Blueprint for a Better Human Body

People who wear and design prosthetics are rethinking the form of our species.

Marko Drobnjakovic / AP

When Elizabeth Wright smacks her right leg on a table, she says “ow.” That’s only interesting if you know one more thing: that her right leg is made out of carbon fiber and metal. It’s also part of her. “It is my right leg, just as my left leg is my left leg, and just as your right leg is your right leg.”

Wright was born with something called congenital limb deficiency—neither her right arm or right leg grew to their full length in the womb. At 2 years old, she was fitted with a prosthetic leg, something she describes as “a revelation.” Around the time she was 6 years old the doctors decided it was time for her to try a prosthetic arm. That didn’t go as well. “This was in the 80s,” Wright says, “before the fancy hands you can use to pick up eggs and not break them. The arm that I got it was purely for aesthetic reasons, it just hung there like some kind of weird dead arm, and I couldn’t do anything with it. I could actually do less. So I think it lasted two or three days and then it got relegated to the cupboard. I refused to wear it.” And it stayed there. Today, Wright still uses a prosthetic leg, one that is wholly hers, entirely a part of her identity, and she still rejects the use of a prosthetic arm. She says she’s learned how to do things without it.

For Wright, the prosthetic had to have a purpose. She wasn’t interested in something that made her look “normal” if it wasn’t going to help her actually do anything better. And she isn’t alone. More and more amputees, engineers, and prospective cyborgs are rejecting the idea that the “average” human body is a necessary blueprint for their devices. “We have this strong picture of us as human beings with two legs, two hands, and one head in the middle,” says Stefan Greiner, the founder of Cyborgs eV, a Berlin-based group of body hackers. “But there’s actually no reason that the human body has to look like as it has looked like for thousands of years.” Greiner himself has magnetic implants in his fingers and an RFID chip in his skin. “We actually already live in a cyborg society,” he said.

What was once an industry bent on replicating the human body exactly, the world of prosthetics has started thinking more creatively about what the human body can be. As technology advances, as engineers start to borrow ideas and designs not just from human biology but from elsewhere, and as prosthetics become less stigmatized, there are all sorts of options opening up. The human body, and what people consider the “normal” human body, can be a whole lot more than what’s biologically possible.

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For a long time the history of prosthetics has been inextricably linked with the history of war, and thus of men. After World War II, when soldiers were returning from the battlefield, there was a collective anxiety about whether they’d be able to re-enter their families and workplaces. Many people wanted soldiers to come back, and for everything to go back to normal. But an amputation was a physical reminder that things were not the same. “Physicians, therapists, psychologists, and ordinary citizens alike often regarded veterans as men whose recent amputation was physical proof of emasculation or general incompetence, or else a kind of monstrous de-familiarization of the ‘normal’ male body,” writes the professor David Serlin in the book Artificial Parts, Practical Lives.

Serlin describes the ways in which the media and the military talked about these soldiers, pushing for them to be seen as “normal” in the eyes of the public. In 1946, the comic Gasoline Alley featured a man named Bix whose prosthetic lets him be a “normal American guy.” The comic shows Bix stocking shelves, and features a very surprised boss who exclaims, “I didn’t expect he’d be perfectly normal”—before hiring the man on the spot. Professional photographs taken at Walter Reed Army hospital depicted men with prosthetic devices doing “normal” male activities like lighting a cigarette and reading the sports page, their prosthetic legs adorned with “tattoos” of pinup girls.

To be normal meant to go back to doing exactly what you did before, and looking the same too. The replacement parts should be seamless, should be unnoticeable. Even today there’s a whole field of cosmetic prosthetic covers and molds. You can get a custom sheath made that replicates your sound arm or leg exactly, down to the hair and the mole. And engineers and roboticists all over the world are still attempting to recreate, as perfectly as possible, the function of the human body. That includes hands that can pick up eggs without breaking them, mind-controlled limbs, and other delicate and intricate machinery. These high-tech devices trace their history back to the concept of normalcy, of trying to regain exactly what was lost.

But at the same time, there are more and more amputees who are going without the cosmetic covers, who are showing the machinery behind the leg, the hinges and the carbon fiber and the metal. And while function is still crucially important, there are people who are no longer asking how to replicate. Instead, they’re asking how to improve. How to make a limb new, better, stronger, more striking, more beautiful.

Aimee Mullins was one of the first amputees to really think about prosthetics as a question of enhancement rather than replacement. Mullins was born without fibula bones—one of the two bones that make up the lower leg. On her first birthday, doctors amputated both her legs below the knee. At 2 she was walking on prosthetics; at 17 she was off to Georgetown where she ran track and field, becoming the first amputee (male or female) to compete in the NCAA. It was there that she became the first person in the world to wear the now-iconic cheetah legs, and in 1996 she competed in the Paralympics on them. By 1998 she had set world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and long jump events. In 1998 Mullins started modeling and made her runway debut.*

Today, Mullins is a model, an actress, an author, and a speaker. She’s worn legs that look like jellyfish (in reality made of polyurethane, the same material used to make bowling balls), walked down the runway on legs carved by Alexander McQueen out of solid ash, become a cheetah, and walked on “glass” legs (also made out of polyurethane). “I’m that wearer and user of prosthetics that just destroys them,” she told me. “I beat them to the ground. I’ve really never been limited by the limits of the technology. I was doing things you weren’t supposed to do with the legs.” And for many years, since putting on the cheetah legs at the track, and the wooden sculptures at the fashion show, Mullins says she has never felt constrained to the human form. “My legs could be wearable sculpture,” she said in her 2009 TED Talk. “I moved away from the need to replicate human-ness.”

In many ways Mullins was before her time. When she walked on legs of ash or jellyfish, there weren’t many others out there dreaming up imaginative prosthetics. But today artists like Scott Summit and Sophie de Oliveira Barata create incredible pieces of art that also happen to be arms and legs. There are legs made to look like floral porcelain, arms that look like feathered armor, spike legs, arms covered in snakes. The musician Viktoria Modesta, who some have called “the world’s first bionic pop star” wears all kinds of incredibly detailed, beautiful, and edgy legs covered in gears or painted to look like exposed bone. Her music video, “Born Risky,” features the spike leg made by De Oliveira Barata.

In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, De Oliveira Barata described her work on prosthetics as outside of engineering or medicine—the industries with which artificial limb-making are typically associated. “Making an alternative limb is like entering a child’s imagination and playing with their alter ego,” she said. “You’re trying to find the essence of the person.” She works with clients to figure out how they want to look. “It’s their choice of how to complete their body—whether that means having a realistic match or something from an unexplored imagination,” she told The Times.

These sculptures aren’t accessible to everyone. Wright says she would love a custom leg, but it’s out of reach for her. “I’ve inquired about getting one,” she told me, “but it’s very expensive! Crazy expensive.” Depending on what the limbs are made of, they can cost anywhere from $4,600 to $21,000. But even if not every amputee gets or wants a spike leg or a feathery suit of armor or even the curved cheetah leg, the fact that people see these alternative bodies out in the world seems to have helped push a cultural shift in how people think about normalcy. That is, at least, in Western nations. In many countries, the stigma against disability and amputation remains.

In the United States, Mullins says that today’s kids don’t question her normalcy the way her peers once did, they don’t see her as disabled at all. “They see a rebuilt body as something powerful. If I’m walking around in carbon fiber or titanium or bionics, standing on a street corner, and some little kid is walking by, they presume power. They want to know if I can fly, how fast I can run.”

Some of this comes from exposure, some comes from the fact that more amputees are showing their devices, some comes from our modern love affair with technology. Some of it comes from the lessening stigma surrounding amputees, the fact that more and more prosthetics users are comfortable showing their limbs. “I tend to find that it’s people who are more comfortable with their body who embrace the idea of hey, might as well have fun with this and go crazy with the prosthetic,” Wright says. And some of this probably comes from the fact that more and more people are walking around with modified bodies of some sort. Mullins likes to joke that there are lots of women out there with more artificial parts than she has. And silicone aside, artificial hearts and hips are all around us. Amateur cyborgs are implanting themselves with sensors and magnets and RFID chips. “It’s so many people in society,” Mullins says. “And it’s going to be you, it’s probably your parents already. Everyone is going to have a modified body.”

Mullins draws from history too. She told me a story about visiting one of the oldest known prosthetics, a toe worn by the nursemaid who lived to be nearly 60 years old and died somewhere between 1069 to 664 B.C. Mullins remembers it as “a big gold toe.” Several years ago the toe was on display when she was in Cairo. “It was in a big glass case, and I could go around and crouch down and look at it. And it was worn through, on the bottom you could see the fibers of linen. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had to date regarding the human body and prosthetics.” Mullins sees a connection between her wooden legs, carved by Alexander McQueen, and this ancient toe. Neither attempt to realistically recreate the lost piece, and both are beloved by their wearers. “She wore it. She loved it. I feel like the more permission we give for anyone to own their body the better it is for everybody.”

* This article originally stated Mullins made her runway debut in 1999, rather than 1998. We regret the error.