While breast implants and tattoos may immediately come to mind as forms of body modification, some types of alteration – such as dieting and braces – are so closely connected to social norms that it’s often hard to think of them in such a light. However, body modification is prevalent throughout history and its social acceptability is often determined by culture. Cosmetics, tanning, scarification, branding, bodybuilding, foot binding, orthodontics, cosmetic surgery, corsetry and circumcision are all examples of body modification.
According to S. Elizabeth Bird, chairwoman of USF’s anthropology department, one purpose of body modification is to aid those who want conform to a culture’s ideal of beauty.
“A big reason people modify their bodies is beauty,” she said. “The idea of beauty is variable across different cultures. If a particular thing is valued – a long neck, a narrow waist, whatever it might be – there might be body modification for that.”
In many societies, body modification can also perform important cultural functions. Body modification can determine attractiveness, social status and is sometimes included in ceremonies.
“It can be purely aesthetic, or it could be for a ritual: a marking, scarification, tattoos, ways of marking movement from childhood to adulthood, different categories of one’s life path or status,” Bird said.
According to an article published in the Annual Review of Anthropology, shiny skin is considered such an essential aspect of beauty among the tribes in the Kalahari Desert that the tribes will rub valuable animal fat on their skin, even in times of famine.
The women of the Kayan tribe, who reside on the border of Thailand, wear short metal coils around their necks. This gives the neck a lengthened appearance, and women begin wearing these coils around 3 to 5 years of age, according to a New York Times article. The coils are removed about every five years to be replaced with larger, longer ones. Although they give the women cultural identity and make them more appealing to the Kayan men, the coils also cause the neck to lose muscle strength. Should the coils be removed, these women would not be able to properly lift their heads.
It’s easy to see other cultures’ body modification practices as bizarre and severe, but modern Western culture has an equal share of body modifications.
Cosmetic surgery was once only for the wealthy, but it is becoming increasingly popular and acceptable. By the year 2000, a million women in the United States had breast implants.
About one out of every 35 surgical procedures are for aesthetic concerns, according to an article in the Annual Review of Anthropology. An article in in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology states that the number of botulinum toxin (botox) injections is also increasing. Even before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formally approved the procedure, Botox – a chemical that reduces the appearance of wrinkles when injected -was performed frequently.
Tanning was once undesirable because it was associated with field workers. At one point, Europeans used lead-based cosmetics to lighten their skin. Now, tanned skin is thought to be healthy and sporty. However, with tanning comes overexposure to UV rays, which can lead to melanoma – a deadly form of skin cancer.
High heels in western societies are considered by some to be a modern, although much less appalling form of foot binding. Heels are worn because they create the illusion of a longer, more alluring leg and a more visible calf muscle. They also make it harder for women to walk. According to the Mayo Clinic, wearing high-heeled shoes can lead to foot ailments and deformities over time if worn frequently. High-heeled shoes create abnormal pressure points and distort the body’s natural alignment. They also cause bunions, hammertoes, tight heel cords – in which the Achilles tendon is contracted and tightened – and stress fractures.
A primary reason for body modification may be cultural conformity, but another motivation comes from the opposing mindset.
“It’s just a personal choice,” said senior Sandra Fairman, who has two tattoos. “Some people want to be out of the norm, and some people modify their bodies, like surgery, to be in the norm.”
Senior Bill Collar has his septum pierced, and said he feels he is often treated differently because of it.
“I got chased out of a Chinese restaurant because of it once,” Collar said. “A lot of people where I live look at me strangely. They are fine when I don’t have it sticking out. If I flip it out when I’m talking to them, they look at me like I’m an alien.”
Junior Amy Yep said that one of her reasons for getting her four tattoos was self-expression.
“I’ve always really liked tattoos,” she said. “I’ve always thought they look really beautiful on people. The kind of tattoo I wanted to get would express things that I’m into. When I see a tattoo that is done in a way I like, I feel that it is truly beautiful.”
According to BMEzine.com, an online body modification magazine, extreme forms of body modification in Western culture can include tongue slitting, ear shaping, skin or eyeball implant – in which a piece of metal is permanently inserted – and magnetic implants, in which a magnet is inserted under the skin so the wearer can attach metal objects to the skin and sense magnetic fields. Other radical forms are piercings (usually genital), scarification, branding, face tattoos and full-body tattoos.
Body modification can be perceived negatively in one culture and beloved in another. For instance, ear lobe stretching is practiced in the punk scene and is often greeted with disapproval in the mainstream culture. However, in African tribes it is a tradition done to even greater extremes.
“Most body modification, throughout history and other cultures, has been more of a cultural invention than an individual who decides to do something extreme to their bodies,” Bird said. “These extreme forms – not just the piercings, but the brandings, the insertions of things under the skin to produce a sort of raised tattoo effect, the multiple piercings all over the body – I’m sure people do them to be unique. I think they reflect some kind of sense that the individual wants to be totally different.”
According to Collar, Bird is right.
“For the most part, body modification is something to express one’s self and express an ideal,” Collar said. “There’s an ideal in society and we want to attend to it, but we want to stand out and be perceived as beautiful, too.”