Body Modification: Definition, History & Types

Instructor: David White
Body modification is a practice that is likely as old as mankind, and it has a fascinating history. In this lesson, we will define body modification and explore some of the different types that exist around the world.

What Is Body Modification?

Think about all the people that you see throughout your day--how many of them have piercings, tattoos, or an unnatural hair color? Now imagine how many more have tattoos or piercings you can't see. There was a time not very long ago when these aesthetic changes were associated with social misfits or outsiders. Yet, regardless of how they were (or are) perceived by the larger culture, these physical alterations have served an important purpose in societies and subcultures.

Physical alteration, such as a tattoo or piercing, is referred to as body modification, which is a broad category that includes just about any alteration that a person makes to their body. These alterations can be small, like pierced ears, or more dramatic modifications, such as a stretched neck or branded skin.

Body modification includes tattoos, piercings, and other alterations to the body.
body mod

There are a wide variety of reasons that people choose to alter their appearance, either temporarily or permanently. These reasons are generally culturally specific, which means that what might seem extreme to you could be totally understandable in another culture. For example, in certain Asian and African cultures, women (and some men) will wear a heavy piece of jewelry to stretch the length of their necks in order to be considered more beautiful.

Body Modifications and Beauty

To a Western person, the thought of elongating your neck to be more beautiful might sound bizarre, but that's only because it's not common in Western cultures like the U.S. or the U.K. The concept of beauty is a cultural construct, which is an idea to which people assign certain characteristics and standards within their cultures. These are subjective criteria that vary from culture to culture, fall in and out of fashion, and evolve over time.

The idea of stretching your neck might sound extreme and painful just to be perceived as more beautiful, but think of all the things that Western men and women have done over the years for the same reason. For instance, at various times throughout history, women would wear corsets to make their waists or midsections appear smaller. This probably doesn't sound extreme, but it's not dissimilar from stretching the neck.

In Western cultures, women have historically worn corsets to reshape their bodies.

In China, many girls and women have for centuries practiced foot binding, which involves breaking all of the toes except for the big toe and tightly wrapping the feet so they cannot grow. The purpose was to make women and girls more attractive in order to find a husband.

Tattoos and Scars

The most common type of body modification is likely tattooing. Despite their ubiquitous nature in the present, tattoos serve very much the same purpose now that they have for centuries in different cultures. For instance, in many cultures around the world, tattoos have long been a way of identifying one's self as a part of a particular group, indicating their status within that group, or differentiating themselves from others.

Though it is much more fashionable today, tattoos are still a way for a person to assert individuality and associate themselves with a particular subculture. The sizes, types, and amount of tattoos that a person has can send a message about that person to the rest of the world. Modifications can be inclusive (getting a fashionable or popular tattoo) or off-putting and exclusive (having tattoos on the face or head).

There are less common modifications that people make to their bodies to achieve a similar effect. Through a process known as scarification, a person will make superficial cuts to the skin in order to form words or patterns once the cuts heal. Historically, this has been a common practice in many African tribal communities to indicate status or belonging in a particular group. Though it's far less common in Western cultures, people do practice scarification for various reasons. This is a much more extreme form of body modification, which is at times viewed as being a sign of emotional disturbance and can cause a person to be shunned or viewed negatively.

Scarification has long been a common rite of initiation in African cultures.

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