In the modern sense, many of us think of body modification as piercings and tattoos, but historically, true body mod has included so much more. From foot binding in china, to corsetry in the UK, and skull stretching in South America, we explore the unusual, beautiful, and amazing ways that tribal cultures around the world have been modifying for millennia.
Some piercings and modifications are universally acknowledged, but others, like skull stretching or “head binding,” are relatively less well known. The act of reshaping the skull through various manipulations has been performed worldwide, like in ancient Iraq and Greece, by the Huns and East Germanic Tribes, and by Australian Aboriginal groups and some North American Indians, but perhaps the most notable example of cranial modification existed among the Maya. The Mayan Indians would bind the heads of their infants using boards or splints at the front and back in order to lengthen the skull through the parietal and occipital regions (the top and back of the head). This gave the skull a pleasing appearance and in some cases denoted social standing.
Another less well known modification practice is tooth sharpening. Although the sharpening of the canines has risen in recent years in Western culture, this is primarily due to the rise in vampire lore, and is generally done for aesthetic reasons only. Among the tribes of Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America however, the practice of tooth filing has been largely a spiritual or social endeavor. A great example of this still exists in modern day Bali, where both men and women have the upper teeth filed as a rite of passage. The teeth are considered to symbolize negative emotions and personality traits, and are modified to remove these characteristics.
While many such coming of age rituals are common to both male and female adolescents, some are restricted to only the women, like the neck stretching common to tribes in Asia. Almost exclusive to this area of the world, neck stretching has been primarily practiced among small groups in Nepal, Burma, Tibet, and Thailand, with a few examples among North African cultures. The Kayan, for example, an ethnic group from Burma, may begin stretching the neck of girl as early as two. A wound coil or set of “neck rings” is wrapped around the neck to lengthen it’s appearance, and subsequent revolutions to create new rings are added as age progresses. Contrary to popular belief, this eventually modifies the structure of the body, not by lengthening the vertebrae in the neck itself, but by forcing down the shoulders and collar bone, adjusting the angle of the ribs.
Another modification practice common solely to females is foot binding. Practiced in China and some of the surrounding area, foot binding is now illegal in Republic of China, due to its potential to cripple participants. A small group of Chinese women (mostly in rural China) still exist with modified feet, which are created during the toddler years when the arch of the foot is still pliant. The feet are soaked, broken, and bound tightly in ten feet of bandage to create the illusion of a tiny foot, the most coveted being the “golden lotus,” a foot of just three inches in length.
Although modifications like foot binding may seem extreme to Western cultures, other manipulations of the skin or bone structure are often seen as less than menacing, like branding. Now practiced primarily as a voluntary form of body art, branding was historically used in nearly every cultural context as either a punishment for crime, or a permanent mark of identification for those who were slaves or had committed criminal acts. One of the only examples of branding in a positive social sense continues to this day among certain religious sects in India. Here, the branding is seen as a religious initiation and symbolizes membership to a particular spiritual group.
Likewise with modern scarification, tongue splitting, and ear cropping, inflictions once used as a punishment have become voluntary acts of modification used to create a specific visual effect. Perhaps the only type of body mod that has continuously been purely aesthetic is corsetry. Short term medical use of loose laced corsets not withstanding, corsetry has been largely a beauty and fashion industry advent for centuries. Beginning in the first half of the 20th century, some of the best corsetieres have set up shop in France and the UK, where many of the smallest waists in the world have been recorded through the means of tightlacing. Today, although common in the Americas as well, England still holds a high concentration of corset makers and wearers, as the garments themselves are prevalent in the flourishing burlesque scene and among other social groups.
Although we may not understand certain body mod rituals from a cultural point of view, the human race has been altering our appearance through various means for thousands of years, and will likely continue to do so for thousands more.