body decoration

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body decoration From signs of honour to stigmas, what is drawn on skin or written in flesh is much more than mere body decoration, or a mark of status in the community. The human body and its surface are filled with hieroglyphs telling one of the stories of corporeality in history. The raw material, the ‘natural’ body itself, seems not to be an anthropological constant, but rather a canvas to be painted or a lump of clay to be moulded: a form and surface to be intentionally elaborated.

The ways in which the body is taught to be used and held and the artifacts supplementing the body have irreversible effects on its constitution and shape, from certain kinds of shoes to, say, nineteenth-century tight-lacing of women's waists. These techniques can be distinguished from those in which the body itself is an immediate object of elaboration and inscription. The Chinese woman's feet moulded into a form not fit for walking and the spinal deformation caused by high heels are two different things. The one is an intentional irreversible alteration, while the potentially irreversible changes of the other are side-effects of the primary aim of constructing the body image displayed in a social or ritual context.

In moulding and decoration, the body has a double role; as a visual gestalt, which is the raw material to be worked upon, and as the performer of the action. The work may be on one's own body — as in primitive ritual body-painting or in contemporary make-up — or on another's body: this includes compulsion, such as stigmatization or mutilation of slaves and criminals, but unforced forming and marking of the body of the other is often accomplished by a professional, or may be part of an exchange of services.

Intentional body elaboration can have positive or negative value: medals are positive; the Indian caste system is ambivalent; the suppressed or excluded are branded. Then there is the irreversible vs. reversible dimension: the mark of Cain is lasting; changes in hair, nails, and tan recover, and decorations may be removed at any time. Stigmatizing branding is irreversible, but alterations such as head shaving may be used as a temporary stigmatizing punishment.

The historical roots of stigmatizing body-marking are as long as those of more positive forms, and may be traced up until our recent past. In eighteenth-century France criminals were branded, signifying the crimes they had committed, for example ‘V’ for ‘voleur’ (thief). At the end of the nineteenth century, the English army still tattooed bad characters ‘B.C.’, and deserters ‘D’, and half a century later tattooed number series were used in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

The modern penal system or, more generally, modern societies in normal circumstances, have in principle given up the use of irreversible body-marking along with traditional corporal punishment. However, even if the techniques have changed, and no longer leave obvious traces, the body is still a locus of intervention, now primarily as an aspect of what Michel Foucault has called the production of ‘disciplined bodies’.

Body transformation varies also in extent, from whole to part: from the moulding of the body gestalt to the transformations which do not affect the overall body image or form: from the morphology of the body to the texture of the skin and the textiles covering it.

According to these basic dimensions and distinctions, trends in modern Western body elaboration may be characterized as follows: (i) the emphasis has moved from working on another's body to the elaboration of one's own; (ii) stigmatizing body-marking is lessening; this is paralleled by the expanding range of positive body-moulding; (iii) lasting traces are giving way to removable signs; so (iv) transformation of the body gestalt is excluded.

The primitive body

In many traditional and archaic cultures the unformed and unelaborated body is considered imperfect, unfinished, and even ugly. They solve this problem not by covering up, but by moulding and decorating the ‘natural’ body. Primitive body elaboration consists of a whole range of techniques from permanent body form transformation to temporary painting.

Permanent and temporary body markings have their own specific place. Some markings are inscribed in flesh, giving irreversible changes of status; boys are transformed into men, or unmarried into married. These cumulative body markings are realized in ritual occasions at specific points of the life cycle. They also use non-ritual forms of body marking. The head of the tribe may show off his wealth and superiority by the number of golden rings forged round the necks of his wives; if these neck-stretching rings mould the body gestalt, so much the better.

Reversible decoration, painting, and masking is used primarily in the ‘liminal’ (threshold) phases of ritual in which the rules of the ‘normal state’ are annulled and replaced by inverted ones. Medieval carnivals and masquerades are manifestations of this universal phenomenon.

The liminality of the ritual determines the correspondingly limited nature of body-marking: returning to the everyday life of the community after the festivities implies removing the temporal body signs and uncovering the permanent ones. Liminal or exceptional states are not restricted to the festive rituals of a community: they are also manifested in war, in marking the bodies with warpaint.

Permanent body-mouldings and markings vary from culture to culture, and not at random. Colour tattoos have been common, for understandable reasons, among pale-coloured peoples (in Asia, America, and Oceania) and scar ornaments among the dark-skinned Africans. The most elaborate tattoos are found in Japan, where in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, after tattoo lost its status-signifying function and before it gained a stigmatizing meaning, whole-body tattoos (irezumi) developed into an art; an imaginative example is the so called white-tattoo, which becomes visible as the skin blushes — perhaps in a specially captivating way in the realm of erotic pleasures.

Irreversible reshaping or marking of the body manifests the stable and static character of relations in society. It implies neither contempt nor adoration for the ‘natural’ body image. Body is an unfinished piece of art to be completed — to be transformed from nature to culture, by inscribing membership of the community in the flesh. Beyond this, it is an act of artistic creation in a cultural state which does not yet draw boundaries between the ritual, the magic, the erotic, and the aesthetic.

The body painting, decoration, and masking used in the liminal stages and forms of ritual follow an opposite logic to the permanent body marking which transforms the body from nature to culture. The former breaks the coherence of the body image and transforms it into an animal or god figure. This represents a movement beyond the boundaries of the community, towards the natural and the supernatural.

The human body is the origin not only of sculpture and painting but also of jewellery. The body itself is an ornament to be worked upon. In distinction to our ‘civilized’ trinket-culture, which usually goes no further than ear piercing, in primitive societies, trinkets are often used as tools transforming the body gestalt. Members of the Vietnamese Jörai community use ivory pegs pierced through their ear flaps, to redesign them. The use of rings to stretch the neck (the Chin-women in Padaung, Burma) or plates to stretch the over- or underlip (in Kenya and Tsad) follows the same principle: the material trinket and the body are interacting in a way which makes it impossible to say where the trinket ends and the body begins.

The use of trinkets as removable decoration is equally universal, and not only in liminal rituals. In lighter trinkets — beads, brooches, necklaces — aesthetics and magic unite. Trinkets are not mere decorations to attract fellow men: it is equally important to make oneself favourable to the gods. This is most evident in amulets and talismans, aimed primarily at repelling evil — rather to protect against the evil eye (mal occhio) than to draw admiring glances.

The western body

From the Western point of view primitive body art is easily seen as anti-aesthetic deformation. Why? Culturally, this could simply be interpreted as due to differences between aesthetic codes. But there is something else. The Western body image is dominated by a deep-rooted ideal of ‘the natural’. This may be traced back to the Greco-Roman body aesthetics on one hand, and the Christian tradition on the other. The Greco–Roman cult of natural, bodily beauty, of both men and women, was — in Foucault's words — part of a whole ‘aesthetic of existence’, but it allowed decoration and painting of the body only as far as it served ‘natural’ beauty. Other kinds of body-moulding or permanent marking were disapproved of, and irreversible markings were restricted to stigmatizing uses.

The Christian body image and its emphasis on ‘the natural’ is ambivalent. Man, the image of God, is not allowed to transform or deform his ‘sacred’ appearance. But on the other hand, man's body is earthly dust — the temporary habitation of the soul and therefore secondary or, as ‘flesh’, downright evil. Irreversible moulding or marking of the body is often seen as a profanation of the image of God, and decorating or painting it as shameless articulation of the flesh. The glaringly painted whore is originally a Biblical motif.

In Greco-Roman body aesthetics both sexes were equally represented. In the Christian tradition, as Western art cultivated the eroticism of the female body into an aesthetic norm, the fleshly sins were primarily projected on to the seductive female body. This is highlighted in the English neologism ‘nude’, appearing at the beginning of the nineteenth century to refer to aesthetically legitimated ‘nakedness’. The human body should be ‘natural’; untilled and unmarked. The Church banned tattoos officially in the year 787, and with the same prohibition Western man initiated his ‘civilizing influence’ in the Southern Pacific about a thousand years later.

The body-decoration race went on in the European Courts in spite of the disapproval of the Church, but it left the body form untouched, focussing on removable properties. Ostentation became more and more the occupation of the ‘fair sex’. In Puritan England this led to legal measures. In 1649, the year of the execution of Charles I, a Bill was introduced entitled ‘The vice of Painting and wearing Black Patches and Immodest Dresses of Women’. Soon after, an Act of Parliament decreed as follows:
All women, of whatever age, rank, profession or degree whether virgins, maids, widows, that shall from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony, any of his majesty's subjects, by scents, paint, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.

Close to this time, in 1650, John Bulwer's book appeared, analyzing, and moralizing upon, contemporary modes of body decoration. The title of Bulwer's book expresses well the puritanical stance:
Anthropometamorphosis. Men's transform'd or the artificial changeling. Historically Presented in the mad and cruel Gallantry, Foolish Bravery, Ridiculous Beauty, Filthy Fineness, and Loathesome Loveliness of most Nations, Fashioning and altering their Bodies from the mould intended by Nature with Vindication of the Regular Beauty and Honesty of Nature, and an Appendix of the Pedigree of the English Gallant By J. B.

One could suppose that this puritanical flood of words was targeted towards the unnatural body art of the ‘natural peoples’ rather than against the Western finery which did after all follow the form of the ‘natural’ body. The peruke still represented real hair and the ‘black patch’ had its model in the natural mole. Even female body-shaping with the help of the corset, which culminated in the nineteenth century, followed and emphasized the basic ‘hour-glass’ female body shape.

The modern body

In 1863 Charles Baudelaire, the apostle of modernity in Paris, wrote In Praise of Make-Up (Eloge du maquillage), speaking for the unnatural and artificial character of make-up. The painted face should not imitate nature, or articulate health and youthfulness, but should be consciously artificial and give an impression of ‘supernatural and excessive living’. For Baudelaire, fashion functions exactly according to this anti-natural principle. Fashion is the sublime deformation of nature, an unceasing and repeated effort to reshape it.

So is the modern a return to the primitive? In a way, yes because in breaking away from imitation and representation of nature, and from the ideal of the ‘natural’ body, Baudelaire is building a programme of the ‘unnatural’ which associates with the elements of primitive body art. He even refers to ‘savages and babies’ who are charmed by garish colours and artificial forms which, according to him, testify to their dislike for reality and also proves, though they do not realize it, ‘the immateriality of their art’.

The primitive and the modern are united in anti-naturalism, but this is where the common ground ends. In primitive culture the ‘unnatural’ body moulding is closely connected to social structure and ritual liminalities. In modern culture, on the contrary, body marking — dressing, masking, and surrounding the body by a repertoire of short-lived signs — functions as the language of the self-expressing ‘free’ individual.

Fashion, however, is not simply the product of the modern society, it is also part of the system producing it. For Baudelaire fashion was the metaphor of modern life, as it was for the twentieth-century French cultural analysts Barthes and Baudrillard: ‘Modernity is the code and fashion its emblem’ (Baudrillard 1993).

The status signs of pre-modern, feudal societies were not any more inscribed in flesh. Tattoos signifying guild or trade ceased to exist, and irreversible body marking became closely associated with stigmatization. Removable signs, especially clothing, still functioned as a restricted code, backed up by rules and sanctions which controlled access to these signs by measures which were not immediately based on money. Dress had to follow the signs of the estate, like a uniform, even if those wearing it could have afforded the clothes of their betters. In feudal society, behind the sign was status, which possessed the right, even the duty, to mark the body with those signs.

The situation is inverted in the dynamics of the modern society where status is increasingly acquired rather than inherited. Now the signs often precede the status, and function as a status-seeking strategy: by surrounding the body with certain signs — clothes, house, interiors, and car — a certain status is reached.

On the one hand the fashion system's sign production broadens the object language surrounding the body into infinity, but, on the other, it also creates a new kind of temporally restricting code: what is in today goes out tomorrow. Fashion is the production of changing sign systems, and thus the production of change within the sign system — in Baudrillard's words, it constitutes ‘an aesthetics of repetition’. This transforms material things into ‘pure’ signifiers which signify each other thus blurring and finally cancelling the difference between function and style — between, say, sport clothes and sporty clothes.

There is a striving towards both the natural and the artificial. The ideal of ‘the natural’ dominates the body image more than ever — even if it may be cultivated into caricature-like ‘unnatural’ dimensions (body building) — while the reversible body marks are transformed into ‘floating signifiers’ overthrowing the whole distinction between natural and artificial. This tendency is not only manifested within the clothes system but also in hair design, which is liberated into new dimensions of expression. The aesthetic code of hair design is moving into the Kantian category of ‘free beauty’ somewhat in the same manner as the visual compositions of nouvelle cuisine reject the traditional food aesthetics, and turn to the codes derived from abstract and minimalistic painting.

These postmodern tendencies seem to move back towards the realm of irreversible body elaboration. This return of the ‘primitive body’ does not (yet?) manifest itself in actual body moulding — the plastic surgery still follows the code of the natural body (except for the French performance artist Orlan, whose face-moulding project turns the ‘irreversible change’ into a continuous metamorphosis) — but rather in smaller scale skin work, especially as real tattoos alongside fake (reversible) ones, and as body-piercing trinkets. The tattoo (and piercing) boom of today is primarily within the younger generations. However, it is hardly a sub- or countercultural phenomenon (with the exception of the body-piercing subcultures related to sexual orientation). There is no ‘tribalism’ linked to the contemporary tattoo phenomenon. On the contrary, it is clearly a personal issue which is paradoxically both part of the fashion system and its negation: on the one hand it is fashionable to have a (tiny) tattoo, either for public display or for the eyes of the chosen one; on the other hand the tattoo remains irreversible regardless of changes of fashion (provided that it is not tiny enough to be removed) — perhaps as an emblem of coherent and continuous identity in a world of endless change. Luckily Princess Stephanie of Monaco had a tattoo that was small enough for removal: she had her ex-boyfriend's name cut out of her skin, to give a fresh start to her new chosen one.

Pasi Falk


Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic exchange and death. Sage, London.
Brain, R. (1979). The decorated body. Harper and Row, New York.
Seyd, M. (1973). Introducing beads. Batsford, London.
Steele, V. (1985). Fashion and eroticism. Oxford University Press, New York.

See also body mutilation and markings; make-up; scars; tattooing.