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Body Modification: Past and Present Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 27th, 2022


The human body modification is represented in its physical transformation. Research has proved that body decoration reflects identity, ideology, and lifestyle of a person. As a result, whichever change is made to one’s physical appearance to reflect spiritual, fashion, social, as well as personal self-expression and identification, it may be classified as body modification.

This comprehensive term includes piercing, tattooing, earlobe stretching, branding, and cutting. Additionally, there are more peculiar ways of body modification, such as dental, facial, or breast implants.

Anthropological study on the history of body modification revealed that many people all over the world have been decorating their body with a selection of artistic designs ever since the ancient times. In spite of the fact that the style in which body modification is done differs, there are common attributes shared by many cultures. Some of which are still practiced in the present day. This research paper will discuss the global history of body modification and its current position in the modern world.

What Is Body Modification?

Body modification can be classified as the art of modifying the body by manipulating color, texture, scent, sounds, and taste or by decorating the body with some painting or jewelry.

Types of Body Modification

The term ‘body modification’ refers to several methods of body transformation which include piercing, tattooing, branding, cutting, binding and inserting implants to alter the appearance and shape the body.

History of Body Modification

Body modification is undoubtedly distinctive feature attributed to the masses. This process has been in the use dated back 30,000 years. Throughout the human history, individuals in many cultures have deliberately altered their physical natural appearance for aesthetic reasons.

There is a general belief which implies that body modification was a mode of one’s expression and identification even in ancient times. However, regardless body decoration which involves painting, tattooing, and other skin modification, people have also ornamented their bodies with piercings, which may be jewelry. In line with this, body piercing has been widely spread during the last ten to seventeen years, but the general society may still view it as dishonor and some inappropriate practice.

Although, what majority of the world populace do not understand is that piercing of the body (excluding ears’ piercing) originated centuries ago, back to the Biblical era, and has cultural and emblematic meaning contrary to the feeling of distress and dishonor.

The creative designing of human body (known as body modification) has been a customary way of human mode of self-expression and identification since the era of the ancient Egypt. This denotes that body modification and ethnicity are linked.

Although ethnicity and ethnic group seem to have clear references in relation to body modification, they are “among the most complicated and charged words and ideas of body modification or supplement in the lexicon of social science” (Nash 1).

According to the history of body modification or supplement, the Egyptians restrain piercing of the navel from the general masses. According to their belief, navel piercing can only be done by the royalties (the pharaohs). However, the Egyptians do not regard the art of body modification as fashion or beauty but as a form of showing their social hierarchical position and status.

On the other hand, the pre-Egyptians developed and improved their skulls and employed an easy method of creating tattoos. Afterward, the ancient Egyptians introduced ear piercing while the prehistoric South Americans, like the Mayans and Aztecs, ritualistically practiced the process of tongue piercing as a ritual of the sacrificial offering of blood to their Gods (Noya, 2005).

Furthermore, Native Australians also performed penile surgical incision and lengthening of the labia as a form of body modification. Native North American and the Inuit (an aboriginal group living on the territory of the modern Canada and presently referred to as Canadians) practiced the piercing of the lip and put on a decorative piece made of bone, which is presently reproduced as the labret stud. Besides, for generations, the aborigines of PacificIsland employed the practice of body modification.

Despite the fact that body modification is not well acknowledged in the Western culture, it has been a custom in many ethnic groups and eastern culture for a long. As an example, the insertion of nose rings in the left nostril originated in India, and symbolizes easier parturition process for Indian women (Noya, 2005).

The Romans had their own body modification traditions. They also believed that all their actions served a purpose, hence, to them, body modifications reflected a practical reason (Roberts, 2004). The ancient Romans believed that their centurions pierced their nipples in order to give them men strength.

Another historical example of body modification popular among the Romans is piercing of the genitals. According to the history of body modification of the archaic culture of the Romans, it was compulsory that the Roman gladiators pierced the head of their penises because they were slaves. The Roman traditional piercing of the gladiators’ penises was made for two reasons.

  1. This form of body modification was for the purpose of pegging their genitals during a gladiator combat, as well as
  2. piercing of gladiator’s genital organ was as a means of preventing them from engaging in sexual activities without the consent of their master (Sanders, 2005).

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are tribal marks that people carry not as a form of body modification but also as a symbol of belonging to a certain community. In Sub-Saharan Africa, body modification dates back to ancestral era when it was made as a cut on the face used to identify one’s tribal affiliation.

Africans viewed their tribal marking as an extension of their native selves, a fleshly embodiment of tribal customs and rich histories. In some cases, the process of scarification marked a coming of age, which is performed as a part of the ceremony in which a young man or a woman ascends to the rank of being adult.

During the period in history between traditional antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, the art of body modification became progressively weaker than it had been in the past, as it was considered by the early church as a sinful act. This is, perhaps, why most of the Western societies have a negative perception of body modification contrary to that of the eastern or African societies (Sanders, 2005).

Body Modification in the Modern age

There are many different methods of decoration that men and women (mostly teens) from all over the world beautify their skin today, they range from tattoos and body piercings to branding and scars. As the world civilizes and encourages the development of the individual, body modification (piercing, tattooing, etc.) is once again revived or brought back to the scene as a way of self-expression.

In the modern era, due to the wide popularity of ear piercing, it became a way for women to proudly display their diamonds and riches, and it has gradually become less exceptionable for men to pierce their ear. Tattooing is also widely spread having successfully entered into the modern culture.

In the modern age, body modification (piercing and tattooing in particular) is of interest to teens who want to explore their identities by experimenting with their body appearances.

It is an accepted belief that physical appearance generally reveals one’s inner self, beliefs, values, and hopes. As a result, body modification can, therefore, be seen as a means for the expression of the inner self, as a communicative medium of telling others what lies within. For some, body modification is considered simply decorative, much like fashion tendency. For the others, it symbolizes momentous transitions in life, indicates group membership, or declares love or some other feelings.

Some people get memorial tattoos to mark the death of friends and family members; for others, body modification offers a means to declare a sense of ownership via their bodies. For girls, body modification often signifies independence and self-asserting action, making an attempt to undermine or challenge more traditional feminine attributes, such as dependence and passivity.


Although many people pierce, decorate their body with tattoos simply to follow certain style and fashion or modify their appearance for a great variety of reasons. Some people are motivated by the desire to show that they are not under somebody’s control. They believe they are able to decorate their bodies as a manifestation that they are free to do what they want and are not obliged to explain or justify their choices.

Some claim that body modification represents who they are and emphasize their individuality and creativity. However, others, sometimes called “modern primitives,” want to establish a link with ancient people or traditional cultures as a way to show that they perceive Western society as a superficial one.

Works Cited

Nash, Manning. The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989. Print.

Noya, Charles. History of Body Piercing. 2005. Web.

Roberts, Lucy. P. . Sept. 12. 2004. Web.

Sanders, Diana. A brief history of body piercing in the U.K. 2005. Web.

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