Body Modification: An Enduring Outlet For Expression and Honour

There is an endless array of ways and reasons individuals decide to alter flesh, whether to denote individuality or submersion into group identity, the body becomes a work of art as it transforms into an ideal. For eons body modification has been apart of tribal life and skin tells a story of initiation, experimentation, belief, victory, defeat; for some cultures the human form is more than a vehicle, it’s a canvas for exhibition.

In the contemporary world the urge to decorate has never been as widespread. With relegation of the 20th century’s conservative values the stigma attached to body modification has depleted and everyone either has or knows of someone with a form of corporal adjustment. Prying into the motives behind the decision to morph oneself opens questions of what is considered beautiful and courageous, and how the alteration of flesh enters into ancient parts of the psyche.

Ancient Alteration

Body modification has held a prevalent place across a spectrum of indigenous tribes. There is an indeterminable amount of methods employed to mould the body and the customs of a community dictate the normality of change; what’s seen as appealing, brave or barbaric in one culture is often considered the opposite in the next.

The most common witnessed form of flesh alteration is the application of ink to the skin, from the Inuit to the Viking tattooing has been a way to express belief and define tribal position. Thanks to the mummification ceremonies of Ancient Egypt there are preserved corpses which can be studied and extrapolated from. Found on several of these physiques are ink manipulations on the skin dating back to over 4000 years. Across the Polynesian islands tattoos have been a perennial part of culture. The Ta Moko from the Maori tradition is a ritualistic and revered practice denoting social status and prestige. Whilst the style is ubiquitous, no two markings are the same making them all personal and unique.

Archaeological evidence has found lip stretching to be a part of human culture for over 10,000 years with it being independently invented in Africa, Mesoamerica and Ecuador. It’s intriguing to see this custom spring up from diverse parts of the globe yet it also shows unison of human thought. In Ethiopia, women in certain tribes still wear lip discs with the procedure customarily performed 6 months to a year before a girl is to marry. Conversely, respected males in some Amazonian tribes (Gê or Macro‐Gê linguistic groups) wear lip plugs to visibly display their prestige or dignity*. While the application of lip stretching is limited a few dedicated tribes continue the ritual for varied reasons.

Some traditions highlight humanity’s wealth in culture and diverse perception of beauty, others however display the desire to control. Female genital mutilation is a custom throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East and is something the WHO is fighting to eradicate. Dating well before the rise of Islam, its aim is to desensitize the women from sexual pleasure by removing the clitoris, ideally ensuring virginity and marriage fidelity. A ritual like this underlines how deeply indoctrinated some traditions are and how difficult it can be to abandon what’s considered right.

Native Psyche

The extensive spread of markings on the bodies of today’s humans are a direct relation to the freedom enjoyed in the 21st century, what once was stigmatized is now broadly accepted as assertion of the self.

With majority of modern humans being afforded the liberty only dreamt about in previous generations a progressive rise in individuality has occurred and new means to alter appearance consistently surface. Whether one exists in the contemporary or ancient world a permanent aspect of body modification is pain; intense or subtle, throbbing or tickling, the sensation connects us from our current state into our native being.

By voluntarily inflicting pain on oneself the experience becomes personal and engaging, it drags an individual into a realm of discomfort to emerge with additional attributes. When in the hands of physical hurt it links the mind back to the primitive psyche, it enables us to temporarily drop thought of self to be immersed in a moment, albeit an uncomfortable one. Potentially individuals who enjoy the pain aspect of modification don’t fully grasp why their pleasure arises, yet, in persevering through a painful experience they grow in strength and confidence.

Another main element of flesh alteration is appearance; beauty, and what is considered so, has been a part of the community discussion for eons. Like pain, the feeling we get when taking pride in our appearance connects us to the ancients. To believe you possess attractiveness impedes self-consciousness and gives the impression of individual worth, but, like we see with the selfie, it can easily give way to vanity.

Everyone is imbedded with consciousness and the mechanism determines our view of the world. To intentionally alter one’s body means to externally express internal sentiment, to signify who we are by emphasising our uniqueness or affinity. How one feels in their skin shapes their attitude and by adjusting the flesh one may find some of the satisfaction so many have searched for. 

All around the globe indigenous cultures have come up with an assortment of methods to alter the body, in today’s world we continue to foster the aspiration for externally expressing internal sentiment.

Accompanying the yearning to express is the eventual confrontation with pain, the burden isn’t always easy to accept but in order to grow it is necessary. To feel attractive is to embody desirability and sense our value through something unequivocally us, it enriches one’s attitude and imparts confidence to act. Being able to show what the inside is thinking on the outside ushers in contentment, to feel positive about your body is an enduring human aspiration.

Although many living in modern world think of the primitiveness of natives, when you look around you’ll find today’s human walking with similar scars and striving for the same sensations.

*Labrets in Africa and Amazonia: Medical Implication and Cultural Determinants

Image Source: Prince Giolo

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