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PHOTO: Kayan girl, Mary Rose Loria
Body modification has existed since the beginning of time in different cultures across the world. Tattoos, nose rings, septum rings, earrings, lip rings, tongue rings, navel rings, gauged piercings and genital piercings span the globe in history and every cultural background in existence.
Each piercing had specific religious, rite of passage, class structure or adornment meanings. The Greeks, for example, wore earrings shaped like demigods or revered birds that were reserved for nobility. While the Native Americans, Aztecs and Mayans wore gold septum rings for adornment to symbolize wealth and sexual fertility. In Hinduism, women are encouraged to tattoo the middle of their forehead or “Third Eye” to enhance spiritual wellness, beauty and to protect them from evil.
Instead of enhancing their bodies through piercings or tattoos, it was custom in some cultures throughout time to modify their bodies by applying a long-term practice to actually alter their bodies in some way.
Women of the Kayan Tribe use the practice of wearing heavy brass coils around their neck at a very young age. As they grow, more coils are put on their necks compressing their collarbones and upper ribs. This creates a long and slender neck that is considered very beautiful in the Kayan culture.
In Imperial China, both in the upper and lower-class, young girls fell into the custom of foot binding, because men found it highly attractive. A young girl would have her feet placed in a special soak, where she would then receive a foot massage followed by every single toe being manually broken then bound tightly in cloth. The foot would be unwrapped and re-wrapped tighter until her feet reached 4 inches long. It would assure that these women would never have to work, as they would become either a wife to a working man, concubine to a rich man, or married into a wealthy family. But, it would also assure that the women had to remain fully dependent on their male counterpart, and could not leave the house on her own to participate in normal social events.
In some cultures, body modification can be temporary as a means to achieve spiritual enlightenment through the process and the pain received.
In some of the Native American tribes, many would employ piercings that would suspend their bodies in the air during important religious ceremonies. During these religious rituals, men who were seeking spiritual visions had their shoulders or chest pierced by other men who had already experienced the rite in the past. The men being pierced would then be suspended from poles that were either inside or outside the Lodge of their tribe. A trance-like state was obtained from pain where visions would present themselves to the individual seeking specific religious enlightenment.
Some of these ancient and beautiful body customs are still prevalent today for the same reasons as the ancient practices, and for the influence it has had on Western Culture. But some practices such as foot binding, thankfully, have stopped.
Groups of people all over the world still practice ancient body art to honor their culture, family, religious beliefs and customs. Now in Western Culture, people use body modification for the above mentioned reasons as well as aesthetics, membership affiliations, to re-claim a part of their body, self-expression, shock value, sexual value and to create beautiful works of body art.
Body modification has blown up into a serious subculture over the years and is a force to be reckoned with. Everything from expos, magazines, shows, gatherings, art shows, photos and TV programs showcase the beauty in these physical alterations.
Although these alterations have mainstreamed in Western culture, unfortunately most still consider these practices to be taboo and undesirable for professional work settings. Many businesses employ strict dress codes and limitation on body jewelry or tattoos, stressing a very conservative approach to how one shall dress their body. Some religious groups have even gone as far as saying body modification is destructive and sacrilegious due to the fact the body belongs to God.
But who has the right to judge you or force you to conform to society’s standards? I say throw all caution to the wind and be you. If you want to honor your religious beliefs or a memory by a tattoo, do it. If you want to pierce your septum because it is aesthetically beautiful, do it.
“But who has the right to judge you or force you to conform to society’s standards?”
Who has the right to say you can or cannot do something to your own body? There is an art and beauty to body modification which should be respected. Cultures across the globe have practiced different forms over the course of thousands of years, yet society still finds time to judge without educating themselves first on the history of such modifications.
Would you tell a Hindu women that she cannot wear her religious red dot to work or cover it up if it was tattooed? No. Then why would someone say you cannot wear your septum ring to work or have a visible tattoo? Stand up for yourself if you ever find yourself being judged by society or work environments for your body modification choices. Body modification is a beautiful thing that should be enjoyed by anyone freely, without the disapproving judgments of others.
My only word of caution when it comes to tattoos or piercings is to seriously think why you are doing it and what it represents to you. I remember my mother asking me one day what I was going to do when I get married with all my tattoos. I looked at her and said, “I am not going to cover them up because this is who I am.” And she smiled.