Body Modification & Body Image
We tend to think of human bodies as simply products of nature. In reality, however, our bodies are also the products of culture. That is, all cultures around the world modify and reshape human bodies. This is accomplished through a vast variety of techniques and for many different reasons, including:
- To make the body conform to ideals of beauty
- To mark membership in a group
- To mark social status
- To convey information about an individual’s personal qualities or accomplishments
Certain body modification practices, such as neck elongation or tooth filing, may strike Americans as strange and exotic, we must realize that we modify our own bodies in countless ways. Dieting, body-building, tanning, ear piercing and cosmetic surgery have long been common in the United States, and practices such as tattooing, body piercing and scarification are becoming increasingly popular.
People may seek to control, “correct” or “perfect” some aspect of their appearance, or to use their bodies as a canvas for creative self-expression. While some seek to improve their body-image, this is not necessarily a motivating factor for everyone who engages in body modification. Additionally, some attempts at body modification can also have unintended negative consequences that might ultimately damage self-esteem.
Historical and Global Contexts of Body Modification
Body modification occurs across the globe today in various forms and for many reasons (Barker & Barker, 2002, p. 92). Examples of body modifications from around the world include nose piercing associated with Hinduism, neck elongation in Thailand and Africa, henna tattooing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, tooth filing in Bali, lip piercing and earlobe stretching in Africa, and female and male circumcision in many areas of the world (Larkin 2004; Barker & Barker 2002; Bendle 2004).
Two prominent historical examples of body modification are foot-binding and corseting. For hundreds of years, foot binding was commonly performed in China on girls, beginning between the ages of 3 and 7 and continuing throughout their lives. All toes but the big one were broken and folded under. The foot was then wrapped very tightly. The bandages were changed frequently, maintaining constant pressure. By the end of the process, women’s feet were usually only a few inches long (Hong 1997). Men reportedly found the tiny feet, swishy walk, and apparent frailty highly erotic. Although foot binding essentially crippled the women who underwent the process, parents continued the practice to improve their daughter’s chances of attracting a husband. When China was opened to the West, the process began to die out, and by the 1950s it was largely a relic of the past.
Other cultures have imposed similarly constrictive and debilitating body modifications on women’s bodies. In Western nations during the Victorian era, women were expected to wear stiff corsets in an attempt to obtain the ideal curvaceous feminine figure with broad hips and tiny waists, cinched as small as 12 inches (Riordan, 2007: 263). Such corseting was, in fact, a form of permanent body modification. With severely tight lacing, women’s bodies came to “literally incorporate the corset as the ribs and internal organs gradually adapt[ed] to its shape” (Riordan, 2007:263). This practice both reflected ideas about women’s natural frailty and contributed to such notions, as tight lacing left many short of breath and even unable to stand for long periods of time without support.
While such restrictive corsetry has gone out of fashion, Western women and girls are now encouraged to discipline and control their bodies with other practices such as extreme dieting and punishing exercise regimes. In addition, both women and men in the US today are increasingly modifying their bodies through practices such as cosmetic surgery, body piercing, tattooing and tanning.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), in 2008, Americans underwent 10.2 million cosmetic procedures, paying out just under $12 billion (Mann 2009). While the general economic downturn has led to a slight decrease in such procedures, cosmetic surgery has increased dramatically in the last decade. In fact, while the majority of procedures are performed on women, men’s use of cosmetic procedures has increased 20 percent since the year 2000 (Atkinson 2008).
Opinion is divided on the benefits of cosmetic surgery. Some suggest that cosmetic procedures can improve self-esteem and combat negative body image. Others see surgical interventions as a sad indictment of a culture with rigid and narrow ideas of beauty—a culture that values youth, sexuality and appearance more than experience, character and substance (Jeffreys 2000). Critics also note the potential risks associated with cosmetic surgery. In addition to the risk of post-operative infections and other surgical complications, one recent study revealed a correlation between plastic surgery, substance abuse and suicide (Lipworth, 2007).
Piercing, Tattoos and Scarification
Practices such as body piercing, tattooing and scarification, once only associated with more marginal or deviant social groups in the United States, have now become more mainstream.
Body piercing has become increasingly popular and socially acceptable in the US in recent years. One recent study of American college students found that 60 percent of women and 42 percent of men were pierced (Kaatz, Elsner & Bauer 2008). Common piercing sites include the ears, nose, tongue, eyebrow, lip, nipple, navel and genitals, with the ear being the most common site for both males and females (Larkin 2004). While some engage in piercing for the sake of fashion, researchers report that for others, it is a way to take control of their bodies, especially after being violated. As one rape victim reported:
- “I’m getting pierced to reclaim my body. I’ve been used and abused. My body was taken by another without my consent. Now, by the ritual of piercing, I claim my body as my own. I heal my wounds” (Jeffreys 2000: 414).
Tattooing has likewise grown in popularity over the last decade, with an estimated 10 percent of Americans sporting tattoos (Kaatz, Elsner & Bauser 2008). While once associated largely with criminality and deviance, today Americans are likely to see tattoos as a way of controlling their identities, expressing their creativity, and asserting their identity (Kang & Jones 2007). One recent study suggests that individuals who were moderately to heavily tattooed have “an increased sense of self-confidence after having pierced or tattooed their bodies” (Carroll & Anderson 2002: 628).
Tattoos may also act as a means of commemorating or moving on. It is not uncommon for trauma victims, those with disabilities or serious illnesses, or marginalized groups to tattoo as a way of claiming positive ownership of their own bodies, their own identities (Atkinson 2004). In this way, tattooing can serve to heal, to empowering, and to promote body acceptance and self-esteem. On the flipside, however, researchers have found that for some, tattoos serve as painful reminders of poor choices—rashness, intoxication, failed relationships, and other profound regrets (Houghton 1996). Some also report feeling embarrassment or discomfort about how others might view them because of their tattoos, feelings that can contribute to negative body-image and low self-esteem (Houghton 1996).
While not as common as piercing and tattooing, scarification is also an increasingly visible practice in the US today. Scarification, widely practiced as part of initiation and puberty rites in cultures throughout the world, involves the cutting (or sometimes burning) of the skin in ways designed to leave permanent scars. The scars often form intricate patterns across the skin.
Because scarification is a physically demanding (and painful) process, Jennings (2009) reports that in the US today it is often associated with sadomasochism and other subcultures that stress the experience itself as pleasurable, cleansing or transformative. If practiced as part of a group ritual, many participants report feeling a heightened sense of community, group membership and acceptance (Pitts 2000). Nonetheless, some practitioners also report feeling more vulnerable, even socially ostracized, by such permanent scarring (Pitts 2000).
Ideas about physical beauty not only vary a great deal from culture to culture, but also change over time. American views of suntanned skin have changed dramatically over the past century. In Victorian America, pale skin was the ideal. Women wore hats and gloves and carried parasols to shield their skin from the sun. At a time when many people still earned a living by laboring out of doors, a pale complexion was an indication of affluence and indoor work and leisure. By the late twentieth century, however, most people were earning a living indoors. So tanned skin became an indication of affluence, a sign that one had the time and money to lounge by the pool, play golf or tennis, or travel to tropical destinations.
As the suntan became associated with both health and wealth, even those without access to swimming pools and tropical vacations increasingly aspired to the new physical ideal. And the indoor tanning industry was born. Tanning is now a $5 billion dollar a year industry with some 40,000 tanning outlets nationwide (Looking Fit Magazine 2009).
At least one recent study has suggests that some individuals become addicted to tanning, despite its well documented links to skin damage, severe wrinkling, and skin cancer (Warthan, Uchida & Wagner 2005). Others suggest that tanning addiction, what some have called “tanorexia,” may be linked to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Excessive tanning may be stem from an obsession with perceived physical flaws and the compulsion to “correct” them. As health practitioners have observed:
Only by looking at the psychological factors that go into sun-tanning behavior can we understand the young woman who waits in line at a tanning salon, although she understands that tanning will age her skin and can cause cancer…Low self-esteem, body image distortion and undiagnosed depression and anxiety can drive some to act self-destructively in the pursuit of some idealized image of beauty (Deleo & Silvan, 2006).
How do you and those around you modify your bodies? What motivates you to do so? What are the potential benefits and risks (physical, emotional and social) of such body modification practices?
To what extent do rigid and unrealistic ideals of beauty encourage us to change our bodies? Should we try to conform to these ideals or try to change these ideals?
Body Modification. The term can have weird and scary implications for people who have no personal interest or experience in the subject, and it can be all too easy to judge or malign its participants and practitioners. But in reality, to willfully modify one’s body is to take part in a culture and tradition that spans class, race, and human history like nothing else.
In the simplest terms, “body modification” means to deliberately alter one’s physical appearance, though people usually assume the phrase applies only to such practices as tattooing and piercing or the more esoteric branding and scarification. However, all one has to do is look at society’s present definition of aesthetic to discover that almost all of us engage in some form of bodymodding or other. For instance, it would be pretty hard to find a woman these days who doesn’t have her ears pierced, and one of the most involved, long-term, and committed types of body modification, bodybuilding, is not often even considered to be so. And, of course, surgical body modification has become extremely common in the form of cosmetic surgery, but that’s rarely considered shocking or odd unless the procedure goes wrong or the resulting aesthetic is outside of the socially accepted standard of beauty.
In every group of humans in known and recorded history, there have been members who modified their bodies. The reasons behind their choices vary widely, even within a single society. In many cultures around the world, social status, group affiliations, and wealth are advertised with jewelry and adornments; in others, deeper meanings are behind the punctures, scars, and tattoos they wear. In certain African cultures, for instance, rites of passage successfully completed are denoted by scarrings all over the face and body, painfully administered by the practiced hand of an elder or religious leader, the discomfort bravely endured by the new initiate, and the marks worn proudly ever after. In some groups of people in India and Southeast Asia, genital modifications are sought after by devotees of the arts of love, and desired and preferred by their partners. And, of course, in almost every culture there are modifications that are done purely for aesthetic reasons–adornment and beautification of both sexes and all genders, striving towards an accepted goal or standard of human perfection within their culture.
So, with all that said, let’s look at some of the history and present practices of a few of the more common (and uncommon) body mods.
It’s a commonly accepted misconception that body piercing is a relatively recent trend or fashion, but ear piercing, of course, is incredibly common in almost every culture throughout history, with a huge range of legends, myths, and meanings behind the jewelry worn and its placement. Nostril piercing has been documented in the Middle East as far back as 4,000 years. The fashion continued in India in the sixteenth century, and is still widely practiced there to this day. Both ear and nostril piercing and jewelry are mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 24:22, Isaiah 3:21). And piercings in other parts of the body, such as labret or lip piercings, are widely practiced often in the form of enlarged piercings and lip discs. Tribes across Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in North and South America all participate in lip piercing.
And today, of course, all of these types of piercings are still practiced in the West, though the primary motivation behind them is aesthetic adornment and enhancement.
Tattooing, as we know it, can be documented as far back as 3300 BCE as seen in the discovery of Otzi the iceman in 1991 and ancient Egyptian mummies bearing tattoos of animals and various creatures. The practice, however, is believed to have originated over 10,000 years ago. The mechanics of tattooing have changed a bit over the years, and the pigments and inks used have wildly improved in recent times, but whether hand-tapped, poked with a single needle, or administered with the telltale buzz of a modern tattoo machine, the basic reasons behind the choice to become tattooed haven’t changed much in all that time: fashion, function, or just to make a statement of some kind.
People have also been forcibly tattooed to identify them permanently as criminals or undesirables in society, and that associated stigma of tattooing as “lowbrow” or undesirable still exists in the minds of many. Despite that, tattoos are enjoying a resurgence of popularity and are very common in modern culture, and for the most part, accepted as the norm.
Scarification & Branding
Traditionally, scarification is seen most widely amongst dark-skinned people in equatorial regions-people who tend to have so much melanin in their skin that tattooing isn’t very effective, visually. The “crocodile” people of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik region, several Aboriginal tribes in northern Australia, and the Karo people of Ethiopia are just a few of the many cultures who, to this day, participate in traditional rites involving scarification.
In the modern-day Western context, scarification and branding, while markedly less popular than tattooing, are still common forms of body modification, with beautiful end results for many devotees. The aesthetic outcome of a healed scarification, however, has less to do with the artist and more to do with the healing and genetics of the wearer, and that (along with the pain and discomfort of the procedure and healing) will probably ensure that scarification never becomes as common as, say, getting a tattoo.
The process of surgically implanting a foreign object beneath the skin is a relatively recent development, but genital beading (or “pearling”, as pearls are a very commonly implanted item) has been common among seaman in the South Pacific and the Japanese Yakuza for several hundred years, although specifics about the history of pearling are rather vague. It is also extremely prevalent in the prison systems of the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. Indeed, it’s still a commonly requested procedure in many piercing studios in the western world, with biocompatible Teflon or silicone beads and ribs replacing the non-sterile and possibly dangerous organic implants traditionally installed. And, of course, in Western society, plastic surgeons implant foreign objects into people every day in the form of breast, calf, and chin implants.
Transdermal implants–a surgical implant placed beneath the skin, passing outward like a single-point piercing–have been experimented with by many underground “cutters,” a term for body modification practitioners with a great deal of surgical skill and training who work quasi-legally or illegally performing surgical procedures on select clientele. While somewhat problematic to heal, these forms of implants are still popular with die-hard body mod devotees and in the last decade, transdermal jewelry has been redesigned and procedures refined to the point where one can walk into a piercing studio almost anywhere in the world and acquire a microdermal. Also called “surface anchors,” microdermals are small bases implanted beneath the dermis in a quick, simple procedure with no more trauma than any other piercing. The microdermal’s threaded end then heals flush to the skin, allowing threaded attachments to be worn and interchanged as desired. Metal mohawks of spikes, sparkling gems worn all over the body, and gleaming accents to pre-existing tattoos are just a few ways people are wearing these fashionable implants. However, surface anchors require an ongoing commitment to care and adjusting one’s lifestyle to accommodate the piercing, and therefore, won’t suit everybody, but they are a huge advancement in body modification and wildly popular.
Other surgical modifications seen in recent times are ear pointing, tongue splitting, and many different genital modifications, all offered by “cutters” and in many cases, by sympathetic board-certified surgeons. But even within the bodymod community at large, these types of modifications are often considered “hardcore,” are generally more unusual (though not uncommon) and are mostly of interest to those body modification enthusiasts motivated to push the boundaries of social acceptance.
Body modification has been around as long as humans have lived, and with its rich and fascinating history, the practice is unlikely to die out anytime soon. But despite some lingering societal disdain, modifications, even of the more esoteric variety, are becoming more mainstream and acceptable every day, and the craft behind performing these procedures is being constantly perfected and refined by the artists involved. Professional organizations such as the Association of Professional Piercers and the Alliance of Professional Tattooists promote continuing education to artists to teach new techniques and skills, and educate potential clients as to the risks and benefits of modifications and how best to safely acquire and heal their desired mods. And as new ideas and techniques become reality and traditional standbys are adapted and perfected, it’s safe to say that humans will continue to reshape and redefine themselves by modifying their bodies.
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