Identity and Biology: The Real and the Real

08 Sep 2014 |

Fursuiting is magical.

The world shifts slightly when you plunge into a foamy fursuit head, and it takes your eyes a moment to adjust to the reduced light and the restricted vision. This is the moment you cross the threshold and become "in suit". The effects are immediate.

Many fursuiters experience a feeling of relaxation when they enter suit. This feeling is a bit counter-intuitive to non-furries, there is sometimes a quick frown of suspicion when a suiter describes how suiting can be simultaneously physically taxing and mentally relieving. This suspicion is on par with that we feel when someone asserts that they "enjoy" some minor but fundamentally disagreeable task, like the person who has to wake up at 5:30am for work might say that they enjoy the crisp dawn air, and that they are more of a morning person anyway. It's plausible but not very compelling.

The feeling of relaxation comes from the removal of social pressures. People start reacting to the suit and so the wearer can drop all the usual social defences: they can smile and frown and sweat and wave without worrying about the subtle ways that those acts might be interpreted. The suiter knows that people are reacting to the suit's social cues, not those of the human being pulling the strings underneath.

There is a special feeling when you walk past a mirror and catch your reflection. Instead of the usual human meatbag of nerves and skin and hair, you see yourself as the suit: a furry character, one that has been designed and built to reflect whatever image that you would like it to reflect. You look into the mirror and see a version of yourself—one that raises its arm when you raise your arm, one that scratches its ears when you scratch your ears—but one that doesn't betray your apprehension about meeting someone new, or your worry about making a spectacle of yourself in public, or your shyness about expressing a desire for friendly intimate contact.

Given time and experience, the fursuit stops being a bulky costume and instead becomes a natural extension of your biology. Like a tennis player who swishes a racquet in the unconscious knowledge of where the ball will strike, the fursuit is accepted as a part of the body. You accept that you are slightly bigger and slightly heavier. You stop thinking about the parts of your vision that are restricted: you simply see what you can see (and you might be surprised by your improved field of vision when you take your head off). Like a pair of contact lenses, you unconsciously take a foreign, inanimate physical object and make it part of yourself.

And now you are the fursuit. You might say that you are "fursuiting", but you are really doing other things: maybe going for a stroll and posing for photos; maybe interacting and expressing yourself (mutely, perhaps); maybe—hopefully—hugging someone who is grateful to be hugging a real-life furry. This takes time and experience of course, and is a bit of a challenge... it's hot in there. (Maybe in the first few months of getting your first suit, you lost a bit of weight.)

You have transmogrified from a human to a furry. Your mind has unconsciously accepted your new body, you accept that the face in the mirror is your own.

The experience of accepting a new body happens to everyone, when we transition from childhood to adulthood. We grow and change and, during puberty, we forever feel like we are wearing the wrong skin. It takes time for our minds to accept our new bodies, and in that time our bodies keep changing, and we never quite catch up. And if we lose a bit of weight, or bulk up in the gym, we feel this again... hopefully, as adults, we have learned to take joy in the changes that take place.

Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the experience, as a child, of the fascination of looking at himself reflected in mirrors upon mirrors. He writes of feeling uncomfortable while standing in front of a bathroom mirror with a small mirror in one hand, looking at himself from different angles. He has become used to his own face but not with the other ways that people can see him, and he writes of a similar feeling seeing himself in photos, or on television, or listening to a recording of his own voice.

He feels this way because his body, his biology, reflects something of his own identity. He can never experience himself from an outsider's perspective and so is obsessed with doing so. A fursuiter has a different experience: they have control of how they look from all angles, and so can relax the constant social worry of imagining how they may be perceived.

We humans, after all, are social beings. We exist in a social realm. Fursuiting allows us to do so in a more controlled way.

The fursuit provides us with a new body, a new biology, that we can accept as our own. And our ability to assume inanimate objects, like fursuits, to be part of our natural selves works the other way: our natural selves can extend to things that are not physically present.

It is certainly possible to feel body parts that are not there. It is common for people who have lost limbs to imagine pain in the missing body part. The pain is as real as any other pain, but one that cannot be physically salved because there is no physical biology. It is a personal pain, one that is experienced but has no evidence, one that can sometimes be healed by creating a false stand-in for the missing limb, allowing the body to unconsciously accept a foreign object, perhaps with use of a prosthetic or with mirror therapy.

Men who have lost a testicle through cancer sometimes feel like they are missing something that helps define themselves. A prosthetic, despite being functionally useless and rarely seen by others, alleviates this personal pain. Even though they "know" that the testicle is a fake designed to fool their unconscious mind, their unconscious mind doesn't care and is just happy to feel whole again.

Furries who wear tails everywhere sometimes miss them. Phantom tail syndrome, despite the tail never being biologically present, is akin to feeling bereft of a missing limb or testicle. Putting the tail back on makes the discomfort disappear.

Fursuits might be considered a replacement for a furry body that none of us will ever have or ever experience. Even though our furry selves are entirely imaginary, they still inform our identity and our social interactions. Fursuiting is therapy for furries.

We humans ascribe special value to those parts of our bodies that are social: we care about the presentation of our faces, our hands, our genitalia. These elements of our biology are more important to our identities, and we accordingly place less importance on other parts of our bodies—the soles of our feet; our necks. Knausgaard sees the disparity between how we look and how we see ourselves as a relationship between identity and culture, in that our social interactions with the outside world inform how we see ourselves.

This is undoubtedly an artefact of our biological heritage. From an evolutionary point of view, we have succeeded as a species partly due to our social nature. We have a survival imperative to be social creatures, and our requirement for complex social interaction is one of the reasons we have unusually large brains.

As a species, our social nature requires our biological selves and how we think of ourselves—our identities—to be different. The biology is real, but the identity is real too. They are both valid descriptions of who we are, yet biology and identity are separate and distinct from each other.

As Knausgaard describes it, blood trickles through capillaries in the brain just beyond the thoughts. But the thoughts, on closer inspection, are just electrical and chemical reactions in a sponge-like object. Biology creates identity, but identity is not biology. Our biology makes up part of our identity, but so do inanimate objects like prosthetic testicles and fursuits, and purely imaginary things like fursonas.

And there are elements of our biology that do not inform identity at all. Knausgaard identifies the back of the neck as one such element: he sees it as non-individual, non-relational, biological, whole, and authentic. The neck is like the person inside the fursuit: critical to the working of the human body, but otherwise impersonal and non-individual, a biological person that has transmogrified into a biological machine.

Our furry selves, imaginary as they are, are very real. When fursuiting we make them tangible, and we relegate our human selves to mere, authentic, biology. We do this online as well, writing and communicating as our furry selves, just as I—JM the furry horse—am doing right now.

If anyone ever says to you that there is something wrong or inauthentic about juggling multiple identities, or thinking of one's self as an anthropomorphic character, then you can tell them this: bullshit. There is a difference between identity and biology, and everyone has their own version. Our furry selves are simply more interesting, more creative, and more awesome.

Say that a horse told you so.

- The Other Side of the Face, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Paris Review, 28 May 2014
- with thanks to Branston for the conversations about fursuiting