When Body Dysphoria is Not Negative Body Image

Laurie and Debbie say:

In a fascinating piece at Medium, Amy Dentata (now there’s a great name!) uses Matthew Ngui’s “Points of View” (above) to describe her personal understanding of the difference between body dysphoria and negative body image.

"Points of View" by Matthew Ngui

Beauty has nothing to do with it: When Ngui’s chair breaks apart into several pieces, it no longer makes sense as an object. Parts that appear connected are, in reality, separate pieces. Half of the chair’s seat is actually a painting on the floor. The brain creates a spatial model of the chair, and then that model is violently torn to shreds when exposed to physical reality.

The viewer is upset: this was supposed to be a chair, and this is not what a chair is supposed to be at all!

Here’s Dentata’s description of this not-quite-a-chair phenomenon in her life:

My face is my primary source of discomfort. I can’t avoid it; I interact with my face every day when getting ready in the morning. And every day, my face looks different depending on how I feel. On bad days, I am overwhelmed with memories of my appearance pre-transition. My face looks hypermasculine to me, even though I regularly get read as a cis woman. This is clearly a problem with self-image. It doesn’t correlate to reality. It’s an emotional distortion. On good days, my face looks dramatically different. I stop seeing “the old boy” in the mirror, replaced with a face that feels right. It actually looks a lot like my face before I went through puberty the wrong way.

However, my face only feels right when I look at it straight on, in even lighting. Viewed directly from the front, without any shadows to reveal depth, my face registers as my own. It feels right. If I slowly turn my head, the dimensions of my face gradually stretch and become less and less recognizable. My face morphs into someone else’s.

By extension, “this was supposed to be my face, and this is not what my face is supposed to be at all!”

Dentata is careful to say that this is her personal experience, not to be generalized to all trans people. Nonetheless, she also points out that her clarity resonates with many people. Certainly the experience of having to interact constantly with a cis world’s set of presumptions is common to many trans folk.

Insurance companies categorize trans medical care as “cosmetic” and use this as a justification to deny coverage of trans-specific procedures. Psychologists write off body dysphoria as a delusional manifestation of body dysmorphic disorder. Friends and family dismiss the extreme pain caused by dysphoria and tell us to “just accept who we are.”

This is where Ngui’s chair, and Dentata’s other artistic examples of spatial illusion, come in.

Dysphoria causes … dizzying confusion, because the brain expects the body to take up space differently. These hips should be wider. These shoulders should be narrower than the hips. When a situation calls attention to these inconsistencies, it’s like Ngui’s chair breaking apart.

Experiences of negative body image are different for everyone but they also (like Dentata’s resonant clarity about trans experiences) have deep commonalities. The common experience of a cis woman looking in a mirror and disliking her body is not “dizzying confusion,” not the sense of pieces that simply don’t fall into place or fit together. When Dentata talks about facial feminization surgery, she’s talking about a very deep change in visual identity:

Trans medical procedures such as FFS offer a permanent, tangible solution to dysphoria. Instead of the illusion of a chair, you get an actual chair! The chair may not be as pretty as you had hoped, but damn it, at least it’s actually a chair! You can finally give your sore legs a rest without falling on your ass! And it’s a chair no matter what angle you view it from. Instead of a painting that disappears when you step away from it, you get a painting that looks the same from every angle.

Living in our bodies is complicated enough for those of us who never doubted that we were “an actual chair.” By using Ngui’s image, and others, Dentata brings a nonverbal richness to complex emotional concepts, offering her readers a creative visual approach to understanding something which is not completely expressible in words.