Cultural Body Modification: History & Examples

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Tattoos and other forms of body modification are usually matters of personal expression in the West. However, body modification is a practice that can have cultural significance.

Body Modification

Most people know someone with body piercings or tattoos. In modern Western culture, these are common forms of body modification. In the West, the process of body modification (any form of purposeful permanent alteration to the body to change its appearance) is generally a matter of personal preference, but there are other cultures in which body modification is expected or required to be part of society. We will discuss some of those cultures and the modifications people perform on their bodies.


Body piercings are the most commonly encountered form of body modification in the West. They are made by running a metal needle through a part of the body in order to place a ring or other ornament for decorative purposes. Many women and a fair number of men have their ears pierced. More extreme forms of piercing can include piercing the nose, lips, or genitalia. Piercing has a long history as a form of cultural expression, though in Biblical times the piercing of an ear was a sign that a Hebrew would serve another as a slave for life.

Among the modern day Mursi people of Africa, a more extreme form of piercing marks a young woman's transition into adulthood. Around the age of 15, the young woman's upper lip is pierced, often by her mother, and allowed to heal by inserting a plug into it. After healing, the permanent hole is often stretched by the insertion of a wooden or clay plate. The function of this piercing is often thought to hinge upon the amount of wealth a woman's father has, and how much he is willing to present as a wedding gift (or bride price) to a future son-in-law. However, this is not borne out, as many examples exist of bride prices being set before the piercing takes place.

An Ethiopian Mursi woman displays a rather prominent lip plate.


Tattoos are also often seen in the West, though not as often as ear piercings. Tattoos are made by injecting ink just under the skin. This ink remains under the skin, replacing the skin's natural coloration. Tattoos in other societies have social functions. Among the Maori people of New Zealand, tattoos called ta moko are part of normal adulthood. Traditionally made by bone chisels and ink, ta moko are facial tattoos, often having a textured quality because tiny chisels are used, rather than needles. Male and female versions of these tattoos differ, with men wearing them on their full faces (and sometimes thighs, arms, and buttocks), while women are given them on their lips and chins. Ta moko often contain information about the wearer's place in society, family, and other specifics, indicating the individual's standing in society.

This young Maori man is participating in a traditional dance. Note the ta moko on his face and thighs.

Extreme Body Modification

There are more extreme forms of body modification, such as branding and ritual scarification. Branding is really a type of scarification, where the skin is burned (or occasionally frozen) in order to make permanent marks on the recipient's body. Although branding has a history as a form of punishment, marking of people as property through slavery, and for ritual purposes, it is still used today for cultural or religious reasons.

In some sects of Hinduism, branding marks the adherent as a practitioner of the faith. In Vaishnavism symbols of faith are branded on adherents' arms, shoulders, and chests. The Vaishnava are some of the earliest known people to practice human branding for religious reasons, going back to the 1st century, C.E. Other forms of scarification can include cutting, abrasion, or sticking other materials into shallow wounds in the flesh. All of these are intended to leave permanent markings of one sort or another, often for ritual purposes, such as the passage to adulthood.

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