To be a 21st century woman is to be transhuman
The mainstream depiction of transhumanism usually involves overcoming the inevitability of general human limitations of ability, lifespan, and intelligence by way of emerging technologies like AGI, brain-computer interfaces, etc. Tech that science fiction primed us for before barely being theoretically charted out in an academic paper. What seems to oft be left out of popular discussions about transhumanism is that women have long been among the first transhumanists, primarily because women’s personhood has long been intertwined with qualities that modernity subjects to degrees of transcendence to retain relevance. In most cultures, beauty is intrinsically linked to femininity. You’d be hard pressed to find a definition of feminine that doesn’t allude to beauty in any way. The female body, in the context of beauty, is not sacrosanct as long as modifying it doesn’t veer far from the current beauty standard. Second wave feminist Shulamith Firestone in the Dialectic of Sex: “every society has promoted a certain ideal of beauty over all others. What that ideal is is unimportant, for any ideal leaves the majority out; ideals, by definition, are modeled on rare qualities.” Whether you’re a Kayan elder with an elongated neck being hugged tightly by heavy coils or an influencer getting seasonal Radiesse injections - you are transcending your initial form to achieve a post-human ideal at unknown costs. Both being beautiful and preserving beauty requires varying degrees of self alteration.
The heavily gendered emphasis on beauty has manifested in expected ways. In 2020, 87% of all plastic surgery procedures performed in the US (over 2 million) were performed on women. The most popular procedures were all related to the face (fillers, rhinoplasty, botox, etc.) with trends affirming that women who go under the knife (or under the needle with minimally invasive procedures) are hoping to converge to a similar ideal that society upholds. The current ideal is called instagram face, which Jia Tolentino wrote about extensively in 2019, stating “it’s as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism.”Recently, the ideal is slowly shifting toward something called the clean girl aesthetic, another unachievable (for most, without modification) standard pumped out by the bastion of Big Beauty. The clean girl look promotes the beauty of diverse faces so-long as they have clear skin and pre-approved ‘natural’ features - those once considered flawed like freckles and lush eyebrows. Firestone wrote of the cyclic trend shift from hyper artificial to sort-of human in beauty: “every woman is constantly and explicitly informed on how to ‘improve’ what nature gave her, where to buy the products to do it with, and how to count the calories she should never have eaten – indeed, the ‘ugly’ woman is now so nearly extinct even she is fast becoming ‘exotic’.”
There’s a connection between the ephemerality of what is promoted as beautiful and the permanence of procedures undergone to be beautiful and the transhumanist desire to conquer nature without understanding the implications of doing so. Reversibility is not a prerequisite for transcendence. Plastic surgery has quickly become such a socially acceptable form of body modification that many people don’t really see it as such unless it, as mentioned earlier, results in an outcome that doesn't fall in line with contemporary ideals. The resulting ubiquity leaves adverse effects and regret that may emerge in part because of the permanence as an afterthought. Bella Hadid recently admitted to Vogue that she “wished she’d kept the nose of [her] ancestors,” after admitting that she got rhinoplasty at age 14. In the interview, she goes on to state how she decided to undergo the surgery because she perceived herself as ugly. Jessica DeFino summarized the interview well, “it is not strange that Bella Hadid felt ugly and insecure and anxious and depressed and still sought to be professionally beautiful. It is exactly how beauty standards are supposed to work. For everyone [...] has felt robbed of beauty and subsequently obsessed with attaining it.”
Body modification of varying extremes is essentially a rite of passage for women, whether it’s the first time we take a pink, plastic multi-blade razor to our leg hair or get toxins injected into our skin. These rituals occur with little thought and much subconscious coercion. Femininity is, as philosopher Susan Bartky put it, largely a disciplinary project overseen by unbound institutions.Beauty itself is powerful and rousing - the existence and glorification of it is not necessarily negative; the problem lies in it being so closely woven into the fabric of girl and womanhood. Though many traditional roles and expectations have been dissolved, beauty remains a focal point in many women’s perceptions of themselves and their worth. There is a seemingly insoluble link between the feminine and the beautiful, a particular type of beautiful that’s short-lived and painfully restrictive. The beauty industry is proof that the narrow confines of feminine identity outlined by Llewelyn Negrin in the following quote still persist.
“While male identity was defined through projects of self-transcendence, for women, their main avenue of self-realization was through the cultivation of their appearance. Unable to exercise their creativity in other ways, women resorted to converting themselves into works of art, becoming self-absorbed in a narcissistic obsession with their appearance. Admired for their looks rather than for their achievements.”
The only way for women to keep up with expectations of their gender is through transformation. Earlier this month, musician Grimes posted a picture on social media of her post-op self, bandaged and swollen. Several news outlets speculated that she had undergone surgery to modify her ears to look more elf-like. After it was reported that she got a ponytail lift, women lauded her for being transparent about opting for plastic surgery, hinting at a collective surrender to the normalization of the practice. We’re told that no part of a woman’s body is not in need of alteration: from Kim Kardashian hawking body makeup to achieve skin that doesn’t look like skin (poreless, flawless) to surgical procedures meant to ‘tighten’ the vagina.
In her interplanetary sci-fi novel The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guinn describes the ultra-feminine Vea, an inhabitant of a society analogous to Earth as “so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being.” The expectation of modification in order to be beautiful has rendered those who successfully perform femininity unnatural, post-human if you will. No woman matures into adulthood sans pores, with society’s idealized body type, without body hair, with a face touting ‘no makeup’ makeup, etc. In recent decades, the base level of “upkeep” expected has become more and more constricting and expensive while becoming less and less visible. We consider it normal for young, attractive women to inject themselves with hyaluronic fillers, spend hundreds of dollars on skincare, and even turn to plastic surgery, but also accuse them of “messing up their face” and “being pathologically insecure” when the side effects of cosmetic interventions eventually become visible. Firestone:
“The real question is: is the face beautiful in a human way – does it allow for growth and flux and decay, does it express negative as well as positive emotions, does it fall apart without artificial props – or does it falsely imitate the very different beauty of an inanimate object, like wood trying to be metal?”
The other, controversially purported intrinsic quality of woman-ness is the ability to give birth. Though reproduction requires participation from both cis-men and cis-women, it’s women that have borne the brunt of transforming their nature for this cause (for a variety of supposed reasons). While many ancient and existing civilizations have used herbs (and other things) to curb the nondeterminism of reproduction, the pill and other forms of contraception that emerged in the 20th century have been the most surefire solutions. Over 90% of sexually active American women aged 25-34 transform the processes of their reproductive organs to prevent themselves from getting pregnant.
What’s fascinating about the ways in which cis-women transcend themselves biologically and physically is that this form of transcendence tends to be within the confines of the dictates of society. The ways we modify ourselves are not subversive within the existing order. For example, birth control was once a controversial technology in part due to the increased autonomy and choice it gave women. It was once, and still is crucial to women’s liberation. However, its function and adoption exacerbates the conundrum of delaying society’s most upheld tenant of womanhood: motherhood. It does nothing to truly change the nature of female reproductive biology, those taking it for contraceptive purposes are still at the mercy of the biological clock; a fact that’s often weaponized against women who don’t prioritize childbearing during their most fertile years. As Firestone put it, we have done the bare minimum to “draft women into the male world” instead of eliminating what perpetuates the sex-class distinction altogether. To clarify, elimination here does not mean destroying biological differences between the sexes so as to make bio-females more like bio-males. Rather, it means using technology to provide those with increased control over something society has not adjusted to accommodate. Though people in Silicon Valley champion “revolutionary” technology, there’s a distinct lack of interest in biotech that would give women more optionality. Fertility tech is viewed as niche, too “female.” As a society, we’re interested in giving women the ability to freeze their wrinkles, to look like they’re 25 when they’re 45. But we’re not interested in giving a 45-year-old a 25-year-old’s lack of urgency when it comes to the decision to start a family.
In Why Love HurtsEva Illouz points out that in traditional pre-modern patriarchy, both men and women were culturally compelled to have children in order to propagate their families. However, in modern society it is women who “now take on the sociological roles of having and wanting children. In that process, the ecology and architecture of the choice within which they operate have changed considerably. In particular, biological time now plays a significant role in shaping women's cultural perceptions of their bodies and their pairing strategies.” Modern women tend to enter the marriage market later than their 20th century counterparts but are still subject to the same biological clock. Illouz writes that “the beauty industry and the availability of data on the 'narrow' reproductive time windows of women serve massively to construct a woman's (more than a man's) body as a unit defined by chronology (and thus threatened by decay).” Women are at a disadvantage: if they want to have children (within the structure of a traditional heterosexual household), they feel the pressure to find a mate by their early to mid 30s. Men have no such constraints.
Less than a handful of start-ups tackling this issue have emerged, some for reasons completely unrelated to women’s reproductive biology. Conception Bio, based in San Francisco, is a well-funded startup in the US that aims to create egg cells from stem cells. The company was created primarily because its founder, a self-identified gay man, was “interested in the idea of ‘When can same-sex couples have children together?”, stating that he “thought that this was the promising technology for doing this.”Though this is obviously an admirable and important goal, it raises the question of why there are so few equivalent startups focused on increased optionality for women. A group of people whose lives would be dramatically transformed by this technology seemed to have been an initial afterthought. Others in the valley, like Ivy Natal, have virtually no women on their team or advisory board. The outlook is not at all bleak, however - there are many startups and companies emerging that prioritize the protection and advancement of women’s health by way of technology. Japanese start-up Dioseve, for example, aims to artificially create eggs (similar to Conception and Ivy Natal but based on different mechanisms outlined in Nature), with the specific mission of addressing age-related infertility issues. Other efforts to create non-hormonal contraceptives for both men and women are under-way and people have begun attempting to tackle and shine light on the side-effects of menopause.
The existing tools we’ve discussed thus far fall under the political umbrella of what some refer to as “biolibertarianism”. Mary Harrington writes that while “biolibertarianism” has benefited certain bourgeois women, the “exploitative, medicated, disembodied, sexually libertine excesses of bio-libertarian hyper-modernity” are bad for most. According to her, “where Haraway sees potential for a creative new feminist politics of affinity, I see the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’. This is a world where digital simulacra are used to push a fantasy of radical self-creation, that re-envisages human selfhood as online identity and our bodies as meat avatars.” There’s something that rings true about her description of our current society: technology was meant to liberate us, but as it currently exists the “transhumanism” that is available to most women encourages them to spend thousands of dollars mutilating their faces and bodies to chase an impossible ideal of youth and beauty, and fertility-extending technologies like egg freezing and IVF are mostly only available to the very wealthy. Perhaps it was always naive to believe that technology, created and funded by people who live in a culture that devalues women, could be a way of escaping that same culture. But as far as I can tell we are all cyborgs, whether we like it or not—“chimeras,” as Haraway puts it, “theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” My hope is that we can find a way to transcend our bodies in a way that frees us instead of constraining us further.
Notice: This essay specifically focuses on transformation of the female body in the context of cis-womanhood and is not in any way intended to be exclusionary.
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