What Is Body Modification?

What is body modification and how did it get started? Learn the history of this very interesting tradition...

Body modification is a universal art form that has been practiced for thousands of years. It is done for such motivations as sexual enhancement, a rite of passage, aesthetic reasons, denoting affiliation, trust and loyalty, religious or mystical affiliations, shock value, and self-expression.

Piercing is one of the most mainstream forms of body modification today, including in the United States. It has its origins in Iraq and Iran 4000 years ago, and Cyprus 2200 years ago. It was also done in Tlingit of Southeast Alaska in 1918 to denote the status of children. The more piercings a child had, the higher ranking he or she would be. Adults would throw parties at which all the children were pierced, and elevate their rank.

Heavy earrings were used as a beauty symbol to stretch womens' earlobes. This has been practiced in China, and is still done in Borneo today.



Lip piercing was originally used by Eskimos in the Arctic. Lip plugs called "labrets" were put in for initiation, decoration, and as a status symbol. Nose piercing, while increasing in popularity today, was first done by the Tlingit in Alaska. They used it as a mark of distinction and prestige for men and women. It was also used in Ancient Mexico and India, and today in India and Pakistan.

Other piercings are less popular, but include locations in the eyebrow, tongue, genitals, navel, and other creative places.

Scarification/Cicatrization is a means of permanently altering the skin. This form of body modification demonstrates that the appearance of skin is significant to many cultures. The process of scarification itself is performed by making tiny cuts and inserting dyes in order to alter the color of the skin. Another method is to burn the skin and create designs with the patterns of scars.

There is a carefully controlled healing process and means of infection prevention which differ from region to region.

The final result may be raised bumps called keltoids, which are achieved from the insertion of clay or ash into the skin. The design may be colored by inserting substances into wound, which resembles tattoos. The pattern may be the same as those found on textiles, wood-carvings, ceramics and sculpture.

The significance of scarification is to indicate permanent status change. It has a symbolic meaning to religious peoples and often a scarred person is honored for their endurance and courage because the process is extremely painful.

Body modification is a common traditional practice in many cultures around the world. Piercing and scarification has significance which varies for each individual, but their roles in society today are still important.

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