When you think of body modifications, you probably envision that guy you saw at the 7-11 this morning. You know, the one with the earrings and all the tattoos up his arms? Piercings and tattoos are the most common body modifications in Western culture, and they’ve both been around for thousands of years.
Other cultures may take body modifications to more of an extreme – at least in your eyes. But there are some things people do to drastically alter their appearances, that may be right under your nose. You just never thought of them this way because they’re so normalized by our culture. When you look at your own culture through this new lens, you may begin to see that we’re more interesting than you thought. Either way, this stuff has been around since the beginning of civilization, and it’s not going anywhere. In fact, some people enjoy it so much, there’s even a church centered around altering the physical form for spiritual reasons.
The following are 11 examples of extreme body modifications from all over the world.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Various methods such as cutting or branding are used to create a keloid (raised) type of scar on the skin, which has a three-dimensional appearance and gives a design more depth than a simple tattoo. Scarification has been performed within a variety cultures for different reasons. Often scars are created as part of a rite of passage ritual, especially amongst various African tribes. In other contexts it may be done for spiritual reasons, or to symbolize a personal experience which has meaning to the individual. Scarification may even be done simply for its artistic effect. In fact, this type of body decoration has begun to infiltrate Western culture, so you may be seeing it soon in your own neighborhood.
2. Elongated Skulls – Conehead Style
You may have seen the recent sensational stories about alien graves which were unearthed in Peru. While conspiracy theorists and sci-fi fans had a field day with this news, the actual discovery occurred in 1999 and involved perfectly human, non-alien specimens. The group of archaeologists who discovered this small, ancient cemetery just recently released the results of their research, and pictures of cone-shaped skulls flooded the internet and prompted wild speculations. In reality, these were just regular human beings who, for some unknown reason, decided to shape their growing children’s skulls by binding their heads between two boards. Mostly likely the practice had some sort of cultural or religious origin, but we may never know for sure. What we do know is that the practice was probably not very healthy for the kids, judging from the fact that many of these skeletons were of deceased children. Perhaps that’s why the tradition was abandoned.
3. Foot binding in China – The original foot fetish?
The practice of binding little girls’ feet to prevent growth most likely began during the Song dynasty, when upper-class court dancers bound their feet to make them tiny and delicate. The look was considered so attractive that it became fashionable, and was copied by Chinese families who wished to help their daughters become more beautiful and therefore marriageable. The ideal foot size was considered to be about four inches, and tiny feet were seen as highly erotic by Chinese men.
Foot binding wasn’t overly popular amongst the poor, though, probably because it’s completely impractical for struggling, working class women to have feet they can barely walk on. Sometimes the eldest daughter’s feet would be bound, in hopes that it would help the family by allowing her to marry a more wealthy man. Her younger sisters, however, would not receive this “privilege”. Nowadays, the painful and disabling practice has mostly died out, but elderly women with lotus feet can still be found.
4. Piercings – Not just a junior high rite of passage.
Remember when you were a little girl, and getting your ears pierced at some pre-determined age was such a big deal? Now it seems like everywhere you look, there are pierced eyebrows, tongues, bellybuttons and noses. But this is no recent trend. 5,000-year-old mummies with pierced ears have been discovered, and the practice may be even older than that. The oldest-known human remains with nose piercings are 1500 years old, and lip and tongue piercing have both been done by African and American tribal societies for hundreds – possibly thousands – of years. Obviously, the recent trend of poking holes in one’s body is not such a recent trend after all.
But there are other types of piercings that are a little more, shall we say, extreme. Nipple piercing dates all the way back to Ancient Rome, which makes perfect sense considering the ancient Romans are well known for their tendency to push the envelope in pretty much all areas of human life. Not the type to be outdone by a bunch of Romans, ancient Indians practiced genital piercing all the way back in 320 A.D. This type of piercing is done by poking (another) hole in the tip of the penis or, for women, the clitoris. Supposedly it makes sex even better. When you keep in mind that the Indians were the ones who came up with the Kama Sutra, it all starts to make a little more sense.
Not to be outdone, modern subculture has come up with their own variations on body piercing, such as this lovely corset piercing. A series of piercings is performed on the skin of the back – generally a woman – and then they can be laced up just like an old-timey corset.
5. Tongue Splitting
Forked tongues were attributed to characters like Kaliyah in ancient Hindu texts, but those who were raised in predominantly Christian, Western culture may instantly think of Satan. Splitting one’s tongue was actually a popular practice amongst ancient yoga practitioners, although the watered-down versions of trendy studio yoga rarely include it nowadays. Whether you associate it with ancient yogis or mythological demons, you may have never seen a split tongue in person because the practice almost completely died out in modern times. However, this particular cosmetic effect was revived in American subculture during the 1990s, and continues to grow in popularity. Soon you could be seeing forked tongues everywhere you go.
6. 3-D Implants – And we’re not just talking about boobs.
If a forked tongue isn’t devilish enough for you, how about some horns on your forehead? Art implants are a relatively new trend, and involves placing a “sculpure” of the desired shape underneath the skin to create a 3-dimensional design. The process is done slowly, gradually increasing the size of the implant and stretching the skin until the wearer attains the desire look. One of the most popular implants involves horns worn on the forehead, but the art is as limitless as the creator’s imagination.
7. Lip Plates
This type of body modification is exclusively known to the Mursi, Chai, and Tirma tribes, although it was once much more common throughout Africa. A series of plates are worn in order to stretch the lower lip, beginning when a girl reaches 15 or 16 years of age. Most women will persevere until their lips are stretched enough to contain a 12-centimeter plate, and sometimes even larger. There are several speculations as to the purpose of these plates, but it appears to mostly be a rite of passage signifying a girl has become a woman. Wearing a large plate is also considered a standard of beauty, and we all know women all over the world will do just about anything to be seen as beautiful.
8. Neck Stretching – Not just for giraffes!
Speaking of paying the price for beauty, women of the Padaung culture wear a succession of brass rings to give the illusion of a longer, more graceful neck. It’s a common misconception that gradually adding these brass rings elongates the neck itself, but orthopedic surgeons say this is impossible – at least without eventual paralysis or death. In reality, the weight of the rings pushes down the collarbone and gives the illusion of a longer neck. Various reasons have been given for the practice, but most likely it originates from the idea that longer necks are simply more beautiful. As in many other cultures around the world, more beautiful women usually have better prospects for marriage, so it could be said that the desire for a long neck is economically motivated as well.
9. Dental Modifications in Japan
Dental modifications are nothing new to Americans, who are practically obsessed with attaining perfectly straight, white teeth via orthodontic appliances and bleaching methods. Not to be outdone, Japan is putting their own spin on the trend. While a bright, symmetrical smile symbolizes prosperity and beauty in America, the “snaggle tooth” look reminds the Japanese of middle school girls. In case you didn’t know, middle school girls are hot in Japan. The Japanese outdo Americans in their over-valuing of youth to the point that looking like a 12-year-old schoolgirl is considered the ultimate in chic and sexy. Anything reminiscent of youth is highly prized, and Japanese women often dress and even behave in adorable, childish ways in order to attract male attention.
Since plaid miniskirts and knee socks can only get you so far, a fashionable woman in Japan might pay a dentist to alter her teeth in order to mimic the appearance of a pre-braces adolescent. It may seem bizarre to the average American, but this is a sexy smile in Japan.
10. Forced weight changes
The topic of body modifications generally brings to mind external decorations which may be considered anything from bizarre to artistic. However, when you keep in mind that these things are almost always done because they reflect cultural values and standards of beauty, it makes sense that extreme weight gain or loss can, in some cases, be considered a body modification. Obviously, it doesn’t count if there is an underlying medical or psychological issue, but when weight is modified purely to meet society’s standards it could be argued that these examples meet the qualifications of a body modification.
In some cultures, an extra-large body size is considered valuable or even beautiful. This idea may sound unbelievable to Americans, who are often obsessed with very thin silhouettes. However, in societies like Fiji, Tajita, Jamaica, Nauru and many others, fattening rituals or excessive feasting serves the purpose of helping participants attain the desirable larger body size. It makes sense, when you consider the fact that thinness is often associated with lack of economic standing (ability to afford food) and poor health. Unfortunately, extreme obesity is often associated with disease and a shortened life span – but this hardly matters to those who seek beauty and social standing.
On the flipside of extreme weight modifications would be the Pro-Ana movement in contemporary Western culture. Ana stands for “anorexic”, but an important distinction must be made between this trend and actual anorexia nervosa. The psychological disorder often has much deeper roots than a simple desire to be thin. The Pro-Ana movement, on the other hand, is strictly centered around the idea that any perceptible amount body fat is unattractive and undesirable. Sustaining an eating disorder is seen as a good thing, and Pro-Anas are actually proud of it. Most likely this idea grew out of the modern American obsession with thin silhouettes, but even most exercise- and diet-conscious people agree that Pro-Ana is extreme, unhealthy, and dangerous – not to mention unattractive. Nevertheless, it’s a growing subculture which prizes a skeletal look because, in their minds, it symbolizes beauty and success.
11. Plastic Surgery – a body modification?
After investigating the types and methods of body modification along with their values amongst various cultures, it may come as a startling revelation to most Americans that some pretty extreme types of modification have existed right under our noses all along. When something is presented to us over and over from the time we are born, we don’t often stop to question whether it even makes sense. In this case, plastic surgery almost certainly qualifies as a rather extreme body modification, and yet we rarely even think of it as extreme or bizarre. And yet, while piercings and tattoos rarely carry serious risks when performed under sterile conditions, people actually die during plastic surgery. Considering the majority of plastic surgery is done due to elective cosmetic motivations, it’s easy to see why plastic surgery could be one of the most extreme forms of body modification humans have ever performed. After all, what is more extreme than risking your life in order to insert plastic bags of fluid in your breasts?
Plastic surgery doesn’t just stop at tummy tucks and breast augmentation, though. It’s possible to have implants placed in the butt, biceps, or calves to create the desired silhouette, and of course it’s impossible to overlook the popular practice of injecting poison into foreheads and cheeks in order to smooth age lines. In fact, there are so many different types of plastic surgery available that some people collect procedures like old men collect stamps. We call these people – usually women – living dolls, because they take surgical cosmetic procedures to a whole new level. Generally, these living dolls undergo multiple procedures and spend exorbitant amounts of money on their makeup and hair, in order to achieve a caricature-like appearance. Some find them fascinating, while others are repulsed, but we could probably all agree that living dolls are the ultimate representation of American society’s unrealistic standards of beauty.
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