An Intersectional Analysis of Body & Face Dysmorphia

For those who struggle with their body and face like me, a way to struggle against and/or accept the unfortunate reality...

An Intersectional Analysis of Body & Face Dysmorphia
Photo by Vince Fleming / Unsplash
I know this isn't a "programming post", but I wanted to get this off my chest.

"I feel uncomfortable looking at my face." Why do I (and probably others) feel this way? Why do people put on makeup in order to feel comfortable with themselves? Why does it drive some to isolation and even suicide?

We must first discuss what it means to feel "comfortable" about ourselves. What is a "self"? We intuitively understand its existence, but we can't really "see" it. After all, anything we perceive is ultimately our conscious "selves" looking out into the world from the inside through our eyes. Thus, the "selves" we perceive is really the image of ourselves (whether it is through mirrors or cameras) that has been captured with our eyes and interpreted by our brains - after all, you cannot see the mask that you see out of.

Thus, as you cannot "see" yourself, you are really only uncomfortable with yourself based on two things:

  1. You looking at your reflection
  2. Others making a comment on your face (which you cannot verify)

That explains why we feel uncomfortable with our mirror image/what other people physically perceive of us, but that doesn't explain why some people DO feel comfortable with their faces, even though their face (the image) really isn't "them" (the self) - it's just the mask we face the world with, something of a biological feature.

Clearly, there must be some kind of an "ideal" face each person has that feels like should represent their inner self, and in order to reach that ideal state, we put makeup on, even get plastic surgeries in order to distort the face we're born with.

Is it that we want our external face to match our inner self, or that we want our external face to look as "good" (whatever that means) as possible in order to score better chances of reproduction?

For example, I think of my inner self as being ugly and disturbing; however, I am still tormented by the way my face looks - the weird facial features, the nose, the jaws, etc. Why would I be bothered by such features? Is it because it's not what I think I should look like in order to match my inner self (and that, subconsciously, everyone sees themselves as the best version of themselves)? Or is it simply because our primate brain instinctively feels that "face attractive = good"?

While the former seems shaky in its foundation, the latter has a direct counterexample: there is no such thing as the "most" attractive face. Beauty is in the eye (brain) of the beholder, and, in this example, I don't desire to look like some pretty white girl (ew), even if it might be more subjectively pretty to more people than not. Why?

It's most likely not because I see white girls' faces as being less attractive than those of asians', but because I think I should look "attractive" in my own way (subjective - thus, not following "objective" or orthodox standards of beauty). That means that 1. I have my own “standard” that somehow represents the inner self, and 2. that I still want to look attractive, even if it’s in my own way.

Addressing #2 is pretty easy - who the fuck wants to look ugly? Even though we understand that just as our face isn't what we actually perceive ourselves as (remember, that's our brain), and that the others aren't what they look like (as in, they have their own "self" that isn't necessarily represented by their face), we still instinctively think "face = the person" when we "see" a person (or more correctly, their face). Therefore, it is obvious to apply the same standards to ourselves - "more attractive" = "better", and if your face is less attractive, then the negative feelings arise due to the difference between expectation and reality.

Side note: the reason we probably think "face = the person" is because most of our information is visual, and really the most obvious and direct way we can "perceive" someone is with their face - not just their facial features, but also the expressions of said face in combination with the features (e.g. "resting bitch face syndrome"). This most likely means it simply stems from our biological limitations of how vision is the only way to quickly sense other "selves".

So we expect to look pretty, due to the biological limitations of understanding other "selves" quickly. Of course we want to look the "best" we can. But what is that standard of beauty based on? Clearly, it's some sort of subjective scale, but why do we feel that following that subjective scale better represents us (the inner self)?

Let's break it down by individual facial features. For me, the big things about my face that agonize me are - the eyes (they look "featureless" and "dead", instead of looking "vibrant"), the nose (they're too "big" and "oily", not "cute" and "demure"), and the jaws (they are too "square" and too masculine).

Facial features are mere consequences of our biology, and yet when we break down what we don't "like" about our features, it's attributes that we assign to specific features or the overall composition of the face that causes us emotional pain. In other words, our "standards" of how we should look is really the act of trying to assign our inner values onto the features of faces and expressions.

If we look at where the values of attributes stem from, one part is from our biological limitations: for example, there's really no faster way to express "I am happy" other than smiling wide, so we desire lips that draw attention; just as we are drawn to bigger eyes simply because our babies' eyes are bigger in proportion to their body size, so we think "bigger eyes = youth".

The other part comes from the culture: being fat in ancient cultures used to be something to be looked up to - due to the mutually agreed meaning of "fat = you're set for energy so when we have a drought so you won't starve to death", whereas in the current western society, it means the opposite due to effects of contemporary society on our biological bodies (i.e. in an environment where it is too easy to come across calories, being able to maintain a healthy balance of nutrients is more desirable).

So, in the end, the standards are formed from part culture and part "features" stemming from biological limitations, but ultimately they're values of our inner self that we assign onto our masks, and it's this mismatch between the values we think our faces should reflect and the values our faces actually reflect (by our measures).

Side note: this may explain why demisexuality/demiromanticism even exists in the first place - we (the demis) find the act of trying to figure out who the other person is from their mask unreliable, and so ultimately have to rely on the longer, more arduous process of forming emotional connections in order to fall in love.

This explains why we want our face to look a certain way, and we feel pain if we don't. So how can this be alleviated?

Whenever there's pain stemming from the contrast of expectation vs. reality, there's two ways of going about it:

  1. Lowering the expectation to fit reality
  2. Raising the reality to fit expectation

With regards to the masks we wear and show to the outside world, ameliorating #2 is rather straightforward: correcting the facial features to fit your expected expression of values onto your face (not to mention that it's out of scope for this essay - consult your local beautician/internet tutorial for beauty tips).

Furthermore, if we loosen the definition of "reality", even things like avatars and virtual, animated 3D models may suffice in spaces where we can use these as representation for our inner selves instead of our biological body.

What's less obvious is how we make the expectation of our inner selves to fit the biological reality - so how should we align it? Remember that our subjective "standards" are formed as a combination of biology and culture (i.e. the consensus of a population).

Unfortunately, I don't believe there's really a good way of fixing standards stemming from biological limitations. For example, I am extremely bothered by my secondary sex characteristics, because of the limitations stemming from humans' sexual dimorphism.

I guess it is possible that humans' biological nature changes over (very long periods of) time so that even though one's body and face doesn't change, the values assigned to the same bodily features change (e.g. as humans evolved, they grew bigger and taller, so presumably the definition of being "tall" changed over time, so if you were feeling dysphoric about being "tall" as a biological male, you would feel less so over time).

However, humans evolve over many generations, not within the span of a lifetime. Therefore, waiting for humans' biological nature to change is not really feasible within one's lifetime, short of physically relocating to different places where, over time, populations have diverged enough to the point where even though you are still the same biologically, the people around you change, and with them, the typical makeup of biology.

This would be akin to moving from Japan to the US where people are - in general - much taller, so if you feel insecure about your height, you wouldn't be as insecure about it anymore as the attributes assigned to the same biological feature change (e.g. 165cm) would change simply due to the physiological makeup of the populations (e.g. 165cm is "tall" in Japan, average in the U.S.)

The other half making up our "standards" is the culture, so how could we use culture to bring expectations more in line with reality?

One thing to note is that "culture" isn't just other people - it also includes you. Therefore, for purposes of trying to match the cultural expectations up with reality, we will investigate intrinsic and extrinsic sources of values that we place on facial features.

The intrinsic cultural value of any physical trait - in other words, the attributes that we ourselves place on those traits - are based on "general perception" + "internalized perception", where the "general perception" is more based on data and average samples of humans (e.g. a woman typically has a set of distinct secondary sex characteristics), and the "internalized perception" is the filter we add on top of the "objective" picture that helps us face the world (e.g. a woman looks "feminine", whatever the hell that means).

"Correcting" one's general perception would be to make our biological realities more "acceptable". In practice, that means increasing the range of what is "typical" for any given biological feature. For example, while I may feel dysphoric about my wide shoulders (a biological feature) because it is too much like a male's (value), I may realize that not all women have narrow shoulders, and that there exists a range - a natural variance, making the placing of the value onto the biological feature more acceptable.

But of course, we are irrational creatures that may distort the statistical average. Internalized perception distorts what may be a statistical fact (e.g. a woman typically has breasts and ovaries) into an ugly "truth" (e.g. women are "feminine", I'm not "feminine" enough, therefore I can't assign the value of being female to myself). In cases like this, correction of the perceived average is needed to align internalized perception with reality - in the above example, the solution might involve looking at a more diverse sample of women, rather than whatever skewed sample I might have in my head (e.g. models), so that the perceived average aligns more closely with the statistical average.

That covers the way to align the intrinsic cultural value of physical traits with biological reality. What about extrinsic cultural value? Again, the same analysis of general vs. internalized perception applies, albeit pointed towards "the others" rather than "the self".

General perception for "the others" involve what a society considers to be an acceptable range of biological features for any given value. To align societal value with biological realities, the best way would be to make society accept the diversity of range, and to make it accept that it is "okay" to be in the fringe (this, again, is out of scope for this essay).

But of course, we distort what others think of us as well, so that what we think the cultural value for any given feature isn't necessarily whatever values the society does place onto your features. Like before, correcting this bias requires looking at more samples (in this case, honest opinions of others).

Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to solving body and face dysmorphia/dysphoria. The core underlying problem of feeling discomfort of one's body and/or face is a difficult, and possibly "unsolvable" dilemma that our body and mind is tightly coupled by biology, even if it feels like our mind is simply occupying the said body.

However, there is still things can be done to ameliorate this, as outlined above. True, the reassignment of biological and cultural values are each very difficult in isolation. However, accompanying a two-pronged approach would likely make the other more tolerable, so that the other doesn't have to be "fixed" as much.

And finally, there is no shame for starting (and settling) with the easier fixes, such as doing makeup and framing your body using clothes in place of physical reconstruction of the body, or fixing our own biases of internal & external cultural values by exposing ourselves to a wider sample (whether it be physical examples of other people, or opinions of others) in place of fixing extrinsic cultural general perception of values. Neither makes you "fake" nor are they "fake solutions" - considering that the core problem is an unsolvable dilemma. You are "you", no matter what you "look" like - it's just easier to face the world when the disparity isn't as large.