Cosmetics are a temporary way of changing one’s appearance, but over the millennia we’ve developed a huge variety of ways to make permanent alterations, which fall under the general header of “body modification.”
Like everything else related to beauty, this goes in and out of fashion. Ancient societies often practiced quite a few types of modification (despite the risk of infection that must have attended them), but that declined pretty seriously in later centuries; for quite a while in the West, this field was almost entirely restricted to ear piercings, and only one in each ear. Lately, though, body modification has come back into fashion for a subset of the population, with modern technology pushing the boundaries of what one can safely do.
As a result, this a large enough topic that I’m going to have to split it into two posts. In an attempt to make something like a clean division, I’ll talk here about modifications you might class as “adornment,” i.e. not making significant changes to the body, and then next week we’ll move onto the ones that involve reshaping bone or flesh.
Piercings, which I mentioned above, are a good place to start, because they’re probably one of the earliest types of body modification human beings developed. We have evidence of earrings as far back as five thousand years ago, which isn’t all that surprising: earlobes, whether free or attached, are a relatively non-vital bit of skin. They don’t contain bone or cartilege, nor are the nerve endings in them en route to something important like your hand or your tongue, and while they’re well-supplied with blood, you’re unlikely to die from bleeding when someone stabs them. That hasn’t stopped people from piercing other parts of the ear, though — most commonly the helix or edge, but if you can put a needle through it, somebody has tried.
Part of the appeal for ear piercings is that they draw attention to the face. The same can be said for other facial piercings, which is probably why they’re so abundant. Nose piercing (whether through the nostril or through the septum, or much more rarely through the bridge) is nearly as old as earrings, being about 3500 years old; lip (usually lower, but sometimes upper) and tongue piercings are less common, especially since the latter carries more risk of complications. I haven’t found any citations for eyebrow piercing being a long-standing historical practice; it may be more recent in vintage.
Of course, the face isn’t the only part of the body to receive such decoration. Navel piercing, like the brow, may be relatively recent; the main source claiming an Egyptian origin for the practice seems to be questionable at best. Then there are more sensitive targets: the nipples and genitalia, which (especially for women) are likely to be seen only by intimate partners. In those cases the purpose may still be decoration, but the sensory effects are often a motivation as well.
Piercing, while widespread, is hardly the only way we adorn our bodies. Tattoos are also ancient — Ötzi had sixty-one — and sufficiently complicated that I’m not going to try to address them here; they’ll get their own essay at some point in the future. Branding, i.e. burning a mark into your skin, is an interesting counter-comparison: although its effect is in some ways similar, its use has often been very different, being used more as a punishment or a way of marking someone as a criminal or member of a disfavored class, than as a decoration or a mark of prestige.
Branding is a form of scarification, decorating the body with scar tissue (which in other contexts is often seen as a blemish). I’ll be honest: this one makes me cringe, because I naturally form painful keloid scars, and can’t imagine deliberately courting that kind of thing. But sometimes the pain is the point; it shows that you’re able to endure trials. As such, it’s often performed in the context of a rite of passage, where the process may be traumatizing in order to facilitate a sense of social cohesion afterward.
Other things we may not even think of as body modification. People have sought to remove unwanted hair since time immemorial, for reasons ranging from the hygienic (dealing with lice and so forth) to the aesthetic (eliminating underarm hair, plucking the hairline to create a high forehead) to the religious (taking the tonsure as a sign of devotion). This isn’t necessarily permanent, of course, but in recent times laser hair removal have offered ways to get rid of it forever.
Even teeth have been subject to alteration. Not only can they be removed (for non-medical reasons), but people in many parts of the world have filed them to points, and in pre-contact Mesoamerica, noble men and women sometimes had inlays of turquoise, jade, pyrite, or hematite. You thought grills were some weird modern innovation? Nope — though admittedly the modern form is a type of jewelry, rather than a permanent modification.
Why do we go to such lengths, especially when there are often associated dangers? Some of it is aesthetic, but not all. I’ve touched on a few reasons already: body modification can be a rite of passage, putting yourself through something painful as part of changing your life status or joining a new group, and it can mark your membership in a particular family, class, caste, religious sect, or other organization. Permanently altering your body to show that affiliation creates a strong sense of belonging, and/or makes it nearly impossible for you to disavow it later (which is why things like branding are used on criminals).
Many societies have often believed there were medical, psychological, or spiritual benefits to these changes. I said above that people today may get nipple or genital piercings to enhance pleasure, but in other cases the goal has been to reduce sexual impulses. In Bali, the teeth used to be (maybe still are?) associated with negative emotions, so filing them literally cuts down on those forces. Ayurvedic medicine associates the nostril with the female reproductive organs, which is why that piercing has been common among Indian women. So while I’ve chosen to discuss this topic in the context of beauty and aesthetic concerns, the truth is that you can’t really separate these modifications from other concepts, ranging from punishment to social allegiance to individual betterment to the dynamics of the community as a whole.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg — the things that don’t involve major changes to the shape of the body. For those, tune in next week!