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Living with body dysmorphia: 'I convinced myself I needed a hair transplant'

Living with is a new and exclusive two-part Yahoo UK series, where we delve into long-term health conditions by speaking to experts and real life case studies

Danny Gray had symptoms of body dysmorphia for 18 years before seeking a diagnosis. (Supplied/Yahoo Life UK)
Danny Gray had symptoms of body dysmorphia for 18 years before seeking a diagnosis. (Supplied/Yahoo Life UK)

Danny Gray, 38, first started obsessing about the way he looked after bullies made fun of his appearance at school. Developing body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), he suffered in silence for many years until hitting breaking point. Here he explains how this led him to learn about mental health and do something he loves.

"When I was 12-years-old, I was Jack the Lad and captain of all the sports teams at school," says Danny, from Beaconsfield.

He is the founder of men's make-up brand War Paint and JAAQ (Just Ask a Question), an interactive platform that provides answers to more than 10,000 mental health related questions from world-renowned doctors and celebrities, including David Harewood, Alastair Campbell, Marcus Smith, and many more.

"But back then," he adds, "my ears were at right angles to my head. They were really bad."

Triggering BDD

"Three lads started taking the mick out of my ears, flapping theirs," he recalls.

"I didn’t have a care in the world about my appearance before.

"They were only doing it for about a week and then I went home and looked in the mirror. And sure enough, they did stick out, and then that was it for me.

"I started growing my hair in front of my ears. I became obsessed, so much so my mum had my ears pinned back on the NHS within three months because it was affecting me that much."

But, he adds, "I had that operation thinking it would fix the issue, but it didn't. What happens with mental health is you'll have something happen to you, and it will build over time."

While the average time for someone with BDD to reach out for help is 10 years, it took Danny 18.

Danny as a child. (Supplied)
Danny as a child. (Supplied)

Evolving BDD symptoms

"I got to 15/16 and I was obsessive about the way I looked," he says, which was when he also started getting spots.

"I wouldn't leave the house and was so conscious that my sister gave me a little bit of concealer. I couldn't believe what a product did. I've now been wearing makeup for the past 20 years [this moment later led to the reason behind his first business venture]."

At around 18/19, it would take Danny hours to get ready.

"I'd have multiple showers, often do my hair for one or two hours. I'd have to feel perfect to go out, and a lot of the time I'd never get to perfect," he explains.

Not thinking it had done that much the first time, Danny also had his ears pinned back again.

Then at 24/25, he started experiencing the demands of a career and the stresses of life. "This manifests in your body dysmorphia," he says.

When he got to 28, he became obsessed with his clothes and hair. "I thought I was losing my hair, which I wasn't. That ruled my life for two years, every minute of every day.

"That's all I thought about, hair loss. So much so I had a hair transplant at 30 that I didn't need."

I'd have to feel perfect to go out, and a lot of the time I'd never get to perfect

Breaking point leading to a turning point

Eventually, Danny hit crisis.

"I got to 30 and basically had a breakdown. I was going out a lot, drink, drugs... which is classic masking," he says.

"And then one day I woke my mother-in-law up and said I just can't deal with what's going on in my head.

"It was just all consuming, especially with what I thought was the hair loss. It completely debilitated me. And then eventually, I started talking about it."

However, Danny points out, "The problem is for me, while everyone knows they need to talk, it can be really difficult to do, especially when you're early on in your journey."

The positive was that, thankfully, his breakdown pushed him to start trying to understand what was happening and educating himself about it.

Danny Gray with body dysmorphia. (Supplied)
Danny Gray now has a career he loves, inspired by what he's learnt about mental health. (Supplied)

Journey to BDD diagnosis

It was actually Danny's fiancée (he's been with for 14 years) who first suggested he might have BDD.

"Within three months of being with each other when I was around 24, she told me I probably had body dysmorphia. I didn't know what it was at first. I went online, looked at it and I ticked every box, I did the online tests. I was off the scale," he says.

This helped him to understand some of his behaviours, though he felt there needed to be more resources around BDD.

"I didn't go to a doctor. Being a classic guy, I carried on until my crisis," he explains.

"It was then that I went to the doctor straight away and he said, yeah you've got BDD."

While he was officially diagnosed at 30, Danny says knew he had it before then.

"Everyone can have some BDD-type symptoms at some point, but it might not affect your life. You might just be conscious about what you wear. But when it becomes an illness is when it can stop you doing daily things," he explains.

"There are a lot of men out there suffering from this in silence like I was. It's thought that it doesn't affect guys, but it absolutely does.

"Some men also don't understand what mental health is. People think about their physical health every day, the gym, what to eat, steps to put in. But mental health is also something you should manage every day, and you can become Superman.

Mental health is also something you should manage every day, and you can become superman

Coping with BDD

While Danny acknowledges he is still very high on the spectrum for BDD, he adds, "My life is great, but I have to manage it every day."

Practicing small daily things, he explains, "I take cold showers, sleep the same amount of time every night. Routines help me, I'll do certain things with my clothes, I'm very organised.

"For me, I help my mental health by giving myself that dopamine hit every day. It could be whatever works for you, cold showers, sleep, meditation, yoga. If you implement it early on, I think it can also help with prevention."

When he is stressed with work or the business of life, is when Danny says his 'BDD comes out'.

"It's also about understanding that it's just something my body and mind do when I get overwhelmed", he says.

"But I've learnt how to manage it. If I find myself getting changed twice, I'll let myself stop for 15 minutes. I literally sit in my pants in my kitchen and have a break for 20 minutes before I go back to get ready. I'd never have done that before, I'd have just got changed 20 times. Now, I reset myself and then I'm generally alright to go."

And while Danny used to think things like manifestation, for example, were rubbish, having learnt what they actually are, he is more open to them now, and experiences their benefits.

Danny has only had three therapy sessions, and chooses to utilise these other more actionable coping mechanisms instead. It's important to note though, bearing in mind some of the stats associated with BDD (one in four with the condition attempt suicide), the BDD Foundation strongly encourages people to seek evidence-based treatment. With it considered a 'chronic' condition, it is less likely to get better unless treatment is sought.

Danny Gray. (Supplied)
After War Paint was launched in 2018, JAAQ was launched in in 2022. (Supplied)

Strangely, a mental health illness has helped me become more mentally strong because I've gone through it and understood it

'A mental health illness has helped me become more mentally strong'

"I'll be honest, I don't think I'll ever cure my BDD. But I'm the best I've ever been, since I was 12. I still live with it today, but I know how to manage it," says Danny.

While it can be subjective, experts do believe some people with BDD can be cured, or fully 'recovered' (though recovery looks different for everyone), while some may need longer treatment.

"If I didn't have BDD," Danny adds, "I wouldn't have had the hardship of trying to learn what mental health is. Strangely, a mental health illness has helped me become more mentally strong because I've gone through it and understood it.

"I also wouldn't have launched War Paint [and subsequently JAAQ]. I enjoy going to work every day, I must be in the minority of people. Sunday night I can't wait for it to be Monday morning. I feel privileged.

"I'm not perfect, but I'm very strong, and happy."

Not only does Danny say his BDD makes him more empathetic to others, but more empathetic to himself, as he no longer beats himself up for things.

"I still have bad days, but when I do, now I know everything will be alright," he explains. "I was bad the other week but I knew I'd get back to where I am today. Everything for me is hope. When I was 29 I didn't think there was any way out – but now I know there is."

To find out more about BDD, see our expert-led explainer here:

Read more: What is body dysmorphia? Symptoms, causes, treatments and misconceptions (Yahoo Life UK, 8-min read)

Watch: Craig David believes he suffered from body dysmorphia during his time in Miami