Boutique Medicine

How the transhumanist pursuit for endless youth ends up enforcing beauty standards and social inequality

Disclaimer: this text was originally published by Tab UOL, in Portuguese.

Cosmetics, surgical procedures, genetic treatments, 100 pills per day: anything goes with Transhumanism. Patients are turned into consumers and unaccessible health services are fetishized.

The legend says that, in the future, the world will be divided between two kinds of people: those who can live inderterminadely and those who die.

An ideological and philosophical movement, transhumanism seeks to find ways to transcend human condition through technologies such as bioengineering, robotics, nanotechnology or even artificial intelligence. The final goal is to augment our bodies and minds, being it through enhanced performance or, ultimately, through the radical extension of life. North American authors are among some of the most known enthusiasts and researchers.

One could say that transhumanism is also a more technological facet of social darwinism. According to philosopher Francis Fukuyama, transhumanism is the most dangerous idea of our century: while longevity and augmentation techs are only accessible to a few privileged people, we are destined to an even deeper social inequality than the one we see today.

According to IBGE (a Brazilian research institute), in 2018, an average Brazilian could reach the age of 76,3 years, but this is an statistics that contemplates people who aged beyond 100 years and people who died at the age of 35, as it is the case for transexual people in the country.

In other words, to reach such advanced age, one must be more than healthy and keep good habits: one needs to have money and social status.

Researchers such as the British gerontologists Aubrey De Grey, author of the book “Ending Age”, argue about the hypothesis of the “longevity escape velocity”, that is, a hypothetical situation in which life expectancy surpasses the passage of time: instead of aging as years go by, we would be able to not simply stay healthy, but also forever young. After all, despite the fact that the reason why aging happens is still a mystery for scientists, the main theories argue that the process comes after the sum of damage our body acquires throughout the years, and at a certain point, we aren’t able to revert them anymore.

With the sequencing of the human genome and the discovery of techniques of gene editing, such as the case of CRISPR, new treatments in molecular biology pose the promise to not simply cure diseases, but also work as anti-aging therapies, therefore capable of extending life. This is what De Grey is searching for at his research institute SENS, as well as Elizabeth Parrish with her company BioViva, and Google with its project Calico. But genetic engineering isn’t the only way — and this only expands the opportunities for Silicon Valley gurus.

Hacking life

Biohacking is considered one of the practices or one of the currents inside transhumanism. The movement seeks to find ways to modify the body, being it through implants (chips, magnets and sensors, for instance) or through experimental treatments with substances that may alter the body (like hormones or chemical substances that could, for instance, allow people to temporarily see in the dark), besides other tests in which the very practitioners are also the Guinea peas.

This is the case of the physician Rodrigo Neves. Post-graduated in nutrology and endocrinology, Neves is a member of the American Antiaging Society and founder of the company Biohacking Academy. According to him, “do it yourself” (DIY) is a practice he doesn’t agree with because he finds it too dangerous. In his program “Biohacker Code: The Superhuman Secret,” participants learn other ways to hack their bodies after 13 lessons on physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, mindfulness and work: all for the sake of productivity and, consequently, longevity. “The biohacking style that I practice is one connected to supplements that optimize our brain and body, it is connected to the ability to hack our mind and our mindset”, says the physician, who explains that the program also includes recommendations for meditation and neuro linguistic programming.

Neves is inspired by people such as Ben Greenfield, author of the books “Boundless: Upgrade Your Brain, Optimize Your Body & Defy Aging” and “The Low-carb Athlete: The Official Low-carbohydrate Nutrition Guide for Endurance and Performance”, as well as Dave Asprey, creator of the bulletproof diet, which became popular after its version of a coffee drink brewed with butter and oil.

The physician argues that his method is able to guide people’s lives, helping them to achieve their goals — being it on the physical, mental, financial levels, or even in terms of relationships. “Physical exercises make us sustainable, we keep our muscle mass in all periods of life. It doesn’t matter if the person wants to live longer or perform better, get more achievements in their work life, whatever that is, one needs to think about gaining muscle mass. This makes them achieve a better corporeal consciousness,” argues Neves.

The Moldable Body

In spite of transhumanism or even the biohacking version argued by Neves show that it is possible to “hack” our bodies, other practitioners in the fields of mental and nutritional health think this isn’t sustainable in the long term. For the psychologist Vanessa Tomasini, who has over 19 years of clinical experience and is a member of Health At Every Size, this is a wrong idea. “It’s like you only need to be focused, have faith and strength, eat right, use hormones or certain medicine, practice some specific physical activity, and then you can mold your body. But this is a temporary mold: it lasts until you keep using these artifices,” she explains.

To illustrate the problem, Tomasini recurs to psychoanalysis. “We tend to reflect on what it means to live in our own skin. People are growing more disconnected to their bodies as they are always searching for something that is yet to come. In some way, these technological discoveries bring really good things — for instance, the improvements in medicine — but, at the same time, there is a process of distancing”, she adds.

When we talk about cosmetic procedures and products, we can’t avoid also talking about the beauty industry, which has women as its main target. Both Tomasini and the nutritionist Marcela Kotait, coordinator of the anorexia nervosa ambulatory at the Hospital das Clínicas de São Paulo, see that the beauty industry rather stress the issue of the beauty standard — that is, the pressure to which men and women are subjected to in order to fit an already established beauty and performance ideal.

“There are very powerful companies behind all this pressure. They sell drugs and even cosmetic procedures, creams, all kinds of miraculous food. This all spreads the pressure away, because, in the end, it is all too connected to our capitalist system,” says Kotait.

Nutritional Terrorism

Although it is not already recognized as an eating disorder, orthorexia nervosa is an eating behavior very well observed these days.

Nutritionist Marcela Kotait explains that this is an eating habit in which people try to eat only in very “clean” and healthy ways, only aiming for results and understanding eating as a tool: “It is a reflection of this relationship that we have with eating and this relationship is very sickened. While we keep believing that you are what you eat, we will end up with these very simplistic views that you need to eat perfectly, never understanding that eating itself is something much more complex, which involves cultural, emotional, familiar, and social aspects.”

To Fernanda Imamura, a nutritionist specialized in eating disorders, this kind of behavior contains more than just a pursuit for longevity, but rather a nutritional terrorism in which we live nowadays, since we are always trying to find out what is healthy or not so we can achieve unreal bodies.

In the paper “Vida saudável versus vida aprimorada” (Healthy life versus augmented life), researcher Fabíola Rohden mentions the recent role dedicated to testosterone as “a great triumph to the enhancement of physical, aesthetic and sexual performance in women, also through means of individual and operationalized prescription in manipulation drugstores or through hormonal implants.”

“The promotion of public discourses about the feminine dissatisfaction and the promise of resolution through biomedical resources is also observed in the field of aesthetic medicine. It is interesting to see how it becomes central to the hope to transform bodies rapidly, as if it would come alongside a strong subjective transformation too. In the reports given by women who went under cosmetic surgery, it is frequently mentioned the idea that they are making a dream come true, that they are achieving the so-hoped femininity, self satisfaction and sexual performance.”

Medical aesthetics

In her study, Fabiola Rohden criticizes the popularization of the so-called “horny chip” — a subcutaneous implant containing testosterone, which is indicated by some physicians for patients who want to cease ovulation and menstruation, improve their libido and muscle mass, as well as reduce their subcutaneous fat. “The so-called “chipped women”, many of them popular celebrities, have been publicizing the existence of this new technological device whose promise is to solve several demands that are assumed to be the motivators of feminine dissatisfaction,” writes Rohden.

In academia, this process has been known as “healthicization” — a practice that aims to medicalize, define and offer medical treatment for issues that are, in fact, social or even natural events. In other words: behavioral or social characteristics become biomedical definitions, which puts them at the same level of a heart disease, for instance. However, healthicization stresses the use of drugs to a behavioural intervention and a change in lifestyle, not linked to therapeutic ends.

In her studies, Rohden explains that healthicization gives hands to the impact of technological innovation — both in terms of diagnosis and treatments and when there is some new discovery in bioengineering, computational technologies, the development of new drugs and image procedures.

All these achievements end up in the dance of politics and economy, so it impacts directly on the meaning of life as a “matter that can be controlled and transformed.” In this scenario, hypochondria and anxiety triggered by enhancement possibilities may become our daily bread in the future. Such procedures offer more than the control of our bodies: they offer the transformation of the body, of the self and of health.

Post-human: the final frontier?

How would it be possible to shield ourselves, or at least be able to think reasonably about these topics, while all these disordered behaviors are taken as normal and highly disseminated in our Instagram feeds in the form of slimming teas and parties to celebrate new silicone implants and bichectomy? How can we live in our own body when more and more solutions are for sale and more rewards are given to people who pay the price (financially and psychologically speaking) to become superhuman in the glossy magazine covers and in social media advertisement?

To Rohden, all these resources end up offering ways to biochemically and anatomically interfere with our bodies in order to adequate it after our social imaginary on the meaning of “health, wellbeing, youth, beauty, physical and sexual performance, desire, power.” Investing in oneself, therefore, becomes some kind of self-legitimization: but there is a subtle line between what is socially desirable and what is reprehensible.

It is in this sense that the physician Rodrigo Neves argues that his colleagues must be coherent and orient correctly their patients that are searching for procedures: “The excess of anything is bad. Many techniques of filling, for instance, may be absorbed by the body and, for this reason, we need to see until what point this could become toxic or not, even in emotional terms.”

Psychologist Vanessa Tomasini reflects on the dichotomy between these technological solutions and the still present dissatisfaction among people. “The solution of body modification offers the ‘possibility’ to modify your body, but it’s a modification that works for a very short period of time and it doesn’t mean that this will change your subjective feelings about your own body. I can offer you another body, but that doesn’t mean you will be happy inside it,” she explains. “So, maybe this discomfort that we feel about our bodies is not connected to our appearance? Maybe it’s much more connected to the way I live with this body that I have?”

Scalpel, pain and death

Extrapolating these inventions beyond the aesthetic level, we reach the topic of immortality. Tomasini argues that, from a psychoanalytical perspective, death is a barrier to the subject and we need this limit: “We need to understand that pleasure has an end, that it is not unlimited and that life’s end brings that, the fact that we know up to what point we can go.”

In her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1984), sociologist and feminist author Donna Haraway envisioned the use of technology as a means to emancipate humanity, but what we see today is quite the opposite. Brazil has the third biggest cosmetic market in the world, to the point that we allow charlatan people such as Doutor Bumbum (Dr. Booty) to perform cosmetic procedures that caused the death of women. And this is also the country where celebrities are rewarded for dieting or going under cosmetic surgery.

Another way to understand this scenario is thus acknowledging that everything takes time and immediate results are an illusion that cannot be sustained in the long term. “A physiculturist takes hormones, for instance, and trains for about 10 or 12 years,” explains the physical Rodrigo Neves. In the case of the nutritionist Fernanda Imamura, her recommendation is that we become more critical: “Even if corporations and media tell us all the time that our body is wrong and that we will only be happy when we achieve the idealized body, it is necessary to understand that self-acceptance won’t happen through the transformation of the body. Self-acceptance is a much more complex process and it doesn’t exclusively depend on aesthetic changes, but actually on the effort to deal with inner issues with oneself and understand that we are more than our physical body.”

Perhaps we need to take some steps back to understand that human emancipation and transcendence must first come with the way we see ourselves and how we exist in this world, so that technology is one of the many ways that we may achieve health in its complete sense: physical and mental. If, on one hand, movements such as Accelerationism promote extreme technological development, it is possible that we end up in a trap that is much more similar to the legend of Icarus than of the technological moralism of Prometheus. Maybe we won’t be punished for our curiosity and will to live, but for our pride in thinking that, even for us, there are no limits.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.