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.