When other people look at Louise Duane-White, they’re likely to comment on her radiantly glowing skin.
Blessed with a complexion that others might envy, she’s got the kind of face that will attract a compliment.
But that’s no comfort to Louise – because she simply can’t see what others see.
The young artist, from Southsea, has dysmorphia.
It’s still a relatively unheard of condition but the anxiety it causes sufferers is all too real.
Those who have it become excessively worried about a part of their body or face which they perceive to have a defect.
Invisible to anyone else, the ‘flaw’ can soon become an all-encompassing obsession.
For Louise – who can remember worrying about her appearance from the age of eight – it’s been the root cause of many years of unhappiness.
She can remember feeling progressively upset and obsessive about her appearance and concerns over blemishes and faults she thinks she can see on her skin still occupy her mind for hours.
Yet like others who have dysmorphia, she didn’t even know there was a name for what she had.
‘I didn’t know what it was until about a year ago,’ explains Louise.
‘I wrote an e-mail to a friend about how unhappy I was.
‘She said “Have a read of this book called The Broken Mirror”. It was all about body dysmorphia.
‘I didn’t realise how much of my life had been ruled by it, from being a kid crying in the changing rooms, to my mum being upset and thinking “Where she’s getting this from?”
‘I genuinely believed I was ugly. Everyone else was prettier than me.
‘It was really distressing.’
No matter how many times friends and loved ones have tried to reassure her, Louise can’t ignore what she sees as faults.
To outsiders, the condition is often mistaken as vanity.
But for sufferers it goes way beyond a desire to look perfect and can soon turn into an obsession that sees them retreat from the rest of the world and the company of others.
And for Louise, the condition soon began to have a knock-on effect on her behaviour.
‘It can affect everything from where I sit in a room to how I hold myself in a photograph and involves constant mirror checking,’ she says.
‘It’s not just about thinking “Does my hair look alright?”
‘I always go back to the same thing.
‘With dysmorphia you can’t stand the way you look.
‘I wish I could like the way I look but I can’t.’
She adds: ‘The only time I’m comfortable is when I’m on my own and no-one is looking at me.’
While talking to friends and finding out more about dysmorphia has helped, Louise still worries about her appearance constantly.
Getting ready for a night out can take anything up to five hours, as she returns to the mirror and becomes fixated on one aspect of how she looks.
Her supportive boyfriend has helped her come to terms with the problem.
And now she’s used all the anguish and upset she’s felt over the years to put together her first ever art exhibition – with dysmorphia taking a starring role.
Disturbing and uncomfortable to look at, the oil paintings that line the walls reveal how much she’s struggled.
The distorted and twisted figures are intensely personal and she admits it’s been a soul-baring experience.
It took Louise – who has been painting since she was a child and spent time at art college – six months to create the works of art hanging in the gallery today.
She was naturally nervous about how family, friends and strangers would respond to the exhibition. But so far she’s been delighted with the feedback she’s received.
Getting down her thoughts and feelings on canvas has also helped her shed some light on the condition itself.
A copy of the book which first helped her understand dysmorphia sits in the gallery for visitors to look at and Louise now hopes she can raise awareness about the condition.
‘I didn’t know what it was, I just thought it was depression,’ she says.
‘If the exhibition gets just one person to go away and say “I didn’t realise what it was” then that would be good.
‘If it helps someone in any way it would be great.
‘I look back at photos and I can’t believe I’ve wasted so many years.
‘Now, after this, I can start moving forward and not waste any more time.
‘Knowing what it is has made it so much easier to deal with.
‘Finding support and being positive is helping me to make changes in my life and that wasn’t happening before.’
· Louise’s exhibition is called Dysmorphia and will be at the First Floor Gallery above Southsea Library in Palmerston Road until Saturday. All pieces are priced and available to buy.
What causes dysmorphia?
The cause of dysmorphia, often referred to as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is unclear. But it may be genetic or caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
People who suffer from it are excessively worried about a part of their body which they perceive to have a defect. Despite reassurances, they continue to believe it.
Any area of the body may be involved but the face is the most common.
A person with BDD may wear excessive make-up or heavy clothing to hide their perceived defect; repeatedly look in the mirror and seek reassurance about their appearance; frequently touch or measure the perceived defect; repeatedly pick at their skin or pluck their hair and eyebrows; feel anxious when around other people; diet and exercise excessively.
People with BDD may not be able to hold down a job and sometimes avoid socialising. They can also find it difficult to have relationships.
The condition is more common in people with a history of depression and/or social phobia.