Body Image Variations

Alice Purnell


Issue 12
November 2000

We have heard a lot about plastic surgery junkies, the cult of perpetual youth and anti-ageing procedures, about those distressed by large noses and wanting rhinoplasty, by faces which are "not beautiful enough" whose owners are deeply affected by their appearance, as well as those with birth disfigurements like cleft lip, protruding ears or those whose appearance is damaged by accident in trauma in fires, car, plane or train crashes, or as a result of war.

There is generally great public sympathy for the disfigured person, with perhaps also a horrified sense of fear or even revulsion perhaps, but no ridicule, save by the totally ignorant or insensitive. As a nurse in Casualty or theatre you see a lot of horrid things which the general public manage to avoid. You also see what can or cannot be done to help these people in trauma and burns units.

Last week a woman of ninety in my care (I work as a nursing sister as well as a counsellor) who has taken a shine to an elderly gentleman and wants to be able to smile at him, was told by the NHS hospital dental team that her gums had receded so much that they could not fit her with new false teeth (I wondered if ageism as well as practicality had crept into this decision, because at her age (90) they think she does not have a libido or a need to feel good about herself).

Obviously there are some things which we all think do need medical or surgical intervention to treat and improve, for good health reasons as well as any aesthetic reasons, although it is true to say we live in a world dominated by the media, where stereotypical models of the "ideal female" or "male idea of beauty" are rammed down our throats.

We have it drummed into us that fat is ugly as well as unhealthy, old is ugly, that sort of thing. We have a youth culture which I believe is driven and dominated by media people, designers, photographers and advertising agencies (often the creative side is made up of gay men) who must be ageists and misogynists and blind if they believe women are supposed to look like models, these anorexic teenage flat- chested boyish bimbos and men like effeminate Rambo clones.

This has exacerbated problems like anorexia and bulimia, and also makes those who are quite naturally ageing feel bad about themselves, those who are too short, tall, fat, or are not within this impossible stereotypical image concentrate to an unhealthy extent on what is "wrong with them". There is too much emphasis on the image or appearance and too little on the mess inside.

There is a tyranny of needing to conform. A text which most people suffer from at some stage in life is .. "I am not good enough because I do not look right". This develops, feeding personal self disgust and paranoia. In opposition to this genuinely damaging, unhealthy psychological situation there are others who feel tremendously strong urges not to conform, to as they put it, to be themselves.

They need to be very strong to stand against the mainstream. I am referring to female heavyweight body builders (who admittedly do often look more like men) and those men who have a wish to remain men, but wish to be eunuchs (often associated with sadomasochistic fantasy). This week the television looked at both these extremes in separate programmes.

At the Gendys Conference we met Christe Elan Cane, who is ungendered and challenges the two sex system by an ungendered appearance and lifestyle. We all know transsexuals, transgenderists and intersexed people who do wish to be themselves and to conform, that is to live and be the sex or gender they feel strongly that they are; yet many face challenges from "society", from louts, insensitive journalists, sexist members of the public, rabid so-called-feminists, even the existing legal system which discriminates against them or criticises them for not looking right. Even among the "trans- community" there are boring stereotypicists who seem to feel it is allright say "Your hands are too big", or "You are too short/tall to pass", "Your voice is too deep" and a plethora of personal remarks which are not helpful in reinforcing the well-being of the recipient of this unwanted "advice" which often comes from someone who patently does not pass "herself" (I am being unkind here myself to the dead cat wig on the head brigade of trannies who never were women or will be, whose life is about costume rather than genuinely being women).

It seems that to challenge gender / sexual stereotypes stimulates others who should know better to feel they can make personal remarks or ask amazingly personal questions of the "trans-person", the one who fails to conform to how they "should be or look or present".

This demonstrates a total lack of respect for that person, whose self esteem is probably almost nil. If someone asks advice as to why they get a lot of stick or "read" by many people, there is nothing wrong with asking that person what they think will help them to be less visible as "different", but it is insane to suggest that a person needs to be smaller, taller, have a different skeletal frame. They can do nothing about that.

What may help is to suggest that she or he looks at real people as they move around their world. They will see no Rambos, few bimbos or size 8 women (they will also see few done up to the nines in a cocktail dress in the Co-op). People come in all shapes and sizes and ages. Most of us simply do the shopping, rather than try to look like a dogs dinner. There are certain dress codes in this country as to what is or is not appropriate to wear in order to not stand out. If you wish to stand out it is actually getting harder, there are quite a lot of younger people who enjoy gender-bending or shocking (tattoos, piercings, purple hair, kinky clothes, shaved female heads, males in makeup - but they tend to belong to style types or uniform (for example new romantics, hippies, punks, football supporters, pop groupies, little old ladies, county types, joggers, students, sportsmen and women) - there is a sort of conformity among the unconform.

Manufacturers are at last realising that there is purchasing power among the over size 14's, and that short men and women with big feet want to spend their money on what fits or suits them. The crimpoline look is now passé for large women.

Small men do not have to shop in children's departments now, although kids dress more like adults these days so they might save some tax if they do! So far nobody is a clone. Variation exists in shapes and sizes. People vary. Sizes and shapes and sounds of women and men do overlap.

There are TV soaps with people who are not beautiful, young, stylish, almost real one might say (I admit that I tend to find them tedious and rather fascicle in content, there is plenty of real life around us).

People do age. It is pathetic to emulate King Canute and wrail against that tide as it comes in. It is important to age naturally, even dis-gracefully. To conform to ones self, not to an advertisers view of how we "should be". Anita Rodick announced that anti-ageing creams are a waste of money, moisturising is all that helps a healthy look. At least with a depleted Ozone layer people have generally stopped wrecking their skin by exposure to Solar radiation.

There are a host of people anxious to take your money so you can try to halt ageing, diet, to look good. The appropriate thing we need to do is to be the best version of oneself one can be, to feel comfortable with oneself.

There has been much debate about the causation, the aetiology of gender dysphoria, why a person should have surgery, take hormones to as some might say "go against nature" to adopt the lifestyle and body they feel comfortable with.

I suggest that humans are complex beings, so naturally there are combinations of reasons for this, but to conform with oneself is desperately important, rather than to wear the straight-jacket of conforming to others stereotypes. Individuals are or can be existential, we need not suffer the restraints and need the approval of others to accept ourselves. This does not give them the right to hurt us or give us the right to hurt others, but it does give us the right to be ourselves.

The idea of personal freedom and responsibility is moving as a significant feature of life in our society in this new Millennium. Recently there has been the debate, ethical and pragmatic, religious and practical about conjoined twins, lawyers and doctors versus the parents right to decide whether to operate and save one, or leave alone in which case both will probably die. Nobody is able to ask them (these children) what they would chose, the clock is against a wait and see policy.

Judgements are becoming more complex, even Solomon would probably be at a loss what to do. It is clear the parents love them both, and the babies are not able to speak for themselves. Horizon provided some insights into this dilemma looking at several pairs of conjoined twins.

What was particularly interesting was that those who had grown up joined though they had paid a price in having no personal space or privacy, and several had been victims of "medical research" in the USSR, all experienced unkind stares and remarks like "they should have died at birth.

Despite this, these adults stated that they did not want to be separated. They were individuals and were used to their shared space and joined body. Sasha and Datha were now fifty. Datha fell in love with a man in her twenties, but Sasha would have none of it. She was not attracted to him or to men for that matter. The relationship ended. These women share a pair of legs and genitals but have separate bodies to the waist.

On the other hand the craniophagus (joined at the head and sharing much of the frontal lobes of their brains) actually also seem to have very different personalities. In the case of the American twins, one is a Country singer, the other is not interested in that. They share affection for a disabled dog, but do contemplate separate loving relationships with different men. When one dies the other will also probably die because of shared bloodstream, as did the original "Siamese twins".

Who can estimate the traumatic psychological effect of separation to each? They all seem to have individual personalities and tastes, though perforce they have identical experiences and to some extent personal neurological reactions, and some shared emotions; hurt one and you hurt both. Theirs seems to be an impossible situation. Are they to be freaks to be probed by medical science or in a Freakshow, open to gratuitous stares of the so called "normals"? There seems to be a take it for granted view that normal is good, whilst abnormal is bad, weird, a curiosity, so we have to intervene. Their right to being respected is put on hold by so many of us, including well-wishers. A situation which has some reverberations in the world of TG for those who do not quite fit, who are not invisible.

What I wonder is the body map like for Siamese twins? Do they see themselves as having all the body parts we expect to have? How far does the body map of a post-op woman or man who started life as an ordinary child, or as an intersex drive his or her wish to bring his or her body to conform as much as possible with that in his or her brain? Amputees feel pain in the removed limb for some time after surgery, after a new-man's breasts are removed or a new - woman's vagina has been reconstructed, there is a period of getting used to the new plumbing or weight distribution, but these women have no phantom willie, or in the men's cases phantom boobs, according to many I have asked about this, so the body map probably was appropriate to the "brain sex" or gender identity. How much does a perception of how things should be affect one's body map? How much is this a factor in gender identity?

If craniophagus twins have different personalities and sometimes even sexual preferences is it not reasonable for other less acute variations from the "norm" like gender dysphoria to have several explanations and a range of other variables?

October 2000

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