Dysphoria as a Symptom of Modernity

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Dysphoria is everywhere we look in American society. Take for example the toxic beauty culture of the media promoting images of beautiful models representing unattainable beauty ideals. There are many young women wishing they were skinnier, with bigger breasts, and the right size ass. I would imagine many if not most girls and women in America wish they could change something about their bodies or appearance. Men and boys as well. We live in a fix-it society exemplified in reality tv shows depicting “ugly” people getting a smorgasbord of cosmetic surgeries and then showing the dramatic “before and after” reveal. The plastic surgery industry is a multi-billion growth bonanza – with surgeons making big bucks by not having to deal with insurance – straight up cash please.  But dysphoria is at the core of this phenomenon, a cultural dysphoria we have all internalized due to our exposure to unattainable beauty ideals and constant exposure to the digital altered world where a thick instagram filter hides our imperfections.

There are many flavors and varieties of dysphoria – and it is not just a transgender thing either. It literally just means discomfort about some aspect of your physical body. But dysphoria is probably more associated these days with gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is a special kind of dysphoria that is felt when one is uncomfortable in your body because it either makes you feel like the wrong gender or makes you socially perceived as the wrong gender. Gender dysphoria has been a known phenomenon for decades. Many kinds of treatment are available to gender dysphoric people. Therapy. Hormones. Surgeries. These have all been shown effective life-affirming and life-saving treatments. I wouldn’t necessarily argue these treatments should be seen as “medical” in any way, like fixing a broken truck. They affirm gender. They relieve that pain of looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself as the right gender. People who have never experienced it generally have little ability to know what it’s like. But I don’t want to buy into any system of thought that sees all trans people as these broken creatures in need of fixing with the doctor’s help. Some trans people might think they are broken but I don’t want to generalize to ALL trans people.

Why is dysphoria a symptom of modern society? It’s because dysphoria is a symptom of the hyper-sexualizing/beauty obsessed modern media machine that is Hollywood and American media at large, either in video games or magazines, to the models we see on the walls of every department store. It’s everywhere. When you see perfection everyday it’s hard to not feel like well if I had the money to spare maybe I really would like to have perfect teeth, or bigger breasts, or less wrinkles in my face, or a flat stomach. I would look younger, better, newer, improved.

Non-trans dysphoria feels like a tempting analogy with trans women who get “facial feminization surgery” which is essentially just cosmetic surgery with the intent of reducing masculine features and emphasizing feminine features.  The analogy is that the dysphoria of a cis woman wanting plastic surgery to look presumably more feminine and beautiful is like that of a trans woman wanting plastic surgery to look more feminine. Metaphyscially they seem to be very similar.

But we must be careful with this analogy. Very careful. Because we can make a distinction between healthy and non-healthy kinds of dysphoria, strange as that sounds. What kind of dysphoria would be healthy? First and foremost the kind that can be treated. If the underlying cause is gender based then there are proven treatments that often lead to easing the burden of gender dysphoria, though it might be present at low background levels or intermittent bursts. Second, in cultures that have a recognized social role for gender expansive people the kind of dysphoria present in those populations is not necessarily unhealthy so long as society at large approves transition and has the mechanisms in place to ensure a healthy transition.

On the other hand, the kind of dysphoria that stems from trying to live up to the beauty ideals in media and culture is a lot harder to treat because it’s based on a flawed ideology, an ideology of the body. Of what the body is supposed to be. This is also the root of cis-normativity as well. This kind of dysphoria is hard to treat with technology because the problem actually lies in the culture at large not necessarily in the individual. The media machine that spreads unattainable beauty ideals into every aspect of society is unstoppable and getting worse as our appetite as consumers grows larger. I don’t see it going away anytime soon. This affects everyone but especially young women.

But men have their own unique kind of dysphoria surrounding things like balding and muscles. They see physically perfect super men in Marvel movies and feel inspired to get a super hero body but few ever get to that level, just like most women don’t look like Kim K.

But I think it is these media-driven kinds of dysphoria that are unhealthy and thus different from the healthiness of gender dysphoria, which is rooted in concept- gender – that is absolutely fundamental to our essence as people whereas the beauty ideals of society are not core essential features – we can do without them thank you very much.

Last, and this is important, I don’t want this post to indicate that I mean to judge any particular person for getting cosmetic surgery. I support the autonomy of rational people to make decisions about their bodies as they see fit. And who am I to judge. But surely there are some cosmetic surgeries that cannot be described as healthy. People get talked into more work being done by overly enthusiastic surgeons during consultation.

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3 Comments

Filed under Beauty culture, feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Dysphoria as a Symptom of Modernity

  1. People have been adorning themselves since the beginning of time. Groups of remote people beautify themselves far and away from Madison Avenue, the beauty business, and advertisements.

    We are not living at the end of history. Writings from the Romans at the time of the Caesars and ancient Asia describe people who by any definition would be transgender. Even the Old Testament tells men not to wear women’s garment’s and vice versa. Ponce de Leon schlepped through goodness knows what looking for a fountain of youth.

    Hormones give a profound sense of psychological well-being. Nor being mis-gendered gives a sense of relief. Living in-role and being accepted is a highly desires outcome for those who are forced into the wrong gender. These goes beyond wrinkles, balding, and general aging.

    The surgeons would not be making *nearly* as much money if puberty blockers and the correct hormones were introduced at the right time. But that’s too often scoffed.

    The old saying, “pay me now or pay me later” was never truer.

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  2. Sylvia

    Can we make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy dysphoria? Isn’t all dysphoria based on a flawed ideology of the body and therefore “unhealthy”? If we accept that biological gender does not determine gender identity than why would a biological male who identifies herself as a women go through transition? The only reason I can think of is to resemble the image of a women which is based on a flawed ideology and a product of culture.

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    • Hello Sylvia,

      I agree with your point that it is hard to have a healthy dysphoria and more than having “healthy” clinical depression. Dysphoria is sadness. Discomfort.

      Your assumption in the second part of your post is a bit different than I’ve experienced it. The way it is framed, you make it sound like being transgender is a thought-through decision like wanting to be an astronaut or a politician. Being trans is like being born with six fingers on each hand. It’s not something that I decided intellectually. Trans just is. it’s why it is resistant to all “cures.”

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