Prosthetics and Aesthetics

May 17, 2011 by Kristin Williams

Prosthetics are as old as human vanity.  Ancient and medieval prosthetics were, in general, provisional fixes for aesthetic problems, a device for recreating the normalcy of an unwounded body.  Few were functional, and almost none could restore the previous limb’s ability or level of performance.  The earliest makeshift prosthetics can easily be designated as treatments, rather than enhancements.  The Renaissance ushered in a new level of craftsmanship, and the functionality of prosthetics likewise increased.  The finest examples of Renaissance-era prosthetics, Götz von Berlichingen’s famous iron hands, for instance, had some (restricted) movement due to a system pulleys and springs.  This trend of increasing functionality continued through the centuries until the dawn of modern prosthetics in the Twentieth Century.

Today, we are not strangers to highly proficient prosthetics which can virtually replace a missing limb in both appearance and function.  Bionic hands made of a jumble of carbon fibers and wires can maneuver small objects like coins better than the hands of a preschooler.  Metal limbs utilizing biomechatronics can be controlled just like “ordinary” arms and legs through nerve impulses in the existing muscles.  Cyborgs, once just a frightful vision of the future, are becoming increasingly prevalent and even, dare I say it, commonplace.  Here we are toeing the wavering line between treatment and enhancement.

Some say that certain prosthetics have already crossed that threshold.  Oscar Pistorius, a world-class runner who just happens to have no feet, and his Cheetah legs, below-the-knee prosthetic legs made of curved carbon fibers, have raised serious debates about the definition of disability, the meaning of the verb “to run,” and the division between treatment and enhancement.  Pistorius was initially disbarred from the 2008 Summer Olympics because many believed his prosthetics enabled him to perform at an “unnatural” level; his artificial limbs, in essence, made him super-human.

The uneasy distinction between treatment and enhancement, however, is not merely restricted to categories of functionality.  In these days of the latest celebrity plastic surgery splashed across the newsstand, prosthetics are being looked to as a means of altering appearance.  Aimee Mullins, whose disability is identical to Pistorius’, shocked the fashion world when she modeled for Alexander McQueen on a pair of hand-carved wooden legs.  Later, Mullins collaborated with Matthew Barney on his art film, Cremaster 3.  Though not disabled himself, Barney has repeatedly dealt with the interplay between elective body modification and aesthetics in his creative work.  Both Barney and Mullins, perhaps more so than Pistorius, are heralds for a reimagining of what it means to be disabled and how physical enhancement can create a new ideal of human perfection.  As technology grows at ever-increasing speed, will the desire for enhancements, rather than mere treatments, take over?  Will a demand for elective prosthetics to alter physical appearance erupt out of our modern overflowing of vanity and appearance-concerned mentality?