A woman of the Mursi tribe with a lip-plate.

Anthropology: Body Modifications in Different Cultures

Body modifications are intentional alterations to the human body to affect physical appearances. Many outsiders to the body modification community can be quick to malign the participants, but a person taking part in the practice of body modification is willfully participating in something that transcends cultures and races. Piercings, tattoos, scarification, surgical operations, skin stretching, and tongue splitting are popular forms of body modification. Wanting and having body modifications done can be for a multiple amount of reasons including aesthetic purposes, religious beliefs, rites of passage, self-expression, and to display membership of a group. The reasons behind a person’s choice to receive body modifications can vary widely even within a single society. In many cultures, being adorned in jewelry signifies class and wealth; but in other cultures, there are deeper meanings in the tattoos, scars, or piercings an individual has.

Tattooing and Scarification in Africa

Tattoos and other epidermal alterations in Africa are signifiers of things like tribal affiliations and an individual’s progress within their own society. Plain-ink tattoos found on the mummified corpses of women in Egypt around 2000 BCE were believed to represent things like fertility and rejuvenation. Tattoos found on men from Egypt around 1300 BCE were intended to honor Neith, the goddess of war and weaving. In more recent times, the tattoo culture has become more prevalent in the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the form of tribal body modification is called scarification and is more common than tattooing. Scarification is the process of cutting into the skin so deeply that it causes permanent markings. Current theories among anthropologists as to why scarification is done include hardening the body and rite of passage. The hardening of the body reasoning stems from the belief that physical and emotional stress placed on a child at a young age will help them withstand physical and mental strain later in life. Among many tribes, “hardening” is done on young children until puberty. The rite of passage reasoning stems from the belief of transformation after going through developmental phases. Scarification during or after puberty represents initiation or admittance into the adult tribal community. Other rites of passage could include things like the first childbirth, successful hunting, or the first killing of a human (an enemy or for ritual purposes). The merging of the processes of tattooing and scarification has become more popular in sub-Saharan Africa. This combined process is called cicatrization. Cicatrization is when there are deep cuts in the skin that will cause scaring and then ash or soot is placed in the wound to pigment the scars. The ash or soot also acts as an agitator that causes inflammation to make the markings more exaggerated.

Scarification tattoos.

Mursi Tribe Lip-Plates

The Mursi tribe is located in an isolated region of Ethiopia called Omo Valley. They are one of the last tribes that still adorn themselves with traditional clothing and accessories. Mursi women are known for their wooden lip-plates that represent beauty and identity. When a girl reaches the age of fifteen or sixteen, her lower lip is cut by her mother or another woman and held open by a wooden plug until it heals. It is up to the girl how far she wants the lip stretched. If the girl wants the lip stretched farther, progressively bigger plugs are inserted over the span of several months. Some girls are able to persevere through the process and have plates that are twelve centimeters or more in diameter. It is said to be a very painful process that takes many months to complete and heal from. Even though the first three to six months can be painful, once the lip is healed there is no more discomfort. One long-term effect of lip-plating is the alteration of a woman’s speech. It does not hinder their ability to communicate or sing, but it does affect things like pronunciation. Teenage girls are not forced to get their lip plated in the Mursi tribe. Lip-plating is done by choice and not by force. The lip-plate signifies a number of things and the first one is beauty. The second thing it signifies is the woman’s commitment to their husband, because it is worn with great pride while doing things like serving him food. Also, if a woman’s husband dies, the plate is removed. The last thing it signifies is the Mursi identity. Without their plate, a woman could be mistaken as a member of a different tribe.

A woman of the Mursi tribe with a lip-plate.

Neck Stretching in Myanmar

Even though it might not seem like it, an elongated neck has been a standard of beauty for centuries. It is a goal some women strive for and will do a variety of things to achieve it. Lengthening the neck with rings is one of the oldest types of body modifications in the world. In southeast Asia, the use of neck rings dates back to the 11th century. The reasoning behind them then is still unclear, but today, in Myanmar, neck rings represent beauty and elegance. Girls in the Kayan and Padaung tribes in Myanmar are fitted for the first rings at age five. The rings are typically made of brass and can weigh about four pounds to start because more rings are added over time. The weight and pressure of the rings causes the collarbones to be pushed down, which makes the neck look longer. Tribes start this practice on young girls because their bones are more pliant, which makes the desired results easier to achieve. The rings do not just affect the collarbones, but they shift the rib cage and slope the shoulders forward as well. The collarbones and rib cage can move about forty-five degrees below where they normally sit because of the rings.

An example of neck stretching.

Foot-Binding in China

In China, foot-binding showed beauty and status. Feet that were bound within ten centimeters in size were considered to be attractive in ancient times. With bound feet, a woman’s movements would be daintier, which was believed to enhance her beauty. Foot-binding was also a sign of wealth. Wealthy women could have servants wait on them for whatever they needed since they could not walk. Poor people did not have that option. The procedure begins by soaking the feet in warm water with herbs and animal blood. The next step is curling all the toes except the big one forcefully over the sole of the foot. Then a binding cloth is used to tighten the feet by wrapping a cloth tightly around each foot. The binding cloth process could last several days to two months. Sometimes there is breaking of toes and the arch of the foot by force to be able to tighten the binding cloth. In the 12th century, foot-binding became widespread and peaked during the Qing Dynasty. Foot size eventually became a currency for families with daughters eligible for marriage because they could raise their societal status through marriage. The most desirable bride would have feet that are three inches. Four-inch feet were acceptable but feet that were five inches or more were dismissed. Feet-binding is no longer practiced in modern day China and is currently banned from being practiced. Even though some people still practiced the tradition in secret after the ban, it has died out now.

An example of what foot-binding looks like.

Tattoos in the U.S.

The art of tattoos and tattooing did not become mainstream in the United States until some voyages to the other side of the world. During voyages to the South Pacific, Western sailors began to learn about Polynesian pictographic tattoos. James Cook recorded a trip to Tahiti in 1769 and stated that the native islanders used the word “tatau” to describe their body art. This term turned into “tattoo” for English speakers and is how we describe the art today. Eventually, sailors began getting tattoos themselves. The common anchor tattoo was representative of stability and protection from drowning. The popularity of tattoos among sailors eventually made its way to the people on land. Tattooing in the United States started on the East and West coasts and eventually made its way inland. During the 19th century, tattoos became fashion statements among socialites. Many people in New York’s high society got tattoos after the British royal, King Edward VII, got one during a trip to Jerusalem. His sons Prince Albert and Prince George later got dragon tattoos during a trip to Japan. Even though the royals setting the trend were men, the people picking up on the trend in the United States were women. At the turn of the century, about three-quarters of women in New York City had tattoos. Designs that were popular at the time included butterflies, flowers, and dragons. Soldiers during the Civil War would get tattoos to guarantee the identification of their body if they died in battle. Popular designers for soldiers were military insignias and names of loved ones. Martin Hildebrant was a tattoo artist who eventually served with the Army of the Potomac. He tattooed many soldiers and eventually established the first tattoo shop in New York City. Because of the number of soldiers wanting tattoos, Hildebrant was definitely not the only tattoo artist at the time. He is probably remembered for his number of tattoos he created, the quality of his work, and his exceptional skill. For fear of health risks, there were several bans on tattoos. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, individuals who were covered in tattoos became attractions as a part of freak shows or circuses. Nora Hildebrant was one of the first tattooed women to become famous for being a part of a freak show. Most performers at the time made up a fake story as to how they received their tattoos. Nora’s story was that she was kidnapped by Sitting Bull and his tribe. They forced her to become covered head to toe in tattoos. The story was false but drew in a crowd, nonetheless.

The first time the general public admitted to getting tattoos was during the 1930s. In the 1930s, social security numbers were introduced. Getting your social security number tattooed on you to remember it has become a common practice. While this became accepted, more artistic designs were still seen as scandalous. In the 1940s, the tattoo style known as American Traditional was created. This is America’s most iconic tattoo style. Norman Keith Collins or Sailor Jerry was a huge part in establishing the American Traditional way of tattooing. He studied American, European, and Japanese tattooing and created a whole new style that is still practiced today. In the 1950s, many men returned from war with tattoos. To them and many others, their ink represented manliness. This brought a new wave of clients to tattoo artists. In 1961, there was a Hepatitis outbreak in New York City that was blamed on a Coney Island tattoo artist named Fred Grossman. True responsibility for the outbreak was unclear, but citywide bans on tattooing did not do well for the art. The ramifications of this echoed throughout the country, with other tattoo shops being seen as health risks. This caused a huge decrease in clientele. The 1970s saw the first wave of people who were not sailors and soldiers embracing tattoos. The counterculture movement inspired the rise of hippy-themed tattoos. The 70s also saw the beginning of people getting full sleeve designs. Young members of society wanted to show off their commitment to their beliefs in a permanent way through tattoos. The 1980s made tattoos a mainstream thing. The rise of Rock and Roll and rock stars being heavily covered in tattoos caused fans to want ink as well. In recent times, the popularity and acceptance of tattoos has increased. Tattooing is now seen as an art form focused on quality. Television shows like Ink Master have cemented tattoos into popular culture. Today, tattoos are commonly used as a form of self-expression. Even though some people still see tattoos as unprofessional, there have been great leaps on the road to acceptance.

American traditional tattoos.


Body modifications have deep roots within many cultures. Whether the modifications are sported by everyone, the wealthy, or the counterculture, they still hold their significance within that culture. The reasoning behind receiving body modifications can differ from culture to culture, but it can also differ from person to person. Anthropologists can study the different cultures to find out the reasoning and it could be anything from representing rites of passage to being something for aesthetic purposes. Some forms of body modification have come and gone, like foot-binding, and some, like tattooing in the United States, have just hit its stride. Just like anything in popular culture, every type of body modification will have its growth, peak, eventual decline, and in some cases a revival.

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