Transcending Flesh: What Do We Mean By Body Modification

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

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Transcending Flesh in Fiction and Fantasy:
Essays on Gender and Body Modification in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #3: What Do We Mean By Body Modification?

I've made references in the previous two essays to "BodyMod" technology and magic, and joked about "Gender Potions" and "the BodyTron5000". Let's now talk explicitly what I mean by these concepts and we'll move from there into things to watch out for when crafting your science fiction and fantasy settings.

"BodyMod" is a term is intended to encompass fictional settings which possess body modification capabilities far surpassing what we have available to us in the present day, either through magic or via scientific advances which might as well be magic. These settings are not identical and range from magical to futuristic, from utopian to dystopian. Yet they share some similar characteristics, which I will list here. Within these settings, changes to a person's physical body are often:

- Easy to use, with many characters giving minimal thought to how miraculous these powers are.
- Rapid, often taking less than a few days and sometimes only mere seconds to complete.
- Safe, with minimal concern for bodily rejection of new organs or other medical risks.
- Painless, with minimal recovery time needed after surgery or magical alteration of the body.
- Perfect, with undetectable difference between homegrown organs and artificial ones.
- Repeatable and reversible, with body changes being repeatedly made without long-term risk.
- Available, being cheap to access and with minimal medical gatekeeping (at least to some).
- Socially Acceptable, with minimal stigma attached to those who change their bodies.

These body modifications can be accomplished in numerous ways, from surgical to outright magical. Common methods of body modification within such settings include:

- Modification of a body through advanced surgical techniques and organ implantation.
- Modification of a body through magical powers which alter or grow new organs.
- Transference of brain or consciousness between bodies.
- Transference of brain or consciousness to a body grown to custom specifications.
- Transference of brain or consciousness to an artificial or robot body.

Not all of these characteristics need to be present in a setting with body modification technology or magic, of course; for example, availability may be limited to those rich and privileged enough to access healthcare. In that case, the author must consider how these conditions affect their larger world. If only the rich can change their bodies, there will exist an underclass of dysphoric trans people dying for lack of access to medical care. How do your characters feel about that? What, if anything, are they doing to help?

~Original Use~

I mentioned this in an earlier essay, but part of the world-building for any BodyMod setting is knowing where these capabilities came from and how long they've been available prior to the story. Have people been able to modify their bodies since the dawn of time through magic or shape-shifting or divine gifts? Trans people shouldn't be new to the world; there will be lots of people (cis and trans!) experimenting with different body types over the thousands of years these gifts have been available. If for some reason you want transphobia in the world, and stringent rules about who is allowed to have what body, then something will have to be invented to justify that: an authority figure willing to oppress others and cause them pain.

If the BodyMod technology is new, then trans people may not be using it yet--but they will be making plans to! Trans people existed in our world long before modern medical transition was available; they will have existed in your world's past, too. BodyMod technology won't call them into being; they'll already be living their lives and keeping an eye on developments which may help with their dysphoria. Here again, if you want trans people to be closeted and unknown to your cis characters, an oppressive authority will need to be invented. In a utopia, transgender people would be out and presenting as they please, even without BodyMod technology to help them along. So if they're not out in your world, the reader will wonder why. What forced all the trans people into closets? I assure you, they aren't in there just so your cis characters don't have to think about them.

Something I see on occasion from cis authors is the idea that if BodyMod tech has been around for a while, then transness would be hidden from society because it would be like getting your tonsils out as a kid: a normal procedure that happens to a lot of kids at a youngish age and which isn't much spoken of in later years. That isn't a bad idea--normalization is a good direction to explore!--but it's worth remembering not everyone is genderstatic (i.e., having a gender which does not change over time). There will be people in your world who are genderfluid (i.e., having a gender which changes over time) whose preferred bodily presentation may change over time. There will also be trans people of every flavor who take longer than others to realize they are trans. Cis characters would be aware that this happens and that some adults receive gender-affirming body modification later in life. Authors cannot duck trans issues by handwaving that everything is taken care of at an early age and is an invisible to the adult characters as their tonsils.

Whatever the driving cause behind the development of BodyMod technology in the setting--be it magic or gods or scientific advances--that "original use" should probably be mentioned within the text. This mention can be simple and quick (i.e., "we developed technology to replace organs as part of the cure for cancer") but can make body modification seem less like a gimmick to the reader. Understanding the root cause of the technology's existence will also help you put useful limits on BodyMod capabilities in order to avoid some of the more difficult and problematic ripple effects below, like race-modification or identity-theft.

For example, if the body modification technology in your world revolves around building a robot body to user specifications, then transferring consciousness to the new body as part of a life-extension program, you can invent a governing body which tracks the registration of all robot models and ensures there are no duplicates created by identity thieves. If the body modification tech is growing fresh organs in a petri dish and dropping them into place as part of a cancer cure (and while they're in there, the doctors craft fancy new genitals of your choice), then it's unlikely people are going to be able to grow fur and turn green.

Either way, once you have the "original use" in mind for your body modification technology, you'll need to ponder the extended use cases that inventive humans will want to explore.

~Extended Use~

Cis and trans people alike will have extensive uses for body modification beyond genital sculpting. BodyMod magic or technology would have far reaching implications, including:

- What does birth control look like in a world where a person can just remove their uterus for a few years until they want it back? What does pregnancy look like in a world where external uteri almost certainly exist?

- How do disabled people navigate this world? Are there "disability tourists" who choose to experience disabilities to see what it feels like? Are mental illnesses treated differently than they are now?

- What do lifespans look like in a world that can replace or regrow bodily organs? Can bodies be mended such that they don't wear out? Can old hearts and lungs and kidneys be infinitely replaced with new ones?

- If faces can be altered, by what method do people recognize each other in this world? Is it standard for people to wear nametags? (If so, why not pronoun tags as well?) How does identity theft work?

- How is race impacted if body modifications include skin color? (Be careful with race! I am white and cannot guide you; if you incorporate racial modifications, hire sensitivity readers and listen to them.)

- Do social class biases exist if people can change appearance at will? Is gender discrimination viable if Violet can go to work presenting as a man, collect a higher paycheck while in stealth mode, then shape-shift back to a more comfortable body in the evening at home before her dysphoria flares up too badly?

- How do people decorate themselves? When tattoos and piercings are reversible, do people experiment more? To what extent can body modification expand the limits of a human body? Can people grow fur?

- How does society react to inevitable "mix-and-matching" of primary and secondary sexual characteristics? Every possible combination of genitals and chests will be explored by members of the populace.

- Sexual characteristics are the big topics when we talk body modification, but why stop there if the sky is the limit? People will branch out and alter their chins, noses, cheeks, lips, eyes, ears, arms, legs, fingers, toes, body hair, and every other possible bodily aspect. Where are the boundaries of this technology?

- How do social expectations of beauty change when anyone can be fat or thin, tall or short, frail or buff? Consider that if our current social beauty ideals are maintained, the author will need to justify why the far-flung future or misty realms of fantasy has the exact same prejudices as ours, or risk looking unimaginative!

If all this seems very obvious and perhaps even a little strange for me to harp on, good! You're ahead of the game. I have read fiction by cis authors who wanted to make a statement on gender and ended up giving the characters inexplicable and world-breaking technology without meaningful examination regarding how such technology would affect the larger setting. The effect was extremely immersion-breaking.

All technology has a ripple effect on society. Once you go down the road of a petri-dish uterus, you're going to be faced with the question of hearts and lungs and even tonsils for the people who need or want them.

[Continued in the next essay.]

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