Transcending Flesh: Body Diversity Beyond Gender Presentation

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 #15: Body Diversity Beyond Gender Presentation

Depending on the limits of body modification magitech in your setting, it should occur to you as the author that there are more things which can be done with those capabilities than just modify genitals and gender presentation. How will you handle that in your setting?


Cultural attitudes towards weight and fat bodies are not universal. Often, though not always, those attitudes are shaped by factors like class and money. In our society, thinness is a mark of wealth and therefore thinness has been hyped as desirable; the diet industry spends vast sums of money to influence us to prefer a body size which is unattainable for many people. That unattainability is part of the appeal for the industry because it means people will continue to spend money on products which are marketed to "help" them.

Will your magitech setting have the same cultural attitudes privileging thinness? There is no reason why it should if the history of your world is different from ours. Perhaps fatness is privileged in that world because the BodyTron5000 works on a conservation-of-mass principle and people who use it have to pay more money to receive more body tissue--if that's the case, perhaps only rich people can afford to be comfortably chubby!

This isn't to urge you to create a world where all the fat people are rich decadent hedonists, as that runs into harmful stereotypes of its own. But I want to challenge you to think about the preferences and biases in your world, and how they formed. It's easy to take the biases from our culture and insert them directly into your writing without examining them closely, but it's also lazy writing. If everyone in your culture can have any body they want at any time they desire, why would they all be skinny? Why would a bias that we built in order to sell diet products persist into a future where the push of a button can get you any body at all?


Please be aware that disability will still exist in a BodyMod magitech setting.

Disabilities are complicated. Some disabilities would cause pain and anguish for the owner even if our society were perfectly outfitted to accommodate the person's needs. Other disabilities can intertwine with identity until the person may not want to give up something which they see as an integral part of their self. I would happily give up my chronic pain conditions because I dislike being in pain, but I don't really feel a need to "fix" the part of my movement disability which requires a cane (I have a really good one that works well for me!), and I can't imagine parting with the neurodiversity which makes me who I am.

In short, disabled people are not all going to rush into the BodyTron5000 to "fix" themselves. Some of them may seek a cure. Some of them may try out a "cured" body only to decide they liked their old one just fine. Some of them will not seek any "cure" at all, and will find the suggestion that they ought to change themselves to be offensive. None of these reactions are right or wrong; our bodily autonomy gives each of us the right to decide what sort of body we want to inhabit. How do you need to deal with this as an author?

Easy answer: Populate your setting with disabled people who stay disabled! They don't need to be a big deal; no one needs to pontificate for pages on why they're using a cane instead of curative magitech. Let it be normal that some people don't seek a cure. Part of our ableist culture is the widespread assumption that not seeking a cure is abnormal and must be justified. Consider having characters who simply are disabled and aren't asked to explain their existence. Then don't cure or kill them. Let them continue existing happily with their disability after the book ends.

Harder answer: Think long and hard about how well your society accommodates people who keep their disabilities. The downside to "magical cures" is that sometimes they increase stigma in society against those who refuse to participate. Does your society refuse to provide disability accommodations because they're "expensive" and "unnecessary" on the grounds that the people who need them could jump into the BodyTron5000 but are refusing to do so? Be very careful with this! Understand that this sort of society is one that is deeply ableist and profoundly hostile to bodily autonomy. It is a dystopia which is committed to wiping out disabled people entirely--and that should scare both you and your readers. If you don't have experience with disability, I would recommend not going this route; if you do, understand that this is not a utopia.


Let us start with one thing: I am white and am not qualified to tell you how race is different from gender.

I can tell you that they are not the same thing. I can tell you that neither race nor gender are a simple function of appearance, though many cisgender white people assume they are. I can tell you that while race and gender are both social constructs, that does not mean they are constructed the same way or are interchangeable. I can tell you bad faith actors have co-opted the trans description of dysphoria as being "trapped in the wrong body" in an attempt to apply that to white people who want to be Black.

I can tell you that there is such a thing as transracial identity, but it is a concept and label for people who are a different race from their parents or guardians, which can happen with adoptions. Transracial children often experience difficulties when their guardians do not know from experience the lived reality of growing up as another race, and therefore cannot prepare their children for those realities.

I can tell you there are better voices than mine to read on this topic. As a starting place:

- The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black. Ijeoma Oluo. The Stranger.

- I am Black. Rachel Dolezal is Not. Rebecca Carroll. Dame Magazine.

- An Open Letter: Why Co-opting "Transracial" in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic. Kimberly McKee. Medium.

- Yes, Race and Gender Are Social Constructs. No, They Are Not Alike. St. Ridley Santos.

Go read those articles and sit with them for a while before you come back to me and my little essay about world-building. When crafting a society with magitech which can give someone any body they want, you must grapple with how race works in your society. You need to understand that race is not just a function of appearance, that it is generational and can involve heritage, community, culture, and (in our world) past injustices which continue to this day and have been built into the systems which govern and police our society.

Stepping into the BodyTron5000 to receive differently-colored skin will not change a character's race, just as an accident with the BodyTron5000 which attaches an unwanted penis will not change that character's gender. Those changes of skin color or genitals might affect how society treats the character, but you as the author must understand why those systems are in place--and what value this adds to your story. Why would you have characters changing their skin color in the narrative? What does that bring to your tale? What are you trying to say as the author, and what are you hoping the reader will hear?

If you are a white author, ask yourself whether or not you should be saying anything at all about race, or whether it's your job to talk less and listen more! As with gender, your story can include race without being about race and your opinions thereupon. I would recommend putting effort into crafting a BodyMod magitech society wherein people don't use those capabilities to modify their racial appearance. Why not? Well, why don't more people do so now? Because many people in our society are sensitive to the fact that such modifications are cultural appropriation and thus inappropriate behavior.

Just because your characters can do something doesn't mean they will. Write sensitively on this matter.


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