Transcending Flesh: What is Body Modification?

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

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This essay is one in a series which focuses on writing gender in science fiction and fantasy settings that provide body modification options beyond our current level of technology. Note that you can download this collection of essays from my website here.


Transcending Flesh:
Gender and Body Diversity in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #3: What is Body Modification?

I've made references in the previous two essays to "BodyMod" magitech, 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 body modification capabilities far surpassing what we have available to us in the present day, either through magic or scientific advances which might as well be magic. Settings with these capabilities range from magical to futuristic, from utopian to dystopian, but may share some similar characteristics. Within these settings, changes to a person's physical body are often:

- Easy to use, with many characters giving little 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 short 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 virtually no stigma attached to those who change their bodies.

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

- Modification of an existing body through advanced surgical techniques and organ implantation.
- Modification of an existing 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 magitech, 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~

Part of the world-building for a setting with BodyMod magitech requires 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? In that case, trans people won't be new to the world; there will be lots of people (both cis and trans!) experimenting with different body types during the time these gifts have been available. If you want anti-trans bigotry in this world, with stringent rules about who is allowed to have what body configuration, then something will have to be invented to justify that: an oppressive authority figure willing to hurt people and cause them pain.

If BodyMod magitech 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 magitech 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 magitech to help them along. If they're not out in your world, the reader will wonder why. What forced trans people into closets? They aren't in hiding just so cis characters don't have to think about them.

Something I see on occasion from cis authors is the idea that if BodyMod magitech 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 at a youngish age and which isn't spoken of in later years. That isn't a bad idea--normalization is a good direction to explore!--but remember not everyone is genderstatic (i.e., having a gender which does not shift over time). There will be people in your world who are genderfluid (i.e., having a gender which shifts over time) whose preferred bodily presentation may change over time. There will also be trans people who take longer than others to realize they are trans and may not come out until they are well into adulthood. Cis characters would be aware that this happens and that some adults receive gender-affirming body modification later in life. Authors cannot avoid trans people by handwaving that everything is taken care of at an early age and is as invisible to the adult characters as their tonsils.

Whatever the driving cause behind the development of body modification in the setting--be it magic or gods or scientific advances--you as the creator should be aware of the original intended use. This understanding can be simplistic and quick (i.e., "they developed technology to replace organs as part of a cure for cancer"), but it will help you map out the organic growth of the magitech as it was developed and what, if any, systems were put in place to deal with some of the ripple effects like identity-theft or neon skin colors.

For example, if body modification in your world revolves around building a robot body to user specifications and then transferring consciousness to the new body as part of a life-extension program, you can invent a governing system which tracks the registration of all robot models and ensures there are no duplicates created by identity thieves. If, on the other hand, body modification means 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 magitech, 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 magitech 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? How does pregnancy work in a world where external uteri almost certainly exist?

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

- 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?

- 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! If society places controls on this, you have very likely written a dystopian government infringing upon human rights.

- How do people decorate themselves? When tattoos and piercings are reversible, do people experiment more than they already do now? To what extent can body modification expand the limits of a human body? Can people grow fur? wings? prehensile tails? horns? multiple penises? extra breasts?

- Sexual characteristics are big topics when we talk about 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!

- How are social biases enforced when people can change appearance at will? Is workplace discrimination viable if Violet can go to work presenting in a socially-privileged body, collect a higher paycheck in stealth mode, then shape-shift back to a more preferred body configuration when she goes home for the evening? Do social biases subtly shift to center ornamentation rather than bodily appearance?

- How do disabled people navigate this world? Are there "disability tourists" who use the BodyTron5000 to temporarily acquire disabilities in order to explore those lived experiences? Are mental illnesses treated differently than they are now? Is menstrual pain taken more seriously when everyone can experience it?

- How is society's understanding of race impacted if body modification options include skin color and/or physical features which are viewed as markers of race? (Be careful with race! I am white and cannot be an expert on this topic; if you incorporate racial modifications, hire sensitivity readers and listen to them.)

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 magitech without meaningful examination of how such capabilities would affect the larger setting. The result 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 people who need or want them.


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