The Fear of Deformity

Dysmorphophobia is a Term That Encompasses Multiple Fears

Pregnant woman reflection in mirror

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Dysmorphophobia (fear of deformity) is a broad term that encompasses multiple specific fears. Some people are afraid of becoming deformed or disfigured, while others fear those who have a disfiguring condition. Some expectant parents worry that their child will be born with a deformity. Dysmorphophobia may also be behind some cases of body dysmorphic disorder, a somatoform disorder in which sufferers imagine bodily imperfections.​

Fear of Becoming Deformed or Disfigured

In today's media-driven culture, it seems there is a cure for virtually anything. Don't like your nose? See a plastic surgeon. Don't like your hair? Buy this dye or that shampoo or have a makeover by a celebrity stylist. Worried about the signs of aging? Creams, specialty soaps, and facelifts are at your beck and call.

While it's perfectly natural to want to look and feel your best, the constant media hype is focused on a virtually unattainable ideal of youth and beauty. Against this backdrop, it is easy for even normal, healthy physical characteristics to be seen as something to get rid of rather than to celebrate. Of course, most people are able to maintain a healthy perspective. For some, however, a natural concern for health and vigor can develop into an unhealthy obsession.

In addition, throughout much of history, those with deformities or disfigurements were discriminated against, locked up or even accused of witchcraft. Public shaming, display in human zoos or freak shows and crude medical "treatments" were frighteningly common. In extreme cases, children and adults with deformities were sometimes put to death. Although modern societies have largely moved beyond these measures, people with disfiguring conditions may have trouble obtaining employment, gaining respect or finding a mate, even today. Children and adults may be shunned, finding it difficult to make friends or become community leaders.

Fear of Others With a Deformity or Disfigurement

This form of dysmorphophobia may be rooted in a myriad of other fears. Xenophobia (fear of strangers) may be partly to blame. Humans have a strong tendency to self-select into groups based on commonalities. Families, tribes, communities, religious groups, and nations have long served the critical functions of providing safety and security, promoting the group's interests and working together to achieve common goals. Those who are isolated or cut off from these units often face increased danger and limited opportunities.

One of the easiest ways to form group loyalty is to cast those who do not fit in as the "other." This strengthens group unity and encourages bonding. But when taken too far, it can have damaging and wide-reaching effects, leading to hate, shunning and even violence. More often, though, this tendency to reject the unfamiliar leads to mistrust, discomfort, and exclusion.

As deformities and disfigurements are relatively rare, xenophobia towards people with these conditions may simply be due to a lack of familiarity or exposure. For many people, an initially uncomfortable reaction is easily changed simply by getting to know someone with a deformity on a personal level.

In some cases, the fear of deformity in others is based on medical fears. Those suffering from germ phobia, hypochondria or nosophobia may be at particular risk for this type of fear, but it can occur in anyone. Some disfigurements are caused by communicable diseases such as leprosy. Although these diseases are now readily treatable, they have been stigmatized for centuries. A lack of understanding may increase the fear of other people's deformities or disfigurements.

Fear of Bearing a Deformed Child

Throughout history, particular significance has been placed on deformed infants. At various times and in various cultures, these children have been seen as curses or signs of evil. Sometimes they were viewed as a sign that the mother was a witch. Sometimes they were seen as harbingers of an upcoming fire, flood or other natural disaster. In some cases, the child itself was seen as a demonic creature.

Although most modern societies no longer believe in ancient superstitions, great pressure remains on parents to deliver a healthy, perfect baby. Many expectant parents worry that a child who is not physically perfect will be shunned or scorned. In addition, some conditions that cause infant or childhood deformity are painful, require extensive corrective surgery or may even lead to a shortened lifespan. It's easy to see how a normal and healthy concern for an unborn child's well-being could develop into an unhealthy phobia of something going wrong.

Coping With the Fear of Deformity

For many people, the fear of deformity is relatively mild and easy to control. Minor discomfort is often relieved by exposure. Knowing someone with a deformity or disfigurement can help dispel fears based on a lack of understanding. Learning about disfiguring conditions can help curb medically-based fears.

If you are an expectant parent concerned about your unborn child, speak with your doctor. Modern medical testing can identify many potentially disfiguring conditions, and advanced technology can correct the vast majority of infant deformities.

If your fear is more severe, simple exposure and information-gathering may not be enough. If you find yourself going out of your way to avoid situations that may bring you in contact with a disfigured person, or if you develop an unhealthy obsession with your own appearance or that of a loved one, seek professional assistance. Like most phobias, dysmorphophobia responds well to a variety of common mental-health treatments. Left untreated, the phobia could worsen, gradually limiting your daily life and preventing you from connecting with others.

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  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.