All the excitement surrounding the power to quickly and easily alter one's appearance has largely died down. Social norms have arisen around what kinds of changes are acceptable and which kinds are not.It's a few years later in the universe of this question and this question. The rules from the previous two questions still hold with a few additional more:

  • Speciation is not permitted. Even though a person's appearance may become distinctly unhuman, they are still completely human from a procreation perspective.
  • Altering brain structure or chemistry is still strictly prohibited. However, all the genomic research that's been done has provided phenomenal insights into mental illness and drastically improved treatments have made it through clinical trials and are now available. Improvements in medical insurance (for those countries not on a "single-payer" system) now include mental health coverage for all plans. The stigma surrounding mental illness has largely evaporated. "Getting help" is encouraged and supported broadly in the general populace.
  • Alteration of gametes is also strictly prohibited.
  • Only a very limited set of alteration treatments are available to anyone under the age of 18 given children and teenager's developing brains and senses of identity. Alterations for someone underaged must be approved by the regulatory body.

Clarified Question: On the one hand, humans love variety, new clothes, new haircuts, new music, new everything. On the other, rapid and large changes in appearance, such as changing overall facial shape or brow lines, might disrupt society by making it difficult to identify friends/enemies or disrupting a person's sense of self. Beyond these two examples, what would slow down or stop a person from making frequent large, radical changes to their appearance? (I realize that there will be substantial physical constraints to large changes, but I'm not worried about those just yet.)

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A counter question: why should the culture not support rapid and frequent changes? Your culture is sufficient far from reality that you are almost starting from a blank slate. Do you have a goal of finding cultural reasons not to support rapid changes which might be applicable, or are you just assuming that they must exist? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I could see cultural support growing for those who change superficial appearance akin to the change in appearance from a haircuts but pushing back on radical changes like skin color, or skeletal facial structure. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ As it stands your question is a bit unclear, and also awfully close to idea generation. Maybe you could elaborate a bit what exactly the question is, and how you are planning to judge good answers? $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki is the universe described unclear? If so, I'm happy to edit the question. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 12:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This inspired me to go through the Queendom novels again. An interesting quote: "Anyone could be young and beautiful, but to be stylish was a thing the Queendom admired greatly. It was perhaps the one area where the opinion of youngsters was still considered important." $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 17:52

4 Answers 4


One need only look at the real world. While difficult, expensive, and sometime unsatisfactory, cosmetic surgery is widely available. Although certain individuals are notorious for their frequent surgeries, most individuals, even those who can easily afford it, do not choose to surgically improve their appearance. This is because most people actually like the way they look. Though they may bemoan the unattractiveness of their features, humans in general have a psychological attachment to their own face.

It is worth noting that plastic surgery, even now, can radically alter one's appearance. Consider the case of Eric Sprague, sometimes called the Lizardman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lizardman; not to be confused with the lizard men who secretly run our government). Eric Sprague has split his tongue, received subdermal implants, and undergone numerous other body modifications in his quest to resemble a lizard. People can do very strange things to their bodies, but most people do not, because they prefer their ordinary appearance. It is telling that one of the most common applications of plastic surgery is to resist changes to one's normal appearance, namely those of aging.

Of course, culture could change, but unless it were to change significantly, most people would see no reason to alter their features in the long term. Such alterations might become much more common than they are today, but even those who experimented in their youth would likely go back to their more familiar birth face.

Having a single face also makes things easier. One need not risk the uncomprehending stares of friends or relatives, and so social interactions are normalized. By contrast, imagine interacting with someone who wore a different face every day!

Another kind of cultural pressure would be religion. It seems possible that branches of some religions would see being satisfied with one's natural appearance as the moral choice. For that matter, this belief might be common among the non-religious as well, with people reasoning that someone who changes their face every day may not have issue with their appearance, but with their self-esteem. They might even be right.

P.S. One thing about your question puzzles me. Changes of appearance are described as quick and easy, but also genetic. I believe that only two of these terms can apply at any one time, at least in a scientific setting.

A procedure could be quick and easy, but then it would have to be surgical, because altering genes takes time, and reshaping the adult body in a non-drastic manner takes even longer. Needless to say, a surgical procedure would be difficult to perform by oneself, and might have side effects if done too many times.

A procedure could be easy and genetic, but then it would not be quick, because the body would have to be reshaped over the course of years. Merely changing genes might not be sufficient; specialized cells might have to be introduce to rebuild the person's body, since even the genes that control body growth are made to create a fetus or make a teenager taller, not change the shape of an adult body. This would probably still count as genetic, though.

Finally, a procedure could be quick and genetic, but it would most certainly not be easy. It would probably be extremely painful and disturbing to watch. Think Animorphs: cells would have to change, bones would have to shift, skin would have to slough off, and so forth. The brain might have to shrink. In this case specialized cells (or nanomachines, more likely) would definitely have to mediate the process, which might well leave the patient briefly clinically dead. This is just for changes within the normal range of human variation!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There is a real-world parallel to your religion argument. According to Wikipedia, "Kesh is the practice of allowing one's hair to grow naturally as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God's creation." As I understand it the same thing also applies to tattoos and piercings, and would probably apply to body modifications. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ There are similar ideas in Orthodox Judaism. $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 19:31

People are people. There are always some that want to experiment, push limits, or just 'be different'. That is a facet of human nature. Often we want to be different 'together'. Hence movements like Emo and punk rockers earlier. Most of the time is really is a form of self expression.

Now your requirements on 'allowed' brain chemistry changes. First the most likely thing tat would prevent this would be labeling it 'abnormal' behavior, and having 'approved' treatments to 'fix' the problem.

Which leads to another huge possible issue. What pray-tell is 'normal' and 'accepted' behavior? There are plenty of things we know are mental issues, and some are even caused by physical injuries to the brain. These of course would be the obvious issues. Repairing the damage done from say a 'double' concussions (not sure the real term, but getting a concussion and then having a secondary brain rattle, sending off the cascade effect causing terrible damage).

But where do we draw the line between, someone being different, and someone with a chemical imbalance or personality disorder? Would you go down the path that everyone is just made to be 'nice'?

So I would say the biggest issue would be the possibility of having your personality reordered because of your 'deviant' behavior.

  • $\begingroup$ @bownturner Your answer is excellent (as always) but altering brain structure or chemistry was forbidden in the question because its inclusion would have raised too many issues. Even without the power of gene magic, clinical psychologists in 2015 have a really hard time coming up with definitions and diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses for the DSM. Any kind of discussion about what is and what isn't "abnormal" would immediately be closed as "too broad". $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Green Yes, I know, my wife has her masters in Social work and I helped her study... How about just the 'threat' of 'reeducation'... $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I see what's happened. My implicit and unstated geographic scope for the effects of this question was limited to North America and Europe but perhaps yours were much broader. In that case, reeducation is absolutely plausible. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 12:59

A series of novels by Wil McCarthy.

Nanotechnology is used to transport people via dis-assembly and re-assembly of the pattern, and computers powerful enough to manipulate all those atoms. A person can be altered upon re-assembly, to become anything he wants!

This is discussed in a brief expository section, as I recall, and caused social upheaval called the fax wars. The main upheaval was with the notion of self and consciousness. But then there were issues of people wanting to look different in unacceptable ways.

This is not limited to impersonating someone else. People also wanted to be gigantic monsters or highly novel forms.

There were laws to control this, as well as some imposed physical limits. I recall him explaing how the size of the fax was fixed, so your form had to fit. People came up with imaginitive ways to fold themselves to get the most out of it, but no more building-sized giants.

Here are a few laws I can think of:

First, identity is not confirmed through ordinary biometrics. An unchanging part inside the shapeshifter, possibly a biocomputer component, is used for authentication protocols. People could have a sense hooked up to go with it, even if it's not a full blown data feed to the brain. If it gives the analog of a scent or sound as primitive input to the brain, people will learn each other's identity impression.

So, citizens must have their transponder at all times, and never alter it.

People must not mimic the face of another, as that is still confusing in a group or over TV. There are exceptions permitted under various circumstances with permission or in private.

General appearance will be intellectual property, with rights attached. So a character in a movie or play can be designed and worn by any actor, and kids can duplicate that for their own private amusement but not generally.

The shapeshifting ability will have inherent limitations, but the actual civilian implementation might have further limitations to serve as restrictions.

For biological shape shifting, changing the size would be a slow process. The underlying body plan will have inherent limits as to what will work.

In previous warewolf/shapeshifter posts I've mentioned having parts that are primed for ready changing, rather than having to break down and regrow all tissue. With prior preparation to be changed, some things will be an hour's visit to the fast-change-shop, some will be a day or two out-patient, and some would atill require major re-growth and take a substantial amount of time.

Describing what can be done in an hour at a fast-change-shop, via which features can be changed and by how much as permanant flexibility, will set limits on its casual use.

Also, let me comment that the idea of changing the genome is not right. Simply updating the DNA of every cell (correctly) will not change the development of the organism! The genetic programming that caused the body layout has already run and is not repeated unless you are regenerating a body part.

You can handwave the details of the technology, but don't describe a way that doesn't work: you might get away with not describing it at all, as long as consistancy and limitations are made clear.


Either, there's some way to efficiently identify who's who, or society completely collapses. Think about it. What would be the significance of private ownership, if identity was unprovable? What would be the point of a murder investigation if the culprit could never be identified?

So assuming that you can just look at someone with special glasses and know their full name and D.O.B., people would wear the glasses all of the time and almost completely ignore appearances. Shape shifting would only serve the purposes of self-expression and fashion. In this case, some unfashionable people would not bother to change their appearance very often, like how I keep forgetting to shave. Others would be desperately pleading for attention in the way they present themselves.

Perhaps people could occasionally have a 'mascarade' party, where they all consent to remove their identity reading glasses, so that they don't who they're talking to; because, "wouldn't that be fun..."


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