Flesh Machine.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies lately.

Specifically, I've been thinking a lot about how women view their own bodies, and how women feel about the way their bodies are viewed by others. I’d like to write further on this topic, but I have to think about it some more. I have conflicting feelings. It’s complicated. And every time I bring this subject up to another woman, something bad happens. It’s true; don’t ask me to explain. So I’m having trouble working through it, is what I’m saying.

But as I was trying to work through it, I got to thinking of not only my womanly self, but also of my corporeal self.

I’m fascinated with the notion that I putter through this existence in my little flesh machine, interacting with the other flesh machines, until the point at which my own flesh machine is ultimately either wrecked or worn out.

(It’s strange, but I consider the entity that I call “I” as being distinct from my body. It’s a symbiotic relationship, to be sure, but ultimately one party is the host, the other is the parasite. The body is there to house the “I,” and the “I” has to cope with the frustrations it encounters as a result of being restricted to living in the body. And when the flesh machine ultimately breaks down, the “I” abandons it for Whatever Is Next. Which might be nothing. Or it might be something. No “I” knows for sure.)

I’m also intrigued by the idea that the bug creatures are puttering through existence in their bug-flesh machines, and the bird creatures are puttering through existence in their bird-flesh machines, and the cat creatures are puttering through existence in their cat-flesh machines… And that even though our machines interact with each other, the vast differences between our respective machineries causes each creature to interpret existence in radically different ways. Yet despite this, my machine is not so different from the snail machine or the ant machine. Flesh. Skeleton. Guts. Limited and finite. Easily squished by something bigger…

(Warning: This blog post gets even weirder. If you’re not interested in a juvenile discussion of genitals juxtaposed against a careful and introspective examination of your own corporeal state, I’m telling you right now, read no further. And especially if you’re trying to read this while you eat - seriously, move along.)

A few years ago on my birthday, I went to a Body Worlds exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. For the uninitiated, let me explain… There’s this German guy named Gunther von Hagens who has perfected a remarkable method of preserving the human body called “plastination.” Basically, von Hagens preserves corpses by infusing the tissue with a specific kind of plastic, then puts the results on display all over the world.

And in case you're interested in the world beyond the human flesh machine - Who isn't? - Von Hagens doesn’t limit himself to the plastination of people. If you’re going to be in Cologne, Germany over the next few weeks, you can swing by the zoo and catch von Hagens’ exhibit of plastinated animals, called "Korperwelten der Tiere." Above is von Hagens with the plastinated corpse of an elephant.

But back to the human world of Body Worlds. The cadavers that are on display in this exhibit are the real, actual bodies of humans who have left their remains to science in the hopes of being useful after their deaths. In fact, Hagens’ Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg has 9,000 pledges on file from individuals who want their bodies plastinated after they die. It’s taxidermy to the extreme - preserving the flesh machine for all eternity in the hopes of helping the rest of us understand our own flesh machines.

(Just for the record, plastination is not for me. Oh sure. Being put naked on public display for the world to gawk at for all eternity seems like a good idea in theory. In theory. But although immortal fame fanned by morbid curiosity SOUNDS cool, I have something else in mind. Yep. I've said it once and I'll say it again: Viking Funeral.)

I visited the Body Worlds exhibit along with some of my braver students. (At the time, I was a lecturer at USC.) Before we entered the exhibit, I pointedly emphasized the fact that these bodies we were about to view had, at one time, been living human beings with living human feelings. Thus, we all needed to take care to adopt an appropriately respectful attitude when viewing the exhibit.

Now, before you judge...

Von Hagens plastinates and positions the cadavers in humanizing poses rather than in the more traditional positions you would find in a standard anatomy textbook (although there are more traditionally-scientific displays, too).

It seems clear that von Hagens wishes to impose upon the average exhibit viewer a profound connection with their own corporeality, while at the same time being respectful to the corpses he has placed on display.

So while this plastinated corpse of a guy playing basketball is a little jarring to look at at first, I get it. The idea is to represent pure physicality. To present a corpse, but in a very vibrant and vital way.

The same goes for this skateboarder. Although this is a plastinated corpse, this figure appears animated. Pulsating. “Alive,” even.

The saxophone player gets a little more abstract for me...

As does the guitar player. But still... Music is a pursuit of the mind, and the mind and body are intimately connected, as I mentioned earlier.

So I'm still with von Hagens at this point.

But then you come to exhibits like this one. What am I to make of this?

Or this? How does dressing a cadaver like a pirate increase my scientific knowledge of the human body? Or increase my awareness of my own mortality via a better understanding of the finiteness of my corporeal existence?

Sweet parrot, by the way.

Pictures of von Hagens posing with his creations were on display all over the exhibit. Here's a photo of von Hagens mirroring one of his own creations - the two are dressed in matching hats.

This sort of whimsical attitude wasn't making me feel any better, though. In fact, as I moved from exhibit to exhibit, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with some of the choices that had been made for the cadavers.

For instance, why leave hair on some of the female cadavers when most (if not all) of the male cadavers are bald? Without the hair, I viewed the corpses as human first - before I even thought about gender. Leaving the hair on the female corpses had the distinct effect of objectifying them by highlighting their gender. Must women be sexualized, even in death? I mean, even though this cadaver is engaged in a (stereotypically female) athletic endeavor, she’s posed in a highly-sexualized way…

And don’t even get me started on this one. If you drew up a list of all the stereotypically sexual poses for women, this pose would have to be pretty close to the top. In fact, most of the cadavers were posed along strict gender stereotypes, with the female cadavers posed in passive, sexually-suggestive ways and the male cadavers posed in a more heroic and aggressive manner.

And so as I walked around from exhibit to exhibit, I began to wonder… Is this science or is this sensationalism?

There’s a long tradition of putting corpses on display for sensationalistic purposes, after all.

From political figures like Lenin…

To religious icons like Padre Pio…

To outlaws like Dillinger…

To ordinary Victorians who used to pose for photographs with the corpses of their loved ones before they were buried…

...There’s a longstanding tradition among humans of sensationalizing corpses.

And I gotta say, many of the Body Worlds corpses appeared as if they were being treated in a sensationalistic matter.


Sensationalistic or not, though, looking at that many dead bodies all at once is rattling. You look at these perfectly-preserved flesh machines of once-living humans, and you definitely get a sense of the finite nature of your own flesh machine. That’s disconcerting.

It probably didn’t help that my students and I were visiting the exhibit at night. At that time, the California Science Center was keeping its doors open for twenty-four hours to accommodate the overwhelming number of patrons wanting to view the Body Worlds exhibit. The place was packed, and even though I was taking advantage of a “midnight viewing,” I nonetheless realized that prowling around a museum in the dark of night viewing corpses alongside the hordes of other LA vampires highlighted the more sensationalistic and macabre aspects of this exhibit.

Worse, as I snaked my way through the displays wondering whether or not this environment provided an adequate atmosphere of reverence and respect for the dead, the elderly woman behind me in line couldn’t stop talking about the corpse’s penises.

I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. As we moved from cadaver to cadaver, this octogenarian pointed at the penis on every single one - EVERY SINGLE ONE - and exclaimed, “Wow! Just look at that pecker!”

(I know at this point in the blog post, you’re gonna need a minute to scroll back through all of the photos I’ve posted to check out all of the penises on the cadavers. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Now, to be fair, the elderly woman with the penis fixation was rolling through the exhibit in a wheelchair, which meant that the crotches of all of the displays were right at eye-level for her.


“That’s not a bad pecker there.”

“I’ve seen some peckers in my day, and I’m here to tell you that the pecker on this one is nice.”

“On the other hand, this one’s pecker I don’t like quite so much. I just don’t like its looks…”

So, despite my best efforts to project an attitude of somber gravitas for my students, I am only a human woman, and my flesh machine and I can only bear so much.

Long story short: Once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop.

I. Could. Not. Stop.

Not when my students stared at me disapprovingly. Not when the docent approached me and admonished me to behave. Not when confronted repeatedly with examples of my own corporeal mortality. Because those flesh machines, even in death, had peckers worthy of comment.

Ever get kicked out of a museum for disrupting the viewing experience of the other museum patrons?

Well, that’s the SECOND time it has happened to me.

And for the longest time, I felt guilty over my inability to hold my shit out of respect for the dead.

Until I saw this.

This is a walking stick made out of a bull’s penis.

More specifically, this is a “Blood vessel configuration of the reproductive organs of a bull, with the testis as horizontal knob and the penis as stick.”

Von Hagens sells them from the Body Worlds on-line store, which you can link to from the home page. A steal for $3,625!

Dear Santa,

I have been nothing but naughty so far this year, but if redeeming myself means that you’ll bring me a bull penis walking stick, then I’ll start being nice right away. If the bull penis walking stick is too expensive, then I’ll settle for this:

This is a necklace featuring a cross-slice of a horse’s penis that Von Hagens sells for seventy-five bucks. I think that this would be a really sweet Valentine’s Day present - sure to get you laid. Make sure first that your lover has a thing for dead horse penises, though, or else the evening might not go exactly as you had planned.

So it seems as if the elderly woman in the museum isn’t the only one fixated on peckers. The difference being that she - unlike von Hagens - doesn’t sell peckers for profit.

That we know of.

Now THAT'S a pecker.


  1. I loved this post, Jennifer. If anyone is visiting here for the first time and reads this, they HAVE to become an instant fan.

    And just to add to the hilarity, did you ever hear this one? Peter Piper picked a peck of pickle peckers. :-)

  2. There is no way I could have made it through the above scenario without laughing, either.

    I saw a competing plastic body exhibit (the one that turned out to possibly contain the corporeal remains of Chinese dissidents, unfortunately), and the very first female body was a display about body fat. Honestly.

  3. Fun and thought provoking post. Well done. Personally I liked the feminized poses. I didn't view them as weaker, just different.

  4. Ok, this must be a good post. As I sat and ate my dinner of beans and lettuce I thought some more and realized that you were pointing out the hyper sexuality that von Hagens poses display. I can see that. A distillation of flesh to its penis or lack thereof. Seems like the old lady did get it. LOL

  5. I'm using my flesh machine to manipulate my computer machine to tell all of you how lovely it was to see your comments here!

  6. I love your use of the term Flesh Machine, Jennifer. Besides sounding like a David Bowie lyric, it reminds me of my first day on the job six years ago when I began working as an animator for a company that specialized in sales/instructional videos for surgical instrument companies.

    My first day on the job I was watching brain surgery and a few days later, open abdominal surgeries, and at that point I realized that the surgeon, respected and glorified by our society, is nothing more than a plumber or carpenter, working not in wood or metal, but organic tissues, and that surgery itself, rather than being the gentle procedure we see on medical shows, can be quite brutal and invasive.

  7. Congratulations for this article. Well done!
    Everyone likes a WOOD pecker after all ;)

  8. The female cadavers are objectified, yes, by being posed in seemingly submissive, sexualized ways. But that's von Hagens' intent. The whole exhibit pretty much flaunts sexual stereotypes in both sexes with reckless abandon. The fact that so many "peckers" are provocatively on display that it seems almost inevitable the beautifully arched gymnast will slip off the beam, only to plant her stiff, dead foot on one of those exposed, equally-stiff peckers (and that could even include peckers belonging to live male bodies wandering the exhibit) is no accident.

    Kidding aside, I don't think it's a coincidence or frankly a surprise that the female cadaver is sexualized through its pose. While the pregnant cadaver with fetus still in the womb is perhaps the most provocative in the exhibit, objectification is no less the fate of the male cadavers. The male cadavers have their penises completely exposed to view, so our eyes naturally will be drawn to their eye-catching forms (think about the old lady in the wheelchair). It doesn't matter that male cadavers have no hair because their maleness is already on full display at an easy viewing level. Female genitalia, however, are almost all internal. So sexuality for the female cadaver is a more subtle affair, and in this exhibit (about bodies) female sexuality is brought out in other ways by using the body itself. This is exemplified in the cadaver of the gymnast, with its blonde hair-do and the feminine curves of its gracefully flexed body and the way the cadaver's elevated foot is delicately arched and its other foot is poised weightlessly like a feather balanced on the high beam, touching it sublimely, altogether beautiful in their submissive Yin to the bold Yang of those clamoring peckers below...

  9. This is why I want my Stetson and Combat Spurs to be sent along with my body - I'd prefer a military pose to a sexy one.