Saturday, July 31, 2010

TATB: Bodies on Display

Theology at the Bottleworks (July 28, 2010)
"Bodies on Display: The Ethics of Body Modification"

My scattered thoughts on the issue:
Body modification, whether medically necessary or elective, is a terrific question to consider, especially because everyone has a different opinion on where the limits lie (or if there are limits at all). The subject is so iconically subjective that that there isn't anything that cannot be considered a factor in any person's decision to participate or not to participate.

What is our range?
Plastic surgery - piercings -tatoos - implants (decorative, medical, and cyborg) - gastric bypass - circumcision (male and female) - LASIK surgery - hair transplantation - makeup - steroid use

The basic question is, "what governs what we do to our bodies?" Or better, "who governs what we do to our bodies?" Much of what people consider acceptable is culturally conditioned or even culturally mandated. Standards of beauty and "coolness" are products of the human imagination and are applied through personal motivation, peer pressure or, in some cases, force.

Along with the basic question, I'd like to know what the metaphysical implications/motivations are of participating in body modification. Metaphysical naturalism says that our bodies and identities are the same, which means that whatever changes we make to our appearances, we also change our identities. If this is true (given naturalism's denial of the existence of God), how do we make sense of identity in a practical sense? Neither a balding husband nor the law have grounding recourse against divorce if the wife says 'he is not the man I married' in a very literal sense.

With naturalism, most people would disagree. There is a default sense in the human mind that our identities are related to but not synoymous with our bodies; we think intuitively that a woman who wants a full-body transformation (via plastic surgery) to look like Kim Kardashian will never actually be Kim Kardashian or cease to be her self in any fundamental way. Does it matter, then, what a person does to her body? Those who say there are no objective governing principles to human actions must fall back on metaphysical naturalism to justify this position, but then we are back to the same conundrum of identity.

I observe that no matter what the extent of modification, people justify changes to their bodies in an effort to make some 'improvement' over the status quo (with the exception of the mentally insane, or so I'm told). How does a forked tongue or horn implants constitute an improvement? Steroids enlarge muscles but shrink genitalia. Where is the net improvement? Add to this that almost all claim freedom to modify with the caveat "as long as it doesn't harm anyone else." As surely as I know that no man is an island, how do people continue to use this phrase to justify this activity?

Bottom line: perhaps the "who" in "who governs what we do to our bodies?" isn't found in the mirror or in the culture. As someone observed, perhaps our bodies are objects of stewardship like any posession we have in life, given by the One who created all bodies. I find it ironic that the cost of denying this Who sometimes in the pursuit of body modification is greater in terms of pain and expenses than it is to acknowledge Him.

Out of the discussion that evening, two great quotes emerged, which are both humorous and uforgettable:
"If you want to lift 500 pounds, get a backhoe."
While referring to the subject of circumcision, "Any way you slice it..."