In a few months we will be able to see the first human head transplant. After years of preparation and planning, surgeons hope that the procedure, successful or not, will lead to new treatments for the severely disabled. The procedure itself will be a grueling thirty six hours, and if the early tests on mice are any indication, the volunteer patient might only have a few hours to enjoy his new body. Other researchers point to other dangers that might arise, including a real possibility that the severely damaged spinal cord nerves might trigger unimaginable, permanent pain. Regardless, the surgeons are moving forward in what they hope will be a great leap for science.
As I hear about the issue, the only thing I can think is that only men would be stupid enough to believe that bodies were transferable. It is part of their privilege, this idea that we are merely brains in captains' chairs, controlling the body below. As though that body is an accessory, rather than an integral aspect of personhood. As though our spirits will be untouched by the fleshy molds that genetics and lifestyle have given us. As though their quirks and chemical detritus isn’t written on every crease of our mind.
It isn’t a new idea — humans’ ongoing attempt to understand our consciousness has flared a question of what part of us is human and what is animal throughout Western History. But, increasingly this idea has caught hold in our own modern, intellectually focused world. This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard men talk about their selves as separate from their bodies, either. Puberty meant complaints of the drives that were suddenly attacking them, assailing their purely rational minds. As if they hadn’t been eating glue and crying over stickers a few months before. As if the chemicals that were sprouting strange hair and changing voices weren’t also rewriting the way their brain, their self, would interact with the world forever.
Maybe I am hyper-aware of my own body because of the monthly hormonal shifts that bring irritability and sluggishness along with the traditional wave of blood. Or, perhaps it has to do with the awareness that was pounded into my growing skull: even my pudgy, shapeless child body was sexual. I was told to cover up, to saunter less, to be careful not to be too pretty. Men were looking at my body, and I didn’t want to tempt them to sin. Since then I’ve had a lifetime of adjusting skirts, hiding bra straps, gluing cleavage gaps and holding keys pointed between my knuckles to remind me that men really are always watching, and that my body is a statement, whether I agree with its message or not.
At fifteen, before my own puberty had struck, the local newspaper ran an article on what a future human body might look like. Factoring in death and injury rates at the time, they beefed up the theoretical man’s bones and strengthened the heart. They thickened the skull and shifted the hips and changed the way the future human’s body metabolized sugars. The article, written by a man, claimed to have taken into all aspects of human development from earlier puberty to increased sitting time at future jobs.
Even at fifteen I could easily see major flaws in their premise: a ribcage that extended completely over vital organs would prevent pregnancy from developing normally; an increased skull size would mean rib-cracking C-sections; lower body fats would mean risking brain development. As a child I didn’t think much past the obvious problems that pregnancy suggested, missing the way that their “hormonal” suggestions were based off of a testosterone based body, or that the death rates that had factored into the article were only those of men and ignored uniquely female risks. I was no science wiz, but I knew that there was something wrong with a theory that a fifteen year old could poke holes in. It would be another decade or so before I realized that the “male body” bias of medical science was a standard rather than an exception.
This body blindness is all around us. Abled men talk about leveling up their body as though it were a weapon or tool, to be outfitted with the newest gear or switched out for the newest model. They think of their body as something they own, rather than an integral part of who they are. When confronted with the less abled, they cannot understand why those people don’t just “fix” their body. After all, isn’t that what all the working out and dieting has been about, and it can be hard to imagine that that same hard work might just not work for someone else.
I’m not free of this cultural conditioning. I’ve been at war with my body since my best friend first got breasts. Even after puberty finally arrived I struggle against a body that became nothing like I expected. There is nothing feminine about my build, and with short hair I’m mistaken for a boy as often as not. I’ve learned to dress like a girl to key people in — no boyfriend shirts or sweatpants for me. If I’d been offered a different body I’d have accepted it, and that was before the cysts and sickness, the doctors’ dire warnings and the pill bottles on the bathroom counter.
The truth though, is that I don’t want a different body, I want my body, but better. Maybe I am unique, in that my decades-long relationship with my body has made it part of me. Even when I think of my body as smaller than it is, I still innately know exactly what it is capable of. I know that I can balance on one leg, at tiptoe while I reach for the glasses at the top of the cupboard. I know how to walk and dance, I know what expression my face makes when I cringe or laugh. I talk like an Italian, all hand gestures and boisterousness. I can’t even imagine speaking without my body. I’m a tactile addict, I can’t imagine saying hello to my partner without my fingers on his waist. I can’t imagine lying in bed with different aches and pains that my usual side-sleep angled leg position prevents.
However, I can understand the lure of a healthy body, a different body. The head transplant volunteers are people who have reached the breaking point. Their bodies have betrayed them. After decades of abuse at their hands of their own bodies, the idea of a new body is worth risking excruciating pain and early death. They are, after all, already facing that now. The chance at a new life is worth it.
No, my concerns are reflected toward the scientists preparing for this surgery, and I’m not alone in my hesitancy. There are reasons why the surgery will be taking place in China: the doctors failed to get their trial approved because of safety concerns. The entire process is predicated on the development of a serum that can serve to reattach severed spinal nerves. Without it, the patient can only hope for life in a semi-vegetative state. With it, radical surgery isn’t the next logical step. As other researchers are asking, I ask too: if this technology has been developed, why not start by treating spinal injuries? The doctors have spent nearly four years preparing for this surgery, how many lives could have been improved by using this technology on less risky, less publicity-stunt procedures.
Only a man who has never been at war with his body could imagine that a head-transplant was the logical step here. Only someone who views bodies as something interchangeable, something owned, would think that replacing a body would be better than fixing a broken one. We are fleshy meat-bags, whether we want to believe that or not, and the hormones and chemicals and electrical impulses that drive our bodies affect the part of us we consider selves as well.
Picture courtesy of Samuel Zeller cc