Body Modification: Of Identity and Insecurity
I’ve always wanted robotic arms. Who hasn’t?
They promise strength and dexterity to hands that were once organic and prone to damage. But this article isn’t about augmenting your abilities. It’s about what appearances mean to people. And the lengths that one is willing to go to align their physique with what society dictates as the norm. How much of ourselves do we have to replace before we are no longer human?
Before you think that body modification is a dazzling but daunting prospect of the future, we’ve been taking apart and putting ourselves together for centuries. India had access to plastic surgery in 800 BC, back when Rome didn’t even exist. In numerous civilizations, appearances have been a vehicle for expression and representation. But defying norms came at a cost. Today, straying from the norm nets eyeballs. And tomorrow, it could be the norm.
A couple of centuries ago, the human body was no temple. Even conservative communities had systems in place that determined one’s standing in the social equivalent of a food chain. Individuals who deviated from what was expected of their appearance faced discrimination and the risk of segregation. Rebels and outliers had no place in a system governed by fear and oppression. But embracing the norm wasn’t always a matter of choice. Often, it demanded a sacrifice.
Death by corsets
While the Victorian era (1834–1901) is known today for political reforms, social change and the Industrial Revolution, the sewing machines of the time weren’t creating clothes that were tailored to fit. They stitched together death traps disguised as luxuries fit for a queen. Sweeping lifestyle changes made society fit into clothing instead of the other way around. In the name of conformity and beauty, women carried their prisons with them. While telephones and cameras rose in popularity, so did conversations about a certain attire that constricted bodies with literal ribs of bone.
Corsets were tyrannizing generations of women well before the Victorian era but some despot decided that the ol’ ribs of steel and wood needed an upgrade. Squeezing lungs and spines into the Barbie hourglass figure wasn’t good enough anymore. The S-line corset came along and made regular corsets look like sweatshirts in comparison. For starters, they forced your hips back, making it impossible to stand straight. Corsets were already wrecking considerable lung damage and irreversible spine injuries on bodies and the new fad on the block now made spines look like snakes. It took a rebellion in the 1920s for women to toss out the cages inflicted upon them by their predecessors. Their savior? World War I.
These abominations are far from the only weapons of control employed by society’s rule-makers. Brass coils around necks to lengthen them and scars to determine social ranking are tradition-fuelled torture techniques in use even today. Saying no meant abandoning a way of life in most cultures, something that made even strong hearts hesitate in the face of conformity. Unfortunately, extreme body modifications done in pursuit of validation is as common today as it was centuries ago. In fact, things have taken a turn for the worse. Victorian-era women didn’t have plastic-filled faces of models looking back at them from their Instagram stories.
Life is plastic
Before a horde of Kardashian fans mows me down, hear me out. This isn’t about how celebrities like Kylie Jenner spend tens of thousands of dollars to craft a physical and social image worthy of validation. Facial fillers and plastic implants aside, I do not intend to invalidate their sacrifices along the road to fame. They’re as much products of circumstances as we are. In a vicious circle where both influencers and the influenced inflict trends upon each other, capitalism laughs all the way to the bank. Beauty is certainly more than skin deep. Just ask the plastic implant industry.
McKinsey reports that the self-care business is growing despite a raging pandemic that keeps buyers from stores. With pressure mounting on celebrities who have partnered with behemoths in the skin and fashion industry, a barrage of sponsored advertisements on their social media handles is merely the first measure. Funneled into the embrace of their smartphone screens, the rise in smartphone usage across the globe means that individuals are looking for virtual validation on a scale hitherto unseen. It’s a pain point that capitalism is more than ready to address.
“I think that promoting insecurity in the form of plastic surgery is infinitely more harmful than an artistic expression related to body modification.”
- Lady Gaga
Its cause and effect both stem from the industry’s firm grasp on the human psyche, letting firms control the narrative as they please. The very definition of beauty now consists of dials and sliders that megacorporations adjust to their whims. And as more people turn to elaborate body alteration surgeries, we slip into a world where choices define our bodies more than they ever have. An artificial reality where body customization options are no less exotic than those found in videogames.
Sunshine on chrome
“In 2077, they voted my city the worst place to live in America. Main issues? Sky-high rate of violence and more people living below the poverty line than anywhere else. Can’t deny it, it’s all true… but everybody still wants to live here. This city’s always got a promise for you. Might be a lie, an illusion, but it’s there… just around the corner… and it keeps you going.”
- an excerpt describing Night City from Cyberpunk 2077
A body free from the confines of decay. A reality where body modification is a national pastime. A place where your identity and your ability are no longer fettered to what you’re born with. True, Cyberpunk 2077 hands out a bold promise. But considering that videogames have predicted things from military invasions to Justin Trudeau becoming Canada’s Prime Minister, they certainly have potential. In the videogame Cyberpunk 2077, the game developers at CD Projekt Red envision a future where humans are free to augment their bodies with all sorts of neat tech.
Rapid developments in biotechnology mean that the human condition is no longer human. It sets the stage for capitalism to grant your body abilities you never knew you wanted. The line between style and substance is a tightrope that Cyberpunk 2077’s exotic cast treads with ease. While one can pick from gill implants to breathe longer or subdermal armor underneath your skin, Lizzy Wizzy had other ideas. She turned her vitals into vanity metrics.
In Cyberpunk 2077, Lizzy Wizzy (voiced by singer Grimes, who happens to date Tesla magnate Elon Musk) is the sole human member and leader of the band Lizzy Wizzy and the Metadwarves. They probably weren’t the biggest band on the block, not until Lizzy killed herself on-stage. Romanticizing death in the name of art skyrocketed the group into stardom. But Lizzy wasn’t done. In less than an hour, she rose from the dead. With the help of a full-body replacement and a cybernetic jaw, Lizzy Wizzy finished the concert as a cyborg, giving her immeasurable social media clout and a signature chrome body to boot. The performance shook the world. The cost? Her mortal frame.
If the mere thought of suicide becoming a party trick doesn’t unsettle you, you need to raise those empathy stats. A DIY (Do It Yourself) compassion booster kit at the implant e-store should do the trick. Because today, character-building is just a transaction away.