Thursday, December 17, 2015

Body Modification - a Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

I recommend this video for brainstorming because of its broad-ranging discussion.

We had a fabulous discussion on body modification. We started out with its modern meaning, talking about people who inject saline solution to change the shape of their faces, or the man who has tattooed himself to look like a lizard and had a crest inserted in his head to make him look less human.

However, there is a whole lot more that could be considered types of body modification. For example, foot binding in China was a very dramatic historical form of body modification, and things like castration to make a eunuch or castrato would also count as body modification. Cliff suggested that even circumcision might also be seen as falling under this category. Che mentioned that the Maya aristocracy shaped their heads by tying their babies' heads to boards, and also as adults inlaid their teeth with jade. Scarification and tattoos are found all over the world, and also count as modifications.

Very often, body modifications have an important social meaning. They can mark membership in a religion or other social group, and they can also mark changes of status (such as gaining adulthood or seniority).

We asked, "Do temporary changes count?" Henna tattoos are associated with special social circumstances, but fade with time. Hair style changes may not count because they are too easy to change.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox had a third arm added to his body. It's arguable whether his second head was added or original.

Neck stretching, which occurs among the women of the Padaung people of Burma as well as among several groups in Africa including the Ndebele, is a form of body modification. We discussed whether the neck was actually stretched, and whether the rings could be removed.

We noted that some of these body modification practices were intended to show that a person was aristocratic, and some were specifically geared to render a person unable to perform labor. Foot binding was one such practice, as was the growing of very very long fingernails. There have historically been various ways of marking oneself as being outside the working class.

Tattoos have in the past (and in the present, for some jobs) been a problem for people seeking jobs in the US. Cliff mentioned that his wife had a belly ring, but as a doctor, she received pushback from patients who didn't feel it fit the stereotypes of what a doctor should be like.

Our thoughts on body modification also took in modern beauty modifications, such as breast implants, botox injections, and even extreme dieting. Weight changes aren't necessarily permanent, but there remains the question, "What are you willing to do to your body for a job?"

Body modifications may also be coerced, such as female genital mutilation. But what about unintended modification? Does the damage done by coal dust count as a body modification? What about the sun damage sustained by people who must work all day in the sun?

We also talked about teeth, including the straightening and whitening of teeth as well as more unusual things like sharpening, etc.

There are also medical modifications, as when people get a pacemaker implanted, or get an artificial knee or hip. Morgan told us that her husband had had cataract surgery, and now his eyes glow in the dark.

In science fiction, many body modifications have been cybernetic as well as mechanical. Cliff recommended I, Cyborg by Kevin Warwick. In the book, Warwick talks about having cybernetic implants put in that allowed him to trade neural signals with his wife, among other things.

This led us to the idea of prosthetics, especially the modern thought-controlled ones, as a form of body modification. Do these things, which are attached to the outside of the body but function as body parts, count as body modification? What about exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to move, and may be brain-controlled, but are not actually a part of the body? A wheelchair is not considered a part of the body, but it does form an important part of a person's identity, as do other forms of mobility or functionality aids.

This thought led us to cochlear implants, which have raised very complex cultural and identity questions in the deaf community. Are these, and medical interventions like artificial ear bones, worth considering body modifications?

And what about genetic modification? To cure disease, or to create particular traits? If you were to alter the genetics of your child, what would you be doing to their identity? Would these changes be permanent? In Iain Banks' Culture books, people can change their gender.

We argued that humans have done rather extreme genetic body modification on a lot of different animal species, including turkeys and dogs.

Cliff mentioned a story he'd read where children were accompanied by adults whose bodies had been modified to be child size. Other stories we've read have had people modified to breathe underwater, or breathe nitrogen (other atmospheres), etc. Lois McMaster Bujold had people adapted to microgravity with four arms and no legs. Neuromancer featured a large number of cybernetic and other modifications, while in C.S. Friedman's book This Alien Shore, the first faster-than-light engine had made dramatic genetic alterations in humans so that they had now become significantly alien to one another.

Che remarked that one sees body modification mostly in science fiction rather than fantasy. What would it look like in fantasy? Che mentioned a story where someone had been punished by having the arms of the baby she killed magically grafted to her head. She also recommended the Monsterblood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish, where monster organs grafted magically into human bodies gave them particular powers.

Glenda mentioned the idea that eating the heart of a lion will give you a lion's strength, and this took us to the idea of magic potions. Magic potions might change your body's attributes, whether permanently or not.

This got us thinking that taking steroids was a form of body modification, if done over a long period. We also talked about medications and other techniques used to make genetically small people taller.

Cliff suggested that Gollum was modified by the One Ring, and so were the Nazgul, but we noted that in fantasy, complete transformation is more common. One of the brothers who were transformed into swans did end up with one wing after he was changed back.

I was really impressed with the range of topics we touched on, and hope these will get you thinking for your own projects. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Our next hangout will be in the new year on January 7th at 10am Pacific, and will be hosted on the Google Hangouts service if possible. I will keep you updated on how our technology is changing to the best of my ability. Our January guest will be Charlie Jane Anders, who will join us to talk about her book All the Birds in the Sky at a time to be announced.

I hope you all have wonderful holidays!



  1. Great post. Thought provoking as usual. As I understand neck stretching doesn't actual stretch the neck but gives that impression but pushing the shoulders down. The neck muscles can atrophy over time and the woman might not be able to hold her head up, similar to how women who wore corsets all their lives could not sit easily without them.

    1. That is what I read as well. It's fascinating what people will do to themselves and why.