Last week we started talking about body modification, i.e. the practice of making permanent or semi-permanent changes for aesthetic reasons. I made a somewhat arbitrary division between “adornment” and “reshaping” because otherwise there was way too much to fit into a single post; now let’s continue on to the second half.
Note that some of these get a little extreme. Most of them are considered well outside the mainstream in the modern West, and some of them can have highly detrimental consequences for health. I’ve linked to various Wikipedia articles, but exercise caution when clicking through if you’re easily squicked by images.
Since we started off with piercing last week, let’s go back to that for a moment and talk about stretching, which is the process of deliberately expanding the hole created by the piercing, often to a size that will not later close up again. With earlobe piercings this can happen more or less by accident: if you wear heavy earrings, over time the weight will drag on the bottom edge of the hole and widen it. But people have also done it deliberately, in places and times ranging from ancient Egypt to pre-colonial Mesoamerica to various parts of Asia to both eastern and western Africa, from Ötzi the Neolithic ice mummy to a growing number of young people in the modern United States. The jewelry worn in widened earlobe piercings is variously referred to as a plug, an ear spool, or (rather off-puttingly) a flesh tunnel. When stretching is done on a labret piercing instead, the decorative material is usually called a lip plate.
Though we don’t usually think of it in these terms, circumcision is also a form of body modification. This one has a complex enough history that I will need to loop back to it in a future essay, but what I find interesting is its more recent status: in Anglophone countries it went quite rapidly from being a practice mostly associated with Jews, to being viewed as a deterrent against masturbation, to being almost universally recommended for good health, to several countries recommending against the practice, all in the space of about a century. Is it a cosmetic procedure done for cultural and religious reasons, or a medical one done for its health benefits? It does seem to reduce the risk of HIV transmission, but beyond that, nobody seems to agree. (And then there is “female circumcision,” whose alternate name of “female genital mutilation” conveys how non-parallel the two practices are.)
Other soft tissue modifications are definitely cosmetic. I’m not aware of a long history behind tongue splitting — that seems to be a modern phenomenon — but subincision (cutting open the urethra along the underside of the penis) is found among the indigenous cultures of Australia, South America, and Polynesia. (The photos on that page are decidedly not safe for work.) We might also consider inducing a cross-eyed gaze to be a type of soft tissue modification; there are claims that among the Maya, high-status mothers might dangle a bead in front of their baby’s face to encourage mild strabismus in honor of Kinich Ahau, the sun god.
But since the motto of the human species seems to be “hey, I wonder if I could . . .”, we haven’t stopped at just the softer parts of the body. Sticking with the Maya for a moment, we know that they practiced cranial shaping, tying various kinds of bindings to the soft skulls of infants so their bones would grow in the desired shape. Again, we find this all around the world, though anthropologists argue over whether it’s meant to mark group affiliation vs. displaying social status vs. just being done for aesthetic reasons. We might even put trepanning into the category of body modification, though the motivation for cutting a hole in one’s skull was generally religio-medical.
Stacked neck rings are usually described as “lengthening” the neck, but they don’t actually reshape vertebrae (apart from possibly creating a little more space between them); instead what they do is depress the clavicle and ribs to create a larger gap between the trunk of the body and the head. Corsets can also affect the ribs, if tightly laced and worn for years, and as with cranial modification, this becomes more likely when the practice begins at a young age.
And speaking of beginning at a young age: foot binding usually began between the ages of 4 and 9, and involved deliberately breaking the bones of the feet to allow them to be tied into the desired shape. As you can imagine, the health risks associated with this are substantial — ranging from potentially lethal infection to a greater risk of falls later in life due to compromised balance — but that didn’t stop people from doing it; for high-status Chinese families, the social desirability of inhumanly tiny feet was so high that even attempts by a Qing emperor to ban foot-binding in the seventeenth century failed to eliminate the tradition.
Which brings us back to the question of why people do things like this to themselves and others. Sometimes the extreme nature of the modification is in fact the point: it shows that you have the fortitude to go through such a thing, the wealth to pay for the procedure, and/or the status not to mind the ways in which it reduces your ability to function. Sometimes the alterations get fetishized. Sometimes they’re viewed in highly spiritual and symbolic terms; circumcision of both the male and female variety are often linked to notions of “purity,” in ways quite separate from physical health.
But it’s also worth noting that pushback is also common. If a group gets conquered by outsiders, their new rulers may forbid such practices as a way of erasing ethnic identity. If a group wants to separate themselves from the people around them, they may eschew the body modifications the rest of the community practices (this is often thought to be the reason behind the prohibition in Leviticus against tattoos). Reformers may want to outlaw customs that seem to be harming or restricting the freedoms of those modified — but such attempts often meet with opposition from the very people they are trying to help, because of how cultural ideals get bound up in such matters.
So all in all, an incredibly complex set of factors goes into calculating how a tradition of body modification fits into any given society. But as the film Black Panther shows, the power of such things to mark and broadcast identity is huge . . . so maybe our fiction can look beyond earrings and the occasional tattoo to showcase more possibilities for the human body. After all, with magic and advanced technology available, surely people would find some fascinating new things to do with their flesh and bone.