Home > Autism, Psychology, Philosophy, and Other Deep Thoughts > This is What “Pathologizing” Looks Like

This is What “Pathologizing” Looks Like

(The following essay is satire. It is intended to have a humorous effect. However, like other satire, it is also intended to make you think seriously about the issue at hand.)

(It is also not intended to shame anyone, neurotypical or neurodivergent, or mock their emotional needs and preferences. The topic was chosen because many people, particularly neurotypical people, engage in this behavior without needing to, and often without even being aware that they are doing so. There are also strong and largely unexamined cultural norms about these behavioral patterns, and I do wish to call those into question by describing this behavior as an outside observer might.)

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Paper proposed for inclusion in the Journal of Neurotypical Studies:

“Behavioral Manifestations of Perseveration on Appearance: Appearance Fixation Disorder in American Neurotypicals”

The majority of neurotypicals display obsessive behavior regarding personal appearance. This can range from moderately stubborn preferences for certain colors and hairstyles, which generally do not interfere with normal life activities, up through very expensive and time-consuming shopping, personal grooming, and other related behaviors.

Appearance fixation causes many neurotypicals to spend much of their lives wearing clothing that is at best impractical and often self-injurious or dangerous. Long-term use of cosmetics, hair dyes, and “fashionable” footwear (particularly for females on the neurotypical spectrum) can cause, respectively, skin breakouts, hair loss, and permanent injury to the feet, back, and knees, resulting in life-long pain. Underdressing in cold temperatures may lead to illness, while underdressing in summer with the goal of acquiring a “good tan” significantly increases the risk of skin cancer. Excessive time in hair and nail salons involves inhalation of potentially dangerous airborne chemicals. While no studies have as yet directly linked this exposure to any specific illness, it seems reasonable to have concerns given the dangers of inhaling many industrial chemicals. The author of this paper suggests that studies should be conducted in order to rule out the possibility that this behavior could contribute to neurological damage and autoimmune diseases.

Not all personal-appearance preferences are pathological, of course. Having “favorite colors,” and “wanting to look nice,” for example, are experienced regularly by most people. And while many neurotypicals choose to dress in uncomfortable fabrics, this may be  understandable, given their frequent undersensitivity to texture. The concern, however, occurs when the neurotypical child or teen persists in attempting to wear clothing that restricts movement or blood-flow, or presents health and safety concerns, as do “high-heeled” shoes and temperature-inappropriate outfits.

Antecedents to Appearance-Fixation Disorder:

Appearance fixation disorder is extremely common among neurotypicals, although it tends to have an earlier onset age and be more severe in girls than in boys. This disparity narrows during the teenage years, when social conformity behavior among both genders is generally at its peak. In adulthood, many men, particularly those in the “white collar” workforce (notice how even the terminology refers to appearance!), develop an increasing obsession with social status, which leads to more appearance-related behaviors. Adult women (again, particularly professionals) are often under extreme social pressure to conform to complex and incomprehensible appearance-related norms set by their peers of both sexes.

It can be difficult to predict the areas of appearance-fixation that any one neurotypical will develop: one may show a primary obsession with hairstyle, another with the newness of their attire, and another with achieving a certain “look” (such as “professional,” “hipster,” “preppy,” “goth,” or “laid-back”). However, exposure to mainstream media (television, magazines, and other advertisements) seems to contribute strongly to the fixation, and parents are recommended to limit their children’s viewing of these media as much as possible during formative years. Perhaps in part because of deficits in their ability to make logical decisions, neurotypical children are particularly vulnerable to harmful messages about the role of appearance in “social status” and “fitting in,” which fall under the category of another symptom set: the neurotypical tendency towards hyper-socialization.

Symptoms and Consequences of Appearance Fixation:

Neurotypicals, particularly from the “tween” years onwards, often display signs of extreme emotional distress when seen without their chosen apparel– shame, embarrassment, fear of rejection, and lowered self esteem have been observed in many cases. Female neurotypicals are even known to refer to their chosen pattern of cosmetics as “my face,” suggesting a worryingly deep emotional attachment, even to the extent of identifying oneself solely by physical appearance. Given these factors, we can perhaps begin to understand why neurotypicals will choose “fashion” over comfort, convenience, practicality, and even safety.

Not all neurotypicals display appearance fixations to the same extreme. The financial and time burden of strong appearance preferences is usually something that a family can accomodate with minimal difficulty, although many families seek care because appearance-related behaviors can be very time-consuming and make it difficult to get children and teens ready for school on time in the mornings. Very few neurotypicals are comfortable wearing identical or even similar outfits on a daily basis, unless the outfit is specifically dictated by a current “fashion trend.” In a related concern, children whose appearance fixation includes an obsession with the “social status” of clothing can end up costing parents exorbitant sums on “brand name” merchandise and frequent requests to replace clothes before they are outgrown or worn out, due to the child’s concern that the apparel is “outdated.” It is estimated that adult neurotypicals also spend shockingly large amounts of their income on appearance-related purchases, sometimes purchasing entire outfits solely for use on a single occasion, and frequently going into debt in order to “keep up” a certain appearance. Distressingly, many appearance fixations seem to involve both a desire to replicate as closely as possible the appearance of figures from popular culture and a phobia of wearing the exact same apparel as one of their peers. Imagine the amount of time and energy this must cost them!

Treatment and Recommendations:

Very little has been studied so far in the way of treating appearance fixation disorder. Many elementary and high schools have attempted to address this problem by instituting uniform dress codes, but this seems to serve only to increase the obsession with displaying visible signs of social status. Additionally, as these uniforms are almost always chosen by neurotypical school officials, they are invariably just as uncomfortable, impractical, and temperature-inappropriate as the attire that neurotypical children select on their own. Other places that require appearance-uniformity (the military, jobs that provide a uniform, or even office dress codes) are likewise problematic, often increasing the “social conformity” behaviors that most neurotypicals suffer from.

As noted before, parents may wish to keep their neurotypical children and teens away from mass media and other sources that encourage problematic behavior, such as shopping malls and the make-up aisles at grocery and convenience stores, as these can often trigger an outburst of appearance-obsessive behavior. Impractical clothing and footwear may be reserved as an occasional reward for good behavior, but should not be used on too much of a regular basis. Footwear, in particular, is an area where parents need to be firm, as inappropriate footwear can cause damage to the developing feet (and in the case of “heels,” to the knees and lower back as well, not to mention the increased risk of serious falls, twisted ankles, or other injuries). Neurotypical children may also benefit from regular exposure to social stories and other media that explicitly outline the importance of not judging others by appearance. We remain hopeful that further treatments will be developed that can reduce the heartbreaking impacts of appearance fixation disorder.

*****

If you are a neurotypical, or non-autistic adult, and you find yourself laughing at this piece, please take a moment to step back and imagine, with all seriousness, growing up (and living as an adult) in a world in which this paper was meant to be taken seriously. A world in which your preferences and choices (from those made casually and unconsciously to those made with serious deliberation) were subject to this kind of scrutiny. Where the majority of people discussed the “weirdness” of your tastes and moods, where articles trying to explain those things were published in serious medical journals, where your parents debated openly and publicly about whether or not to let you do many of the things you enjoy, and where entire professions (medical researchers, specialist therapists, and innumerable practitioners of alternative health care) were devoted to changing those aspects of your life and personality.

No, on second thoughts, maybe this essay isn’t so funny after all.

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  1. VisualVox
    June 21, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Ha! You should totally put that into a PDF format according to current academic paper conventions and post it — see what happens 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. VisualVox
    June 21, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    I love this, by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. June 21, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    I like the fact that this fake pathology is more believable than “neurotypical spectrum disorder”. “Noeurotypical spectrum disorder”, or a similar thing, is easy to come up with and use, as it is a fake pathology of the opposite of autism. However, people are unlikely to really think about that in a manner that makes them consider; there is not enough truth to “neurotypical spectrum disorder” to really make them think. However, there is truth to “appearance fixation disorder”, especially considering that there are people who DO near-on pathologies it. This truth may lead people to really think about what it means to have a character trait they or their loved ones have pathologized; and yes, many neurotypicals are obsessed with appearance, and yes, it is not always regarded as desirable even among neurotypicals. Thus, this kind of thing may have a better chance of making people think about what it means to be pathologized than the usual pathologization satires (i.e. NT syndrome).
    There is another good example of false pathologization that I have read as well that could be relevant; amor deliria nervosa, from the dystopian future series Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Amor deliria nervosa is a pathologizing name for love, and Oliver does a great job of making it sound both believable and scary. The main thing is, in the Delirium series, people have found the “cure” for amor deliria nervosa; that is, they have found out how to do brain operations that largely suppress if not eliminate one’s ability to feel a deep love for anything or anyone. I think that “pathology” is just as helpful.
    Anyway, kudos to Restless Hands for coming up with a great fake pathology.

    Like

    • June 21, 2016 at 4:52 pm

      Again, there are many people who were shamed for this for real, especially girls; fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims are a good example. Parents actually can and do take those steps as well, but there is a key difference between what is shown in this paper and what happens in the real world: in the real world, people do not openly pathologize this; rather, they just describe it as a moral failing. Also, in the real world, men generally get a free pass for being obsessed with appearance, whereas girls do not. If you do a fake academic paper of this, I would suggest putting as much emphasis on the male trends as the female ones (i.e. excessive exercise, ogling females and blaming the girl for “distracting” them, wearing ripped T-shirts). And yes, one of those categories is not appearance but rather one of privilege; however, it could be fit into “appearance fixation disorder” as something like “male neurotypicals seem to be obsessed with the appearance of female neurotypicals and often exhibit a refusal to take responsibility for their obsession, shifting it onto the female instead”.

      Like

      • June 21, 2016 at 4:57 pm

        Of course, don’t forget steroid use or testosterone use in men as well, along with the use of questionable “protein shakes”, supplements, and yet more performance enhancing drugs, as well as colognes (can’t forget that).
        The fake pathology is great, but may be more believable and thought-provoking if you add the male characteristics as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • June 21, 2016 at 5:02 pm

        Of course, the “manly” image of having a “girl on each arm” or something similar (as in, the way they get lauded for having sex with a lot of girls) fits very easily into “appearance fixation disorder”.

        Like

  1. June 21, 2016 at 2:36 pm
  2. June 21, 2016 at 4:08 pm

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