A woman sporting a lip plate, an African culture tradition

Anthropology: Different Cultural Perspectives On Body Modification

colorful illustration portraying forms of body modification in culture
Credit: preen.ph

It is a common belief that our bodies are given to us by nature, and that we are born with this final form. In reality, our bodies are influenced by culture as much as they are by nature. Every culture in the world holds some kind of power over people’s physical form. They hold enough sway to modify and reshape an individual’s body. Body modification can be done for a number of different reasons, all pertaining to their specific cultural standards. For example, some do it for the sake of maintaining beauty standards regardless of how unattainable or unrealistic they may be.

Others do it to mark their involvement in a group, to display social status or to present personal characteristics on their body. Additionally, in this new world where it is possible to receive a dizzying array of information instantaneously, this can sometimes be harmful. Moreover, it is important to recognize the cultural aspects of  society that influence our body image and self expression. Therefore, acknowledging the existence of cultural influences on body image allows for individuals to fully understand, and examine their reasons for any kind of body modification

What Is Body Modification? 

Body modification (BM) is the deliberate altering of the human anatomy and physical appearance. Various types of BM have existed throughout history in different forms within distinct cultures and traditional practices. More recently, mainstream examples of body modification include: dieting, tanning, piercings, tattoos, bodybuilding and dying hair. To people accustomed to Western standards of BM, things like lip plates and teeth sharpening may seem bizarre and exotic. However, in cultures where this is the norm, Westernized ideals of beauty and BM are what seem strange. In general, culture influences people to “perfect” some part of their appearance and use their bodies as canvases for self expression. While an improved perception of body image can be a positive side effect of BM, that is not the sole motivation for people who participate in it. In addition, some forms of body modification can result in negative consequences both physically, and mentally. 

The Western Cultural Perspective 

A map of the Western world
 A map of the Western world credit: reddit.com

Firstly, Western culture encompasses the societal ndards, ethical values and traditional customs of countries in Europe, the Americas and Oceania. 

In the West, two common forms of body modification are piercings and tattoos. Since the integration of body art in mainstream media, both have become a popular mode of self expression.

However, despite the immense progress made towards their normalization, the discussion of tattoos and piercings in the workplace continues to be controversial. One side of the argument states that these forms of body modification are unprofessional and therefore, must be covered up or removed entirely for the duration of the job. 

Picture of a tattoo on an arm and a needle pricking the skin
Credit: Allure.com

This stems from the idea of reputation and how we, as a culture, perceive those who do have visible body modifications. People with tattoos and piercings are thought to be sending the “wrong” message to potential clients and business partners. On the other hand, people argue that these are just forms of artistic expression and have zero correlation with a person’s work ethic. This stigma around the professionalism of tattoos and piercings originated from a popular myth. It claimed that only criminals and degenerates had tattoos and piercings on their body.

Additionally, it claimed that it only recently became common for more “respectable” people to start having them, therefore it is still represented by the criminal lower class.

 Similarly, there was a popular misconception in the past that those who have had modifications done were intellectually impaired. Although there is no scientific evidence that ever existed connecting intelligence with BM, the stigma around it remained strong for many decades.  

Cosmetic Surgery 

Another example of a popularized form of body modification in the West is cosmetic surgery and its many branches. Some of these include: lip fillers, liposuction, and face-lifts. These days, the idea of cosmetic surgeries is much more normalized in popular culture. As a consequence, people feel much more comfortable talking about their own plans for surgery, and look up to those who do go through with it. Younger generations tend to admire the way their favorite celebrities and artists look so much, that many actually plan on copying the procedure their favorites have had done.

 An example of this can be seen with the effect  Kylie Jenner, an American reality television  star, had on younger girls. Jenner, someone who is often praised for her beauty in the media, admits to having lip fillers. With such a young fan base, many of these girls now want the same. This speaks to the much larger issue of body image and acceptance within the West. Today, women and men feel more pressure to have “perfect” bodies and faces; often ignoring how unattainable this is, as the definition of the“perfect body” tends to change regularly. Thus, the plastic surgery industry is booming with the increase of young teens wanting to permanently alter their physical appearances. The insecurity these teens and adults feel is so normalized through the media, that wanting cosmetic surgery isn’t a shock to anyone anymore. If anything, it is expected. 

Picture of a woman getting a lip injection
Credit: Allure.com

Furthermore, dealing with the idealized version of beauty is particularly harder for people of colour. Ethnic plastic surgery is an ongoing phenomenon in the West. Statistics show that between 2005 and 2013, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported an increase in cosmetic procedures performed on ethnic minorities within the United States. There was a 125% increase in Asian- Americans, an 85% increase in Hispanics and a 56% increase in African Americans. Comparatively, procedures for Caucasians only increased about 35% during this time frame. This was one of the first times ethnic plastic surgery was definitely noticed. 

Throughout history, racial minorities assimilating to Western culture tended to surgically alter their appearance. They did this to look less like their ethnicity and blend in with the locals. Also, to further discourage any racial charged attacks they might encounter. Today, in some parts of the West, POC still feel the need to hide their ethnic identities from others. Thus, plastic surgeries that remove ethnic features still exist today. 

Moreover, cosmetic surgery is encouraged by the patriarchy that is established deeply within Western culture. Women and men feel pressured to conform to this type of body modification because those that do are praised by the public and the patriarchy. People who have work done are put on the cover of fashion magazines, they’re the lead in movies and shows, on fashion runways, and basically portrayed as successful in every aspect of their work. They are considered the standard and everyone else is expected to meet that standard. This is not to say there is anything wrong with choosing to get cosmetic surgery. Everyone is entitled to be empowered through the changes they make for their own bodies. However, it is important to note that their decision did not just appear out of thin air but, rather, was a product of the culture around them. 

Today, the subject of cosmetic surgery remains polarized as some suggest it can improve self esteem and overcome negative body image, while others believe surgical intervention is just a sad reflection of a culture with narrow ideas of beauty.

The African Cultural Perspective

As a continent, Africa holds some of the most diverse cultures and traditions that tend to vary from tribe to tribe. Different forms of body modification in some cultures are considered a rite of passage and symbolize social status, wealth, creativity, goodwill and wisdom. 

Scarification

A black and white image of a man with forms of scarification on his back
African tribal scarification credit: medium.com

One example of tribal modification is Scarification. This is an ancient form of tribal body art that involves purposely scarring skin to create complex patterns or raised marks. There are many religious, social and aesthetic reasons behind this form of BM. In some Western African tribes, scarification is used to mark milestones of a woman or man’s life. An example of the type of milestone that is marked is puberty or marriage. Additionally, it can be used as a form of communication with others. These markings emphasize a person’s political belief, and their role in society or religion. In these cultures, symbols portrayed through tattoos, piercings, scars and brands are a way to display a person’s autobiography on their body for everyone to see. This is of course only if these scars are gained voluntarily. 

In addition, tribe members that do not participate in scarification are not included in the group’s activities and customs. It is thought that a person who is not willing to display their place in the world on their body is not to be trusted entirely. As such, this person is then only considered half a member of the tribe. According to anthropologist Grace Harris, members of the tribe that lack consistent characteristics of the group are not given full agency in their society. Moreover, they are unable to take part in any sacred meaningful behaviors such as greetings and commanding. Thus, scarification can convert a partial member of the tribe to a full fledged member that is trusted by the group.

As a whole, scarification is considered to be expressed through intricate greetings and therefore, allows members to communicate fully with each other. This is vital to be considered a normal member of the tribe. 

Recent Popularity 

These days, the tradition of scarification has evolved over time. Now, it is more common for tribal elders to have these markings on their bodies. This is partially because of the fear of HIV transmission through blades, and also the decreasing popularity of it in other parts of the world. In the West, for example, scarification may seem extremely strange and so those of African descent that reside there choose not to participate in it. There is a strong sense of shame surrounding the idea of scarification in the modern world. By some it is viewed as barbaric, but mostly the cultural significance of it is misunderstood. Another reason for its decrease in popularity is the increase of identification cards. The excessive need to display your autobiography on your body is no longer needed because now, people have other ways of communication. 

Lip Plates 

Another example of BM in African culture is lip plates. In Southwestern Ethiopia, the Surma people consist of three ethnic groups: the Suri, the Mursi and the Mekan people. In the suri and Mursi cultures, a woman’s beauty is determined by the size of her lip plate. 

A woman sporting a lip plate, an African culture tradition
Lip Plate body modification in some African tribes Credit: hadithi.africa

These ethnic groups are possibly some of the last in Africa for whom this is still the cultural norm. Women in these cultures wear large wooden discs or plates inside of their lower lip, it has become one of the distinguishing characteristics of their people. At the age of 15 or 16, a girl’s lip is cut by her mother or a woman in her tribe. The cut is then kept open by a wooden plug until it heals in three months. It is apparent that the decision of how far to stretch the lip is left to the girl, as the process can take up to several months by steadily inserting larger wooden plugs over time. Some girls can even stretch their lip until it can take a plate that is 12 centimetres or more.

It is thought that the larger the plate a woman can hold in her lip, the more attractive she is. Therefore, the more likely it is for her to find a husband and be financially taken care of, and her family debts paid off. 

Tooth Sharpening 

Picture of teeth sharpening, a form of African cultural body modification

While scarification was most common in West Africa, tattoos and teeth sharpening was increasingly common in Central and Southern Africa. When they hit puberty, both girls and boys would have four of their lower teeth knocked out. Then, the top teeth would be sharpened to the point they resembled an inverted V. The tribes that practiced this ritual regarded it as a beauty standard, it was thought that girls who did not undergo this procedure would never get married. Similarly, boys who did not have this done were considered to make bad husbands. 

Teeth sharpening was the most popular among the Makonde people in Southeast Tanzania and Northern Mozambique. Additionally, ethnic groups like the Bopoto and the Zappo Zap people in the Democratic Republic of Congo actively participated in the ritual. 

The East Asian Perspective 

picture of food binding in Chinese culture, a form of body modification

East Asian culture is incredibly rich and diverse as it holds a multitude of different Asian countries and influences. The modern states of East Asia include: China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan. 

One of the most prominent examples of body modification in China is foot-binding. Throughout history, foot binding was forced upon girls in China and it started when they were between the ages of three to seven. It continued for the rest of their lives. Food binding was the act of breaking all the toes, except the big one, and folding them under. The foot was then wrapped tightly and the bandages were changed often in order to maintain pressure. By the end of this process, a woman’s feet were only a few inches long. 

This was done because the small feet, the limping walk, and the obvious frailness was considered attractive in women. Some even though of it as highly erotic. Additionally, although the process of foot binding crippled a woman for the rest of her life, parents continued to force it on their daughters. Mainly, so that their chances of finding a husband increased. The idea of women having small feet in their delicate silken shoes was thought to be one of the most attractive qualities of a potential bride. Recent studies show that foot-binding was not just indulged in for the sake of marriage, but also to encourage girls to stay at home and stay engaged in handicrafts. Such as, spinning cotton, as it would contribute to her family’s income. 

Ultimately, regardless of the motive, foot-binding caused long term physical impairment in women and girls. This old tradition allows for a glimpse into the place of women in Chinese society. Additionally,  the lengths in which society will go to limit a woman’s freedom and independence. Women whose feet were bound were never able to walk properly again, which severely limited their ability to move around the world. However, when China opened to the West, this custom began to die out and by the 1950s was a relic of the past.

Here is an in-depth article on Ancient Chinese Foot binding. Foot Binding as Symbolism for Socioeconomic Status in Ancient China.

The Anthropological Significance 

Understanding the influence societal expectations and culture have on our physical forms aids us in combating our own personal biases regarding our bodies. Exploring the concept of body modification through different cultural perspectives, allows for a more thorough examination of the way our society sets up expectations for our bodies. The rules that dictate what a “perfect” body should or shouldn’t look like, vary significantly from country to country. As a consequence, trying to keep up with beauty trends across the globe is unrealistic and damaging to a person’s mental health. It is important to remember that all forms of beauty standards are just a matter of perspective. Therefore, the pressure put on people to alter their bodies according to just one rule, or perspective, in their individual society is unnecessary. 

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References: 

  1. Africa And The Culture Of Body Modification: Hadithi Africa. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://hadithi.africa/africa-and-the-culture-of-body-modification/
  2. Body Modification & Body Image. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bradley.edu/sites/bodyproject/disability/modification/
  3. Ethnic Plastic Surgery: Comparing the East and the West Techniques. (2018, April 17). Retrieved from https://www.findingbeautyme.com/ethnic-plastic-surgery-techniques/
  4. Henley, D., & Porath, N. (2020). Body Modification in East Asia: History and Debates. Asian Studies Review, 45(2), 198-216. doi:10.1080/10357823.2020.1849026
  5. Laura. (2020, June 29). History of Body Modification. Retrieved from https://info.painfulpleasures.com/help-center/information-center/history-body-modification
  6. Lodder, M. (2011, October 01). Stamping out the persistent myths and misconceptions about tattoos | Matt Lodder. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/01/myths-about-tattoos
  7. Malchik, A. (2020, February 14). The Neglected Consequences of Foot-Binding. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/02/lasting-damage-foot-binding/606439/

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