From ancient tribal rituals to billion-dollar businesses, body modification is booming.
From Beshine’s breast implants to Michael Jackson’s face (which lives on in our cultural consciousness despite his death); from the neck- elongating practices of Padaung women to ancient Mayan cultures of skull-elongation; and from cochlear implants to prosthetic limbs, body modifications are everywhere. They can be weird and wonderful, extreme and disturbing, or simply part of everyday life. Haircuts and nail polish are mild forms of body modification, dieting and bodybuilding move things up a notch until we get to… well, of them all, perhaps voluntary amputations are the most confounding and confronting.
How people choose to modify their bodies signifies social affiliation, wealth, religion, identity and cultural belief. Many body modifications become ‘normal’ after a time. Consider teeth-straightening – only a couple of generations ago orthodontics were reserved for children with severe under- or over-bites or terrible buck teeth. Nowadays middle- class parents spot a couple of crooked teeth or tiny gaps and feel obliged to pay for braces so as not to jeopardise their kids’ chances of becoming CEOs. In the same period, hair dye, particularly for women, has become the norm. Photos of my beloved grandmothers at only fifty show what look like a couple of little old ladies – gray-haired and wrinkled. Now, because ‘fifty is the new thirty’, my friends and I pay small fortunes to keep the gray at bay. Lifetimes of sunscreen mean our wrinkles are minimal. Botox is the unspoken norm. Conversely, common body modifications can become ‘abnormal’ or grotesque after a time – Chinese foot-binding and European corsetry were once mandatory parts of femininity but are now considered grotesque – we think of them as deformities rather than beauty.
Change is rapid in the world of body modification, but one thing remains the same: body modifications are always about belonging. Which bodies belong and which do not? Which bodies are beautiful and which are ugly? Which bodies are deviant and which are normal?
María José Cristerna is a Mexican lawyer with almost full-body tattoos, multiple piercings, a split tongue, subdermal implants, teeth filed to fangs, and hugely stretched earlobes. Most striking are her black-tattooed eyeballs. Cristerna is described as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ on the flyer for this year’s Tattoo Convention Prague. Her body modifications seem bizarre, even dangerous (and certainly terribly painful) to most people. But compare her to almost any Hollywood actor of a similar age, who may well have had rhinoplasty, facelifts, liposuction, and ongoing ‘tweakments’ (Botox, fillers, laser- and chemical peels, and other ‘non-surgical’ interventions). These too can be seen as extreme, dangerous, and painful. If we accept that beauty is subjective, then perhaps the most important distinction between Cristerna and our unnamed Hollywood star is that Cristerna’s modifications are openly acknowledged and celebrated, while the star’s are outright denied or politely ignored – her youthful appearance is attributed to yoga and good hydration!
The sexualisation or ‘pornogrification’ of popular culture is closely integrated with some body modifications. Pornogrification refers to there being more nudity, more sex, and more sexual references in media than ever before. Demand for labiaplasties and penile extensions have risen because of pornogrification, but far more common is Brazilian waxing (where all pubic hair is removed, for both men and women). This was standard in pornographic images for at least a decade before becoming mainstream. It’s an interesting example of a body modification that has changed its meanings dramatically – once a way of marking the bodies of sexual performers, with all the accompanying stigmas, it is now seen by many as simply a part of ‘good grooming’. Like the facelift on older Hollywood actors, the Brazilian is now commented upon when it has not been done.
Body modifications such as tattoos, piercings, brandings, and scarifications once signalled difference, deviance, and criminality. Now they indicate belonging to a cosmopolitan and fashionable youth culture, and are expressions of individuality. They may be used to reclaim the body after abuse or trauma, to show love, or simply as adornment. Societies in different historical moments value (or abhor) different body modifications. Some body modification practices are culturally endorsed while others are pathologised and condemned. Perhaps in future centuries anthropologists will look back on tattooing or cosmetic surgery and wonder why such strange things occurred at this time in history.
Beautiful house, beautiful car, beautiful body – the body demonstrates status. Has it been attended to by dentists, personal trainers, stylists, hairdressers, beauty therapists, cosmetic surgeons? The importance of body improvement (not just maintenance) is of central concern in contemporary life. This is intricately tied to the rise of capitalism and the massive growth of consumer-driven cultures over the last 70 years. What we earn – and in turn our spending power – is linked to our identity, our self-worth and our social position. And it is often shown on the body. ‘Letting yourself go’ is perhaps the worst insult – it implies you have stopped caring, stopped using body modifications to fight aging and become more attractive. So consider this: what if it is not the pierced, tattooed, implanted person who is weird and wonderful but instead the one who stops seeking body modifications, the one who steps off the endless treadmill of compulsory self-improvement to embrace their gray hair, their round belly, and their wrinkles? Rebellion is relative.
Meredith Jones is a reader in gender and media studies at Brunel University London. She is an author and feminist scholar specialising in theories of the body and is one of the pioneers of social and cultural research around cosmetic surgery.
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