February 23, 2020

When the Body-You’re-Born-With is never enough

At first, I think he's joking. The smiling young man at the Free Thinkers Meetup suggests I touch, then push hard against the pad of his finger—so I can feel the magnetic chip beneath the skin. “It's the stronger of the two,” he explains nonchalantly, implanted a few months ago. He points to his other biohacked finger, recent recipient of a weaker but “more sensitive chip” that's still healing, and so not to be prodded for now.

I do feel something a bit hard in the finger pad (random fatty deposit perhaps? a wart?) but then laughingly pick up my coffee spoon (stainless steel, of course) to see if it will actually stick to a human digit-magnet. And you know something? It does. Weakly, but definitely “sticky,” and then he pulls out a light chain which simply hangs off the tip of his index finger. “That's me, Alex the Cyborg,” he shrugs.

Alex works as a software engineer and is the very definition of computer nerd. He sees nothing unusual in his decision to install magnets in his body in order to open up a whole new world of heretofore imperceptible sensations (“like a blind man suddenly capable of sight,” he says), claiming he can now experience the magnetic vibrations of the fan behind his computer, his blender, even his vacuum cleaner. To which I can only respond: “You've hacked into your body in order to commune with household appliances??!”

I then ask how he feels about the possibility of Internet-feed implantation and if he uses Google Glass. Not surprisingly, he says he would be first in line for a web body-hack but hasn't yet acquired Google Glass—not because it might be strange to continuously see the world through the eyes of a computer, but because the technology does not go far enough!

There's evidence of an explosion of interest in body modification among the twenty-something set all around me. Alex the Cyborg's girlfriend is an adorable young lady with a very pretty face and perfect figure who changes her hair's style and unnatural color/s almost weekly and has also seen fit to elongate her sweet little ears with huge disks so that the holes in her earlobes are now the size of half-dollars and growing. Like many of her generation, she also sports a nose ring and several tattoos. The muscular young man seated at my left wears a sleeveless tee shirt, all the better to show off his tattoo-laden upper arms. Trust me, his standout physique does not require additional embellishments to be noticed.

Tattoos have become the dominant art form of the millennial generation with about one- third participation (according to Pew Research; tattoo parlors report much higher numbers). The trend remains a mystery to their elders—who can't fathom why kids who still have no idea of who they are, or what they will become, nevertheless see fit to mark themselves for life at so unfinished a stage in the growing-up process. We try saving them from themselves . . . and adding yet another permanent scar, but often to no avail. As mothers, we stalk their Facebook pages, horrified to find evidence of new ink on their profiles. And we use whatever weapons we can to avert further damage. My friend, who was paying the airfare for her daughters—who live on opposite coasts—to get together, threatened to no longer help with rent or anything at all when she saw their post of “looking forward to getting sister tattoos.” The threat seemed to work, at least for now. But the message was never taken seriously. For her 30th anniversary, a few months later, she received a gag card displaying the words HAPPY ANNIVERSARY tattooed on her youngest's neck. And the single demand we placed on our daughter—that she not get a tattoo while away at college (if she wanted our continued support)—was summarily ignored the minute she graduated, and celebrated by inking her wrist.

Many members of my generation, who've witnessed the atrocity of tattooed numbers on the forearms of concentration camp survivors, have come to internalize an aversion to inking of any kind—a revulsion that has obviously not been passed on to the next generation. We also find piercing in any place other than the traditional lower earlobe rather distasteful. But these feelings don't seem to matter today, either. I'd habitualized myself to looking away from the painful sight of multi-pierced cashiers ringing up my tween daughter's purchases at Hot Topic (the goth kids' Target), figuring if there was any place such overtly disfigured young people could get a job, this was it.

Still, I wasn't ready to confront their slightly older brethren at my local cafe during Open Mic Saturday nights. Yet there they were—one male, one female, unrelated but “could-have-been twins” emaciated baristas—making a weekly appearance sporting newly acquired, matching, facial piercings. They were earnest and friendly and didn't know they were making me lose my appetite before ordering . . . No wonder so many of us bussed our own tables those nights; the poor, piercing victims looked about ready to drop!

They've both recently moved on to “opportunities” further North (cafe regulars helped with gas money collections) where I expect they will encounter more of their kind. Taking their place, are far more wholesome-looking, clear-faced servers who quickly managed to rekindle my hot-chocolate-and-croissant addiction. I do still miss the multi-pierced waifs at times, however, especially when I'm trying to lose weight. I wish them all the best and hope they are eating and healing properly, and finding happiness, at last.

Which begs the questions of why, exactly, are young people rushing in droves to permanently alter their bodies in ways that go far beyond the more typical, and generally accepted, breast enhancement or rhinoplasty? Why must they go to such extremes to create a unique, permanent expression of their physical selves just at a time when they are so adrift in every other aspect of their lives? My 23-year-old daughter is in London again, having left Florida for good at 17. In the interim, she's also tried living in LA and New York City. All of the South Florida mothers I know with grown children have offspring residing somewhere else—from Boston to Seattle to Ontario, Canada. Unless some of her friends happen to be visiting family at the same time, my daughter can never simply come home and reconnect with former high school classmates because every one of them no longer lives in the town where they grew up.

With all their wanderings, these kids nevertheless manage to accrue possessions—which they then, inadvertently, misplace and lose along the way. It can be expansive and wonderful to consider oneself “a citizen of the world,” to be sure; but it can also be an extremely unnerving and dissociative form of existence. When no place or position in life or work is definite or secure, all that's left to count on—the one thing that will always be there—is one's body. Perhaps body modification is this generation's way of putting down roots, of fully committing to personal convictions, be they ever so transient. Beneath the mélange of inkings and piercings and even some bio-hack operations lie desperate souls crying out for meaning, for a sense of permanence, for recognition as unique individuals for once in their lives. They may not receive the validation they need from work or from their social network and, in today's economic climate, will likely continue to wander to seek their fortune . . . But at least they'll have their uniquely modified bodies to serve as a compass—a “true home” identity—that will stay with them wherever they roam.

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

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Mindy Leaf has worked as a professional freelance writer for the past 30 years. Her specialties include travel, culture, the arts and, most recently, a self-imposed weekly essay (or rant) spouting the unvarnished truth—as she sees it.