Tattoos and Body Adornment Activity Inquiry Question Historically, what has been the purpose of tattoos and other forms of body adornment? As is the case with many cultures throughout the world, the tribal peoples of New Guinea have a long tradition of tattooing their bodies to mark various stages of life. The New Guinean woman in the right-side image bears traditional tattoos of her tribe that indicate that she is available to be married. This practice, which is part of a long history of body adornment, is an important part of her tribe's marriage and courtship practices. Similarly, the young Western woman shown in the left-side image is illustrative of the values and cultural aesthetic of her society: her pierced nose and lip, while previously unusual in Western society, became increasingly accepted and commonplace by the late 20th century. Her piercings, like the tattoo of her New Guinean counterpart, can tell us something about the time, place, and culture in which she lives. Over the millenia, people around the globe have modified and/or adorned their bodies with tattoos, piercings, and other forms of ornamentation. Many of these practices are culturally specific and often signify one's place or status within a group. Henna, for example, has been used by various cultures in North Africa and Southern Asia for body decoration. Many sub-Saharan peoples wear lip plates and/or lip plugs to signify their place in society. Although traditionally reserved for criminals and members of the military, tattoos are now commonplace in the Western world. Historically, what has been the purpose of tattoos and other forms of body adornment? Background Information Tattoos and Body Adornment Humans have been adorning and modifying their bodies for thousands of years, most likely since humans became human. All cultures everywhere have attempted to change their body in an attempt to meet their cultural standards of beauty, as well as religious and/or social obligations. In addition, people modify and adorn their bodies as part of the complex process of creating and recreating their personal and social identities. Body adornment refers to the practice of physically enhancing the body by styling and decorating the hair, painting and embellishing the fingernails, wearing makeup, painting the body, wearing jewelry, and through fashion. Body adornments are by definition temporary. Body modification, on the other hand, refers to physical alteration of the body through the use of surgery, tattooing, piercing, scarification, branding, genital mutilation, implantation, and other practices.
Today, tattooing, scarification, piercing, body painting, and other forms of permanent and temporary body modification are found in every culture around the world, and are often visible markers of age, social status, family position, tribal affiliation, and other social features. Scholars who have studied the ways in which humans mark their bodies note that bodily displays create, communicate, and maintain status and identity. This has been found not only in traditional societies, but in modern, pluralistic states as well. Succinctly put, the modification of the body is the simplest means by which human beings are turned into social beings—they move from "raw" to "cooked" as the body goes from naked to marked. According to theorist Michel Thevoz, "there is no body but the painted body," because the body must always be stamped with the mark of culture and society; without marking, the body cannot move within the channels of social exchange. In reality, human bodies are never culturally "blank," or unmarked, even when not explicitly marked through adornment or modification. Bodies can be fat or thin, dark or light, male or female, young or old. In these ways, too, social position is marked onto even naked bodies, in every society. Even then, however, some societies dictate that the body needs more in terms of marking in order to make them truly culturally and socially intelligible. Many cultures that practice piercing, scarification, tattooing, and other permanent body modifications believe that one is not fully human if the body is not properly adorned or modified. Permanent and temporary, all of the ways in which the human body has been altered historically can be seen as markers of civilization, of culture, and of humanity. The more altered the body, often the more human and civilized. Body adornments and modifications are symbolic as well, symbolizing a great many subtle and not-so- subtle social features about the wearer. Because the body has always been used as a means of expression and self-construction, it is not surprising that we find an enormous variety of techniques and procedures by which the human body is transformed. In every society, each individual marks off his or her social position by clothing, adornments, and modifications to the body. Temporary markings, such as body painting, are often used in a ritual context to make the individual different, extraordinary, and is often used to celebrate or mark a specific cultural or ritual event. Permanent markings, on the other hand, such as tattooing, scarification and genital mutilation, are generally used to mark a permanent status onto the body, such as adulthood, marriageability, or class or caste status. In traditional societies, the marking of the body was a sign of inclusion in the community, but with the development of agriculture and the state, markings such as tattooing, scarring and branding became signs of exclusion and stigmatization, while in modern societies, these same markings have become a means to individuate the self from the social group. In traditional societies, for example, tattooing and other practices have multiple purposes, but the most central among them include decoration and the marking of social position. Temporary adornments are most typically used to mark transitional statuses or for specific social events, whereas permanent modifications are more commonly used to mark permanent changes in status, permanent affiliations, and cultural concepts of beauty. Page 2 of 11
cultural concepts of beauty. In early modern societies, we see for the first time the state and elites marking power onto individual bodies. Through the use of tattoos and brands to punish criminals and to denote slave status, state power was inscribed directly onto the body, as a way to control unruly or criminal bodies. At the same time, elites used very different adornments and modifications—such as elaborate hairstyles, jewelry made of precious stones, beautiful clothing and cosmetic surgery—to demonstrate their elevated status. The differential marking of criminals and the lower classes continued into the 20th century in many societies, and of course the use of specialized adornments among the elites to distinguish themselves from the other classes continues as well. Today, we have seen the development of non-normative body modifications such as tattooing, piercing, stretching, branding, scarification, and genital modifications, which allow individuals to step outside of the bounds of the normal social order, and mark membership in alternative subcultures, such as bikers, punks, convicts, gang members, or among those who practice alternative sexualities. Also in the 20th century we saw the development of a movement that not only uses non-normative and often extreme body modifications but relies on them for aesthetic, spiritual, sexual, and personal growth. This movement, known as the modern primitives movement, borrows body modification techniques and religious and cultural beliefs from non-western societies to resist and challenge modern social practices. Ironically, however, while the traditions borrowed in the modern primitives movement generally serve to mark traditional peoples as belonging to the social order, those practices, when used in the contemporary West, serve instead to separate the wearers from society, rather than integrate them. Even more ironic, perhaps, is the fact that many of these traditional forms of body modification have now disappeared from the societies in which they were practiced, often stamped out by Western imperialism, and only exist now only in cannibalized form among modern primitives. Contemporary members of the body modification movement who use extreme modifications in non- normative ways see themselves as taking control of their own bodies and actively transforming the self, although mainstream society typically views them in a very different light, as practitioners of disfigurement or mutilation. Margo DeMello MLA Citation: DeMello, Margo. "Tattoos and Body Adornment." World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, ABC- CLIO, 2023, worldgeography.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1525715. Accessed 11 Feb. 2023. Page 3 of 11