Uniting both the physical and the symbolic, the natural and the cultural, the human body is an important medium through which social mores, ideals, and values are expressed. Deliberate modifications to the physical form of the human body serve to communicate a wide variety of information about an individual's gender, age, status, rank, group affiliation, occupation, position in the life cycle, acceptance or rejection of social norms, and so forth. Body modifications thus serve primarily symbolic purposes, although some may be undertaken for therapeutic or ritual reasons in which the final result is less important than the experience itself. Every human society has practiced some form of body modification, from Polynesian tattooing to Chinese foot binding to breast implants, and other contemporary cosmetic surgeries. Such modifications exhibit varying degrees of permanence, severity, and visibility and are undertaken for various reasons. They may be chosen by an individual or compelled by the force of law, tradition, religion, sanction, convention, or social pressure.
Broadly one may divide body modifications into those processes that modify the body's contours or form, and those that mark the body's surface. Procedures that alter the body's form include the following:
- Metabolic manipulation through weight-lifting, exercise, dieting, and use of drugs or hormones
- Cosmetic surgery (liposuction, face-lifts, rhinoplasty) and other chemical processes to firm or plump skin (botox)
- Genital surgery (male and female circumcision) and sex reassignment surgery
- Restriction or compression (corsets, belts, foot binding)
- Abrasion (filing of teeth, scourging, flagellation)
- Elongation (neck, lips, earlobes, penis, testes, labia)
- Partial or full removal of body parts (digits, breasts, testes, penis, clitoris, lips, ears, nose, organs, ribs)
- Implantation of foreign objects (silicone implants, decorative items under the skin)
- Prosthetics (false limbs, fingernails, pacemakers, valves, lenses)
Processes that alter, inscribe or adorn the body's surface include the following:
- Piercing or perforation and the use of earrings, noserings, lip plugs, and other adornments
- Painting, staining, bleaching, tanning
- Scarification and cicatrization (the production of raised scars or keloids)
- Branding or cautery
- Hair removal or addition
The symbolic function of most body modifications means that the social and historical context is fundamental to determining the meaning of a particular practice. For example the ancient Greeks, Romans, Iranians, and Celts employed tattooing for punitive purposes and to indicate ownership: identifying criminals, military conscripts, prisoners of war, and slaves. By contrast early Christians throughout the eastern Mediterranean acquired tattoos voluntarily as a sign of their devotion to Christ or after completing a pilgrimage. Among various indigenous groups in Africa, Asia, India, North America, and the South Pacific, tattooing was performed in the context of rites of passage; to indicate status, tribal, or caste affiliation; or in the course of healing and mourning rituals. Thus the practice of tattooing holds a plurality of meanings, and has been employed to communicate a wide range of socially salient information by different groups at different points in time.
While body modifications may be performed for various purposes—punitive, commemorative, aesthetic, therapeutic—nearly all express socially and historically specific understandings of identity. Because gender may be understood as a socially-determined identity putatively linked to an individual's biological sex, body modifications constitute an important means through which gender differences are constructed and communicated. Physical alterations make a society's gender norms evident in the very material flesh of the body: in its contours (muscular or rounded, lean or curvy), textures (absence or presence of hair, roughness or softness of skin), size (large or small, robust or delicate), and surface (tattoos, scarifications). For example Victorian notions of femininity were exemplified in the tiny waist, exaggerated bosom, and delicate constitution achieved through the use of a tightly laced corset. Similarly contemporary models in the United States of masculinity emphasize a powerful physique attained through long hours of weight training and the use of dietary supplements.
One of the clearest examples of body modification as a process of engendering is female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation). In the early twenty-first century the practice is found primarily in Africa and areas of the Middle East, as well as among immigrant communities from these regions in Europe and North America. Among groups that practice female circumcision, male circumcision is also performed, for the operation is seen as necessary to produce socially acceptable women and men. Circumcision typically occurs at puberty or immediately prior to marriage, although in some cases it may be performed on infants or small children. In most cases a woman cannot marry until she has been circumcised, and often the practice is said to be necessary for reproduction, or to ensure female purity and fidelity by reducing sexual pleasure.
Among the Mende of Sierra Leone, circumcision is performed on girls and boys in the context of traditional puberty rites. The practice is understood to rid the female body of the male element, located in the clitoris, and the male body of the female element, located in the foreskin. The result is a woman and a man who can then unite in marriage for the purposes of reproduction. It is thus the practice of circumcision itself that fully genders the body, and those who have not undergone the operation are unable to participate in the adult world of marriage and family life.
Like circumcision body modifications in traditionally-oriented societies tend to be obligatory, collective, and performed in the context of life-cycle transitions or other transformations in an individual's status. By contrast in Europe and North America tattooing and other body modifications are often undertaken by individuals to indicate their membership in a stigmatized subculture (sailors, the working class, criminals, punk rockers), to express their rejection of the dominant cultural norms of the body, or to affirm an alternative identity or sensibility. Contemporary practitioners describe their modifications as a way of taking control of their body and redefining it to accord with their own sense of self. The notion that the body is an object for endless transformation and a vehicle for individual expression is closely linked to a market-driven consumer culture, which has resulted in the increased popularity of piercing and tattooing in Europe and North America. Whether freely chosen or compelled by social pressure, physical modifications to the human body communicate salient aspects of an individual's identity. The diversity of practices and purposes associated with these modifications suggests that the human body cannot be understood apart from the particular social and historical contexts that give it meaning.
see also Body Image.
Caplan, Jane, ed. 2000. Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Featherstone, Mike, ed. 2000. Body Modification. London: SAGE.
Pitts, Victoria. 2003. In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York: Macmillan.
Rahman, Anika, and Nahid Toubia, eds. 2000. Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide. New York: Zed Books.
Kelly E. Hayes