Transcending Flesh: Buffet Bodies

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

a pink and blue sky with a radio tower

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 #5: Buffet Bodies

~False Binaries~

Human bodies do not conform to a binary model such that there is one "female" body and one "male" body, and everyone aligns neatly to one of those. Any idea of a human body binary is false now; it will be even more so in a world with BodyMod magitech, unless there is an oppressive and immensely powerful authority forcing everyone into line. A setting where everyone is required to have one of two standard approved body types is a dystopia and characters should recognize that and be appropriately discontented.

Humanity's infinite variety is important because it affects everything that follows in your world-building. Let us consider Barbara's world where science fiction technology has provided for easy surgeries which allow people to have any body configuration they please. This sounds perfect for a vibrant and colorful cast of unique individuals, yet all her characters are one of two body types: breasts and vaginas for the ladies; flat pectorals and penises for the gentlemen. No variations, no differences, just cookie-cutter bodies.

Understand that in a world with BodyMod magitech, we should see even more body diversity than we have now. In such a setting, people are going to branch out to change their chins, noses, cheeks (dimples! freckles! blush!), lips, eyes, ears, arms, legs, fingers, toes, body hair (all over!), and every other possible bodily aspect. Even if the magitech is somehow limited only to body parts which we think of as gendered, these will be mixed and matched even more than they are now: there is no reason why breasts would only pair with vaginas, or why a penis couldn't be a fun optional add-on to an existing body of any configuration.

All of these possibilities are going to destroy any lingering concept of a false human body "binary". Genital changes will not be referred to as "opposite" or "reversed" or "flipped", because "opposite" will lose any kind of meaning in this paradigm. How is a penis "opposite" a vagina if magitech can just slap a lab-grown cock on someone in such a way that they now have both? (More fun for everyone!) It'd be like saying an ear is the "opposite" of an eye; there's no correlation between the two! You can have as many eyes and ears as you want! The acquisition of one doesn't preclude the acquisition of the other.

Right out of the gate we see tremendous impacts in how Barbara's characters should look and speak in this setting she's created. If her characters maintain an unnatural body uniformity, and if their language patterns reify the false concept of a human body binary with phrases like "opposite gender", then the reader will observe a mismatch between what Barbara has said about her magitech (i.e., available, cheap, easy, and widespread) versus how her characters act (i.e., behaving as though it does not exist, isn't freely available, or has not widely permeated society enough to challenge speech patterns and assumptions).

"But, wait," Barbara pops up to say. "You're just assuming that people would use BodyMod magitech to diversify their bodies more than nature already provides. Isn't it equally possible that magitech would result in consistent uniformity across all members of society? Couldn't everyone hop into the BodyTron5000 and receive a binary-conforming body the moment the technology became available?" Certainly, that some people will attempt to "standardize" their bodies according to social biases and preferences is within the realm of possibility! We have examples in our own society of people who seek out surgery in order to conform to a social ideal of what, for instance, an "attractive" labia should look like.

Yet in order to justify everyone meekly hopping into the BodyTron5000 for their standard-issue body, Barbara will need to craft a society which supports that behavior. What is causing her humans to accept strictures that her readers would not? Her world will need tremendous amounts of stigma and violence directed at those who do not conform, or a society in which conformity to a singular ideal is considered more desirable than individual expression and creative divergence. In both these cases, there should be people who are unhappy with the situation as it stands, and there will be some who defy society regardless.

Look around at the bodily variety available to us now: different colors of hair (both natural and unnatural), tattoos, piercings, and body customizations like forked tongues and pointed "elf" ears already exist! Many people pursue those alterations, even in spite of social disapproval or anticipated job discrimination. When we are already willing to defy social expectations to explore individual expression for our ears and tongues, why should genital configuration be less prone to customization in a future where potential is unlimited?

Barbara has, I suspect, fallen into the mistake of thinking that most trans people want a "fully transitioned" body and that only the lack of effective magitech holds them back. In her mind, once BodyMod magitech is perfected and widely available, all trans people will use it once to become indistinguishable from cis people in society. But this is not an accurate picture of trans or cis people; in a world where there are no barriers to bodily customization, we will not have anything resembling uniformity. We will have "buffet bodies", where we mix-and-match what appeals to each of us individually.

Here is where I'll confuse some cis readers, because aren't trans people "trapped in the wrong body"? That was a phrase which was used for a long time in order to explain transness to cis people, but while it is still a useful paradigm for many trans people, it's not something that applies to every trans person. Some trans people absolutely do want medical transition to validate their gender and treat dysphoria, but many do not! In a world with BodyMod magitech, some trans people will medically transition, others will not do so at all, others will "pick and mix" a custom body, and yet others will "transition" more than once. (As a genderfluid person, I would love the ability to daily modify my body to better fit my own shifting gender.)

There would not be a rush for everyone in society to immediately conform to one of two body types.

Remember this when we discuss pronouns in a later section. As creator of this fictional world you will need decide how people apply pronouns to strangers. It will be impossible to create a society where "she/her" maps perfectly to vagina-ownership and "he/him" maps onto every penis-haver. People will not be able to look at breasts on a stranger's chest and decide with total accuracy that breasts equal "she/her" pronouns. They may use that paradigm as a starting point, but they will be wrong at times (as we are often wrong when assigning pronouns to strangers in our society), and both you and they will need to recognize this.

~Magitech Access and Square Diagrams~

A quick refresher:

- Being cisgender means being the gender which you were assigned at birth.
- Being transgender means being a gender which is not the one you were assigned at birth.
- Not all trans people want to medically transition all or even some of their body parts.
- Because genitals are not gender, a person (cis or trans!) may modify their genitals to be anything they want without changing their gender, nor without changing their status as cis or trans.

Now I plunk down a square diagram. Row C is cis people; row T is trans people. Column Y is people who say "yes" to body modification and think it is awesome; column N is people who say "no" for whatever reason. As the author, it is important to understand that none of these squares will ever be entirely empty. You can move the ratios of people around by making access to body modification easier or harder, but it's impossible to entirely empty out a square. There will always be people who don't want to modify their bodies, and there will always be people who do and will find a way.

This is important because a lot of cis people incorrectly define cisness as "happy with their genitals" and transness as "unhappy with their genitals". Once someone makes those wrong associations, they often leap onto the idea that in a setting where genital modification is easily available, then every woman will have a vagina and every man will have a penis. Wrong! There are women who want penises. There are men who want vaginas. When you understand that genitals can correlate with gender for some people but not all people, then it's easier to understand that a world with magitech will not have only two body types.

"But at least there's no more dysphoria, right?" is the next question that comes down the line, and I'm sorry to say this is wrong too. The assumption here is that given perfect surgery, universal medical access, and total social acceptance, then everyone in the setting will have modified themselves into a body they're happy with by the time they reach adulthood or soon thereafter. But that assumes medical transition erases dysphoria (it doesn't; it's a treatment, not a cure) and that everyone can be satisfied with one perfect-for-them body. For a lot of genderfluid people like myself, there is no one body that can accurately and forever capture the self-image I have for myself. Why not? Because my image shifts over time! You, as the author, will need to decide whether the magitech is something that takes years, months, weeks, days, or minutes to accomplish, because that detail will affect genderfluid characters in your setting.

Again we see that a world with rapid, easy, perfect, reversible, painless, risk-free, universally-available, and socially-acceptable body modification isn't going to result in a binary system where everyone conforms to one of two body types. Such a setting will be beautiful chaos, with no way to tell gender or pronouns from a glance at someone's body. If you don't want to write a setting with extensive body diversity, then I remind you that you don't have to write that story! But without the reality of body diversity, your setting does not have "rapid, easy, perfect, reversible, painless, risk-free, universally-available, and socially-acceptable body modification". Something is stopping people from accessing the magitech and your job is to figure out what.

Maybe your society isn't as accepting as you thought. It is okay to write a society that has stigma around gender expression, as long as the author doesn't gloss over that reality and understands there are unhappy people in the background! Or perhaps your magitech isn't as rapid or easy or universally-available as you'd imagined. Many societies have contained people for whom healthcare was not freely available. If there are barriers to access, then magitech will be used sparingly and only by the very wealthy or the "deserving" needy who have access to charity or crowd-funding options. Poorer members of society will not have access at all, and people of moderate means will not be able to use magitech for "gratuitous" modifications. There is, in short, a difference between "this is available to treat dysphoria which would otherwise be lethal" and "every second Tuesday you can have fashionable feathers".

Magitech doesn't develop in a vacuum. If you don't want to write a society which values individuality and bodily autonomy and gender acceptance and self-determination, then why did they develop this magitech in the first place and push to make it freely available? As the author, you need to understand the story you want to write, and why, and what body modification as a setting-detail is doing for you. If it's an important part of the plot, then it will take work to seamlessly integrate into society in a way which feels natural. If it's just a gimmick for body-switching shenanigans, then you're risking blowing up all your world-building for a joke that probably won't seem funny or original to your audience.

These are questions I can't answer for you. All I can tell you is that if your magitech setting doesn't show bodies in every possible aesthetic along the gender presentation spectrum, then it's up to you as the creator to explain why. "No one wanted that" doesn't fit human experience. "People wouldn't let them" may suffice, but there needs to be reasons that stand up to examination. It is okay to write oppressive governments, bigoted societies, and dystopian settings, but the author needs to understand that their characters aren't all happily frolicking through meadows. If "buffet bodies" don't exist in their BodyMod setting, something bad has happened to stifle the natural variety of human expression.


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