Interest in body modification has grown significantly over the past 40 years in the Western world. Body modification encompasses a wide array of bodily practices, including but not limited to tattooing, piercing, cutting, scarification, branding, subdermal implantation, stretching, binding, suspension or flesh hanging, and human-machine hybridization. The term has also been used to refer to practices such as surgical alteration (often those deemed “elective” or “cosmetic”), bodybuilding or sculpting (through the use of performance-enhancing substances, diets, and exercise regimes), and anorexia or fasting. Typically, body modification techniques inscribe and alter the body’s surface; however, the latter two examples illustrate how, through the loss or gain of body mass, the body’s exterior might be transformed from the inside out.
Deviance scholars are drawn to the topic for a variety of reasons. Most research explores body modification as a form of physical deviance, focusing on the violation of traditional corporal appearance, adornment, and maintenance norms. Research also examines how specific forms of body modification are adopted by and utilized within various subcultural groups. This work elucidates the impact that such practices have on the identities of individual subculturalists as well as the shared systems of meaning that subculturalists create around these varying practices. Additional research reveals how the mainstream media frame certain body modification techniques as healthy modes of beautification and others as harmful forms of self-mutilation. Finally, body modification has been studied as an expression of oppositional political and cultural beliefs and as transgressive erotic performance.
Whether deemed “extreme” (e.g., surgical genital modification), “mainstream” (e.g., ear lobe piercing), “personal,” or “political,” the key theme that unites each of these diverse practices is the intentional physical transformation of the flesh. This entry provides an overview of nontattoo forms of body modification. Specifically, it discusses various techniques of body modification, recent historical shifts in somatic conceptualizations, body modification as subcultural practice, and media representations of body modification and body modifiers.
Techniques of Body Modification
Techniques of body modification vary with regard to the instruments used, the placement on the body, and the desired effect (aesthetic or otherwise). According to Fakir Musafar, a well-known body modifier and the “father” of modern primitivism, body modification practices can be classified in several basic yet distinct ways. There are practices that incorporate fire and heat, such as branding, burning, and tanning. Certain practices center on deprivation, such as fasting and calorie restriction. Other practices involve penetration of some kind, including tattooing, piercing, cutting, and scarification. Another type involves expansion by way of stretching or pulling the flesh; sometimes the flesh is already pierced and then stretched to accommodate larger-gauge jewelry. Conversely, there are also practices that focus on the constriction of the flesh, such as corseting and binding. Additionally, certain techniques revolve around suspension by ropes, flesh hooks, body parts, and/or multiple piercings. Of course, there are also bionic modifications, meant to enhance the body’s “natural” capabilities; some common examples include contact lenses and prosthetic limbs. New methods of body modification develop as new technologies emerge.
Historical Shifts in Somatic Conceptualizations
Sociological theorists of the body suggest that body modification practices challenge the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. Modification techniques underscore the fact that bodies are simultaneously social objects and social agents. Bodies may also convey messages about our identities; they are outward expressions of who we are, and they define us in relation to others. Chris Shilling’s term body projects neatly summarizes this point. He argues that in late modernity, humans have come to view the body as a project to be undertaken. Thus, people have become increasingly invested in the appearance and performance of their bodies as a way to establish, cultivate, and manage a coherent narrative of self. Within postmodern culture, one must engage in body projects to accomplish self-identity.
Given that bodies are used to communicate messages about our identities, theoretical debates have emerged over the nature of body modification. In the postmodern “supermarket of style,” are tattoos, piercings, and implants mere fashion accessories to be indulged in narcissistically and cast off when the mood strikes? Conversely, are tattoos, piercings, brandings, and the like desired because they are seen as permanent and highly visible ways of altering and “anchoring” the self? Debates are still ongoing over the meaning of body modification, but what remains clear is that practices and techniques of modification have been and continue to be used in a variety of different ways for a variety of different reasons.
Body Modification as Subcultural Practice
While many subcultures and individual subcultur-alists embrace and engage in varied forms of body modification, research points to three specific subcultures that ritualize these adornment practices, namely “neo-” or “modern primitives,” queer sadomasochists (SM), and cyberpunks. To speak of body modification as “ritual” is to suggest that specific practices are carried out in a recurring fashion within subcultural scenes and settings and that, when carried out, each practice is imbued with a set of shared, symbolic meanings.
The modern primitive subculture emerged in the United States and Canada during the 1970s as a result of the increased interest in tribal customs, works of art, and styles of living. Modern primitives valorize so-called native or indigenous practices, aesthetics, and sensibilities. Group members argue that “primitive” cultures are sexually, politically, communally, spiritually, and environmentally superior to Western culture. Consequently, modern primitives set out to mimic the body modification practices and ceremonial events of non-Western cultures, such as “tribal”-style tattoos, scarifications, brandings, and piercings as well as suspensions or flesh hangings and ball dances. According to Michael Atkinson and Kevin Young, modern primitives’ “flesh journeys” serve to document, both symbolically and corporeally, the spiritual, emotional, and identity-based changes that occur over the course of a lifetime. Additionally, modern primitives argue that such practices set them apart from the mainstream, corporate, capitalist Western world.
However, critics of the modern primitivist movement assert that these subculturalists engage in ethnic “Othering”—or the fetishizing of cultural difference. Moreover, these critics suggest that modern primitives exercise Western privilege by embracing and embodying colonialist traditions of cultural appropriation. In this sense, modern primitives are seen as individuals who attempt to convey the radical message of cultural dissent through consumption of the styles and symbols of oppressed and marginalized groups, often with little to no regard for or concern over authenticity.
The queer SM subculture consists of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals who incorporate elements of sadism, masochism, kink, and fetish play into their identities, lifestyles, and practices. Body modification techniques operate within the queer SM subculture in several ways. First, piercings, tattoos, corsetry, branding, and scarring visibly “queer” the body—or mark it in opposition to the (hetero)normative body. Queer SM subculturalists argue that their altered bodies serve as testaments of their antiassimilationist politics. Second, queer SMs include forms of body modification into their sexual “play.” For example, “temporary piercing” (also known as “needle play” or “play piercing”) may be incorporated into a specific SM scene or performed within a subcultural space such as an SM club, party, or convention. Third, queer SM body modifiers suggest that their refashioned bodies signify community membership and unite them as “queers among queers.”
The critiques of queer SM subculture mirror closely those directed at modern primitivists. Through racial and ethnic “Othering” and through the appropriation of non-Western cultural traditions, the predominantly white queer SM community reaffirms rather than challenges its position of privilege alongside hegemonic, heteronormative white Westerners. While queer SMs understand and explain their body modification practices in terms of pleasure, agency, visibility, community, and transgression, critics argue that such claims lack a critical analysis of power.
Cyberpunk subculturalists differ in several significant ways from both modern primitives and queer SMs. Their body modification practices attempt to denaturalize and deconstruct the human body by fusing it with futuristic biomedical and virtual technologies. Through these high-tech inventions and interventions, the body itself is transformed into a landscape of limitless posthuman possibilities. Performance artists such as Stelarc and Orlan use robotics, Internet technologies, and plastic surgery to push the boundaries of the physical body. Cyberpunk subculturalists outfit themselves with subdermal implants, cybernetic bodysuits, bionic prosthetics such as the “eyeborg,” as well as tattoos and piercings. Cyberpunks describe their human–cyborg hybridizations in extremely individualistic terms; some even perform these surgeries on themselves.
Although less has been written on the subject, critics do suggest that cyberpunk body modifiers’ belief in liberation and transcendence through new body technologies resembles broader cultural beliefs regarding the transformative potential of cosmetic surgery, liposuction, and permanent cosmetics.
Media Representations of Body Modification
Recent research shows that news media accounts present certain forms of body modification as self-inflicted “mutilation,” and the practitioners of these forms as “pathological” or “mentally ill.” In these articles, mental and medical health professionals are quoted extensively and serve as legitimate “claims makers” in the “mutilation or modification” debate. These testimonies uniformly depict body modifiers as disordered, depressed, and disturbed individuals driven to self-harm. When body modifiers’ own narratives are included in the news stories, these “expert” accounts delegitimize and ultimately undermine the practitioners’ claims of agency.
In framing body modification this way, the mainstream media contribute to the construction of body modification as a social problem. As such, body modification practices are often associated with other social problems such as excessive alcohol use, drug addiction, crime, violence, and promiscuity. Women’s body modification is framed as particularly problematic. Female modifiers are said to be purposefully inflicting pain, violence, and self-hatred on their bodies. In fact, female body modification is often compared to highly gendered disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and delicate self-harm syndrome.
Interestingly, findings also suggest that certain types of body modification are framed more negatively than others. For example, cosmetic surgery and tattooing are presented in the media as fashionable, consumerist lifestyle options, whereas body piercing, scarification, and branding continue to be described as deviant, self-destructive behaviors. Additionally, news stories leave out or downplay the health risks associated with cosmetic surgery but exaggerate those risks when discussing piercings. These framing strategies normalize certain forms of body alteration while stigmatizing and marginalizing others.
Natalie M. Peluso
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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6501000041