisest thing to do, it does produce good emotive tv, realises Bouman.  ‘If there are no tears in such a programme it’s immediately a lot less interesting for the viewer.’ That said, he is actually convinced that programmes like ‘De naakte waarheid’ and ‘LookingGood’ show people that there is a whole range of possibilities to help you feel better. ‘Fitness regimes, a new suit, a different lover… nearly everyone can find something that will fit his or her situation.’

Curriculum Vitae

Theo Bouman (1956, Groningen) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen. In 1993 he became Associate Professor in Clinical and Developmental Psychology. Bouman has been studying and treating people suffering from the relatively unknown Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) for the last 10 years.


Dr. T. Bouman, tel. (050) 363 7601

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.11 p.m.
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