You are about to enter the age of the superbody - fasten your faces, please

What will we look like in 20 years' time? And in 50? And 100? In this four-page special report on the body of the future, Marek Kohn predicts a world in which we will achieve physical perfection - at a price. Overleaf, Eleanor Bailey reveals how science is pushing back the boundaries to make our wildest dreams come true while, on page 10, Annalisa Barbieri says that in a perfect world, she'd rather be imperfect
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ageneration ago, the blueprints for the body of today could be found in Marvel comics and Barbie dolls. Nobody actually looked like that in real life, or even the movies. Nowadays, bodies in Sixties or Seventies films look not so much overweight as out of focus. They lack definition, attention to detail, a sense of purpose; all the things that shape the ideal body of today. Compare Cher then and Cher now, or Sonny Bono then and chart sensation Peter Andre now. Andre's exquisitely-worked torso looks like a piece of engineering, designed to an exacting specification, just like a modern aerodynamic car body.

But will Andre's abs impress VH-1 viewers in 20 years' time? What will the Cher of the 2020s look like? Come to that, what will Cher look like in the 2020s? Do we already have any blueprints for the body of the future?

Out in the real world, as levels of wealth increase in many regions, and Western diets spread, the global trend is towards getting bigger. English primary school children are half an inch taller, on average, than they were in 1972, while their Scottish counterparts are a whole inch taller. The Japanese are putting on a couple of inches a generation. Nor is the trend confined to rich countries. People are getting heavier across much of the developing world, with the biggest increases in China, Polynesia and Micronesia.

Quite how macro the Micronesians or anybody else can get is not yet clear. The Japanese growth spurt may be coming to an end. Americans are putting on weight, but they are not growing any taller. In fact, the recent increases in height seen in various regions are an abrupt reversal of a very long decline. Humans have been shrinking for the last 200,000 years, with particularly sharp downturns - in brain size as well as height - after the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.

Scientists differ over the explanation for this, but they agree that most of the evolutionary pressures that usually shape species have been relaxed for our own. We spend much of our time in climates we have made ourselves, reducing the influences that make people tall and slim in hot, dry conditions, or short and stocky in very cold regions. The usual way that populations of any species develop new characteristics is by being isolated, but in the age of airliners, humankind is one big interbreeding pool of genes.

The pool is also full of individual human beings, hoping to make the best of their chances. And although for practical purposes we need our muscles less as our machines get better, good bodies are still the key to sexual success, which in turn is frequently the key to wealth and social status. So human ingenuity will more than make up for the reduced influence of natural selection.

Instead of climate, the major force shaping the body of the near future will be television. Baywatch is said to be the most widely watched TV show on the planet, establishing Pamela Anderson as a global standard of sexual attractiveness. Her body isthe product that sets the standard for the competition. In the California screen industries, young women need breast implants to get work the way they need cars to get around LA. Off screen, these women acquire an advantage in attracting desirable partners and attention at parties, so other women are induced to acquire implants themselves. Add in all the other alterations that the cosmetic surgeon and the personal fitness trainer can create, and the result is an all-out sexual arms race.

California today doesn't necessarily mean tomorrow the world, but the reaction between media images of attractiveness and our own self-images is powerful chemistry. And behind it is the sense that the competition is getting hotter all the time. We know that looks are a key asset. It is no longer possible to become President of the United States if you are bald or obese. You would probably have to settle for a Latin American republic such as Ecuador or Nicaragua. For the less megalomaniac, personal

appearance is a vital consideration at job interviews, not to mention social functions. Potential employees need to look healthy as well as pleasant in demeanour. In the flexible, mobile, chronically anxious future, people may feel they cannot afford not to be surgically restructured. More and more combatants will be dragged into the arms race.

The need for health and efficiency will probably encourage classical standards for the male body. Broad shoulders, developed muscles and a flat stomach never really go out of fashion: the ancient Greeks would have appreciated the Peter Andre torso as much as his fans do.

On the other hand, they would probably have considered the current female ideal quite freakish. Likewise, future generations will probably look back on the combination of obsessive thinness and globular breasts as a peculiar and morbid quirk of the late 20th century. It seems reasonable to predict that in 20 years' time, the female ideal will have changed considerably. The shape it will take is a lot harder to predict, but will depend to a large extent on the relative importance of the three great roles women are now expected to play, as mothers, workers, and lovers.

Since one of the most striking features of recent employment patterns is that new jobs tend to be filled by women, it seems likely that looks suggesting efficiency and pleasantness will continue to be considered desirable. This will have a knock-on effect upon the men who are competing for the same jobs.

Those who succeed in the competition for work will enjoy rising incomes, and they will spend more on improving their bodies. Some may even try to improve their children's bodies by genetic engineering. Given the female body's susceptibility to fashion, this might turn out rather like buying a whole wardrobe of adult clothes as a christening present. On the other hand, many parents might reckon therapy to remove the shadow of male pattern baldness from over their sons' heads would be a sure way to guarantee filial gratitude.

They might also see genetic engineering as the ultimate legacy. Today, it is possible to increase a child's height by administering human growth hormone. One Californian father was told that such treatment was unnecessary because his son would grow to 5ft 7in. "That's absolutely unacceptable!" he expostulated. Imagine how a father like that would see the possibility, the day after tomorrow, of "germ-line therapy" that would introduce genes influencing desirable traits - tallness, facial symmetry - into his sperm or his wife's eggs. These characteristics would be passed down not just to their children, but their children's children, and on down the dynasty. For parents who want to leave their mark on posterity, genetic heirlooms will certainly beat passing on the house or the family business.

Whatever procedures and ideals become established, the result will probably be standardisation. Naturally, there will be individuals who reject the homogenised free-market body. Today, those who want to stand out from the crowd use clothes, cosmetics, or body piercing; tomorrow, they may simply opt not to have surgery. In some circles, jolies laides will be the most celebrated beauties, praised for their characterfully large noses or asymmetrical features.

Cults of "natural looks" will undoubtedly arise among those seeking an escape from materialism. Some may revere "holistic" beauty, instead of treating the body as a set of components, each of which is a commodity to be upgraded or replaced. Others may take the opposite tack. Instead of using prosthetics to imitate flesh, they will fit themselves with implants that are visibly and extremely artificial.

Fashion accessories for young cyborgs might include tattoos made from tiny light-emitting diodes, sensors giving readouts of metabolic functions, or strapless digital watches embedded in the wrist. Meanwhile, the poor will remain with us, unemployable and unable to afford the body of the future. They will look as different from the affluent as peoples from different continents look from each other. People may even start to speak of a rich race and a poor race. (As Kenan Malik notes in his book The Meaning of Race, the word was used in just this way before becoming an ethnic term.) Security guards at shopping malls will be able to recognise them instantly and keep them out, while body fascists will argue that if they can't maintain community standards, they shouldn't be allowed to breed in the first place.

IN THE FUTURE ...

a bald man's hair will grow again breasts will be bigger women will have leg hair permanently removed in just one session people will have fewer teeth and will never need to brush them

IN THE FUTURE ...

crooked noses and other 'unsightly' facial features will be corrected using permanent make-up most men will have had a 20 per cent penis extension to stay slim, you'll just pop a pill

IN THE FUTURE ...

there will be a 'sunless' suntan a woman of 60 will look like a woman of 35 does today genetic engineering will be the ultimate legacy: parents will be- queath good looks to their offspring

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