Beauty and the Freak

Lace fairing from 3-D Systems and Bespoke Innovations

Lace fairing from 3-D Systems and Bespoke Innovations


For centuries human beings have been modifying their bodies -- tribal scarification, tattoos and cosmetic surgery -- are just a few.  Today, new technologies are enabling new body modifications like inserting magnets in your fingers. But when we change our bodies, do we change who we are? IDEAS contributor Sheetal Lodhia explores how changes to the body can effect changes to the sense of self.

Erik Sprague - "The Lizardman", (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
For centuries, human beings have been modifying their bodies for religious and spiritual purposes, as punishments for crimes, for medical necessity and for aesthetic pleasure. Tribal scarification and tattoos have been performed worldwide for thousands of years.  In India, in 500 BCE, the surgeon Sushrata conducted some of the earliest rhinoplasties on people who had lost their noses due to syphilis. In the Renaissance we find evidence of early prostheses, wigs, wooden dentures, wooden legs and arms.  Some prosthetics were used for cosmetic reasons. Sometimes they were used for performance. Elizabethan stage actors, especially young boys, would have to convince audiences that they were women through costume and affect.  However, the vast majority of body modifications were done to help those who had lost limbs through disease, malnourishment or accidents.
Today, few people would question practices such as dental or reconstructive surgery or the implanting of a pacemaker. In fact, many might not consider these to
be body modifications at all perhaps because they're viewed as necessary.  When we look at cosmetic surgery today, tummies can be tucked, noses straightened, necks lifted - procedures that are not necessary.  When we move further to the fringe, body modifications can include implanting magnets in your finger to pick up electro-magnetic waves.  Or having bones inserted in your forehead to express a different idea of beauty. There are new technologies out there that are changing what we do with our bodies and how we view them. 

Whether we can imagine it or not the future is here.  And so, when we alter our bodies in conventional and unconventional ways - does it also change our sense of self? 

Participants in the program:

Tim Cannon is a software programmer and a co-founder of Grind House Wetwares, an organization interested in DIY body modification.

Chad Crittendon is an amputee advocate and Beta-testser for 3-D Systems and Bespoke Innovations. He was also a contestant on Survivor.

Dr. Katherine Hayles is professor of English literature at Duke University. Her specialities are 20 and 21st-century relations of science, technology and literature, including science fiction.

Dr. Naomi Morgenstern is Associate Professor of English literature at the University of Toronto. Her specialities are 19th and 20th-century American Literature, gender studies and psychoanalytic theory.

Dr. Ivo Pitanguy is a cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon. He is the founder of Clinica Ivo Pitanguy, a teaching hospital and patient care centre in Brazil

Erik Sprague, also know as "The Lizardman," is a professional freak and works in body-based performance art.

Dr. Lawrence Tong is a cosmetic surgeon based in Toronto's Yorkville area.


Hayles, N. KatherineHow We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Popper, Ben. "Cyborg America: Inside the strange new world of basement body hackers." The Verge. August 8, 2012.

Edmonds, Alexander. "A Necessary Vanity." Opinionator: Blogs NY Times. August 13, 2011.

Davis, Kathy. "'My Body is my Art' : Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia?" Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body. K. Davis Ed. London: Sage, 1997: 454-465.

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