TOKYO — If I have the power to completely change my body, will that transformed entity still be “me”? And if I can transform my body beyond what is considered “normal,” will I still be human?
For a long time, these questions belonged to the realms of philosophy and science fiction. In “Ghost in the Shell” — the cyberpunk manga that taps into both traditions — the protagonist Major Kusanagi is basically a brain inside an artificial body. Retaining her mind but not her corporeality, she grapples with her sense of identity and humanity in an imagined future where people are replacing their body parts as though their bodies were machines.
Such a brave new world, if at all feasible, is still far from us. Although advances in medicine, surgery, genetics, robotics, digital computing and many other fields have combined to make cyborgs conceivable, and although proposals ranging from head transplantation to mind uploading have been raised, these technologies remain largely speculative.
Even so, bodies today are being modified in ways that can in fact be described as transformative. Many humans now live with transplanted kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, corneas, pancreases, and, of late, even penises and faces; others have artificial organs — from increasingly sophisticated prosthetic limbs to bionic eyes and ears.
Then there’s sex reassignment surgery. Does having breasts and a vagina—and perhaps eventually even a womb — make one a woman, his/her/their Y chromosome notwithstanding? Though anthropologists have long pointed out that gender is a “social construct,” the fact that even sex can be “changed” can
unsettle what most humans have considered a fundamental aspect of their being.
Finally, there is a transformation of one’s appearance: the sculpting of noses and jaws, liposuction, augmentation of breasts and buttocks, even lengthening of limbs to boost one’s height. Done extensively, the results of plastic surgery can be dramatic enough for someone who underwent it to match their “new body” with a new name: Xander Ford.
If our “shells” can be altered, what does it say of the “ghosts” within that many are seeking such a move?
In many cases, people modify their bodies simply because they wish to live normally (as with prosthetic limbs) or even just survive (as with organ transplants). Others see in a transformed body a realization of their perceived sexual or racial identity. As for those who undergo plastic surgery, while it is easy to dismiss their attempts to improve their looks as mere vanity, their desires become more understandable when seen in circumstances where bullying, body shaming and discrimination (i.e., “must have pleasing personality”) are social realities.
But even as technologies of modification can seem empowering, there is also an underlying oppression. “Look at what our society made him do,” some have said of Xander, referencing societal beauty standards reinforced by media that valorize certain bodies — and companies that advertise and sell the means to achieve them. If bodily enhancement is accessible only to the rich, will it not add a further layer of inequality — not just economic, but aesthetic?
In a way, this is an age-old question. After all, humans since time immemorial have been modifying their bodies: tattooing, whitening, or tanning their skins, molding their skulls and noses, lengthening their necks, blackening (or whitening) their teeth, cutting their foreskins—all in pursuit of distinction and belonging. Indeed, a survey of history may reveal that the only thing that is truly “natural” is the urge to modify ourselves.
And yet, with technology allowing us to go beyond modification and pursue what amounts to bodily transformation, do we not also need to transform our ethics, and rethink what body images we are reinforcing — or tolerating? Regardless of where the technological and moral boundaries lie, one clear imperative is to move toward a culture of acceptance: one that respects people’s desire to transform their bodies—and keeps them from feeling the need to transform themselves in the first place.
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