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Search for Identity through Body Modification

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Wed, 07 Mar 2018

Judging from Appearances

Body modification of one sort or another has always been practiced new technologies have opened up the possibility for radical change. This has meant that we can now change fundamental aspects of our bodies most obviously our biological sex, but also racial characteristics, signs of ageing and apparent physical imperfections.

Basically will be looking at what it means to want to radically alter the body to believe indeed that we have the ‘wrong body’

Case Study: Nip Tuck

Throughout the dissertation will be exploring the meanings acquired by the body in modern, western societies. In doing so the dissertation will examine the ways in which bodies are shaped, acted upon, represented and experienced.

Therefore explore various ways in which the body has been seen as an object (the body we have), as a subject (the body we are) and as project (the body that we become) and will explore how these processes are intimately linked to regimes of power and knowledge.

For example, recent years have seen the increased prominence and significance of various ‘body projects’ – health and fitness, dieting, cosmetic surgery and body modification- alongside a number of contemporary ‘problems’ associated with the body – new reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, cybernetics, etc.

As these examples show, the body in contemporary culture has become a malleable object crucial for the articulation of identities of ‘race’ ,gender, and sub cultural affiliation.

This dissertation will critically examine some of these contemporary trends whilst simultaneously focusing on their social and historical contexts in order to give us a broader understanding of their meanings and implications.

I. Introduction

Body modification has been practiced in a number of ways and for a variety of reasons since ancient times; it has existed on some level for thousands of years. Historical evidence suggests that red dye extracted from hematite was used to paint the body as many as 20,000years ago. Archaeological evidence proves that as many as 10,000 years ago, parts of animal bones, animal teeth, and colourful stones were used to decorate the body. Hair combs date back to nearly 5,000 years ago. Water served ancient peoples as mirrors until 4,500, when the first mirror is believed to have been invented (Ethan, 1999, 49-52).

Society has progressed since those early days. One need only turn on the television or leaf through a magazine to be bombarded with all kinds of advertisements for body modification. Chemical treatments can straighten hair and change skin tone and texture. Surgical procedures can decrease or (more often) augment breast size. Penile implants claim to enhance sexual performance. Unwanted fat can be removed in any number ways, ranging from dietary changes to liposuction. Some signs of ageing can be temporarily reversed with injections of Botox; others can be permanently altered, again through surgery.

Today in the western world, body modification is widely practiced in all classes of society. Often it is the result of societal pressure to achieve perfection. At times it is a ritual or rite of initiation within a group or social hierarchy. Less often, although this is steadily increasing, the body is modified to change its gender; this is done through surgical procedures supplemented by hormonal and similar supplementary treatments.

Women are considered the most frequent targets of this pressure to achieve somatic perfection, and therefore they are the most frequent practitioners of body modification. However, this pressure affects means well. This paper will examine four specific types of body modification: tattooing and scarification; piercing; diet and exercise; and aesthetic surgery.

Although these are by no means the only methods of body modification, they are among the most widespread and they cover a wide spectrum. Still, whether it takes the form of a minor dietary modification or an extreme makeover, it is clear that most individuals in the western world practice some sort of body modification. For this reason, it is a practice which merits close study and consideration. How far will some individuals go in this pursuit for perfection? How much of this will society sanction? What are the implications for our future and that of future generations? These are the questions to be explored throughout the course of this research.

Tattoos and Scarification

The word “tattoo” is derived from a Tahitian word meaning “to mark. “The act of tattooing is believed to be over ten thousand years old, and it has had a variety of uses throughout history. Tattoos have played an important role in various tribal and cultural rituals. For example, ancient Greeks used them as part of a sophisticated espionage system. Romans used tattoos to clearly mark criminals and slaves. In Borneo, women would have symbols of special skills or talents tattooed on their forearms, thus alerting potential marriage partners of their marketability.

Although tattooing has flourished consistently in many cultures, its popularity in western civilization has fluctuated widely. After waning for several centuries, it was reintroduced in the late seventeenth century, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that it once again became widespread, Even so, it often had negative associations and tattooed individuals were mostly relegated to the fringes of society, such as freak show oddities and carnival workers.

In the 20th century, the art of tattooing waxed and waned as society rapidly changed with the proliferation of new and better technologies. By the late sixties it was still primarily an underground operation, often the provenance of biker groups and criminals. From the late twentieth century until today, however, tattooing has enjoyed renewed popularity as body decoration, and is seen in a much more positive light, often as an art itself. In addition to the more traditional ink tattoos, there are those caused by puncturing and/or burning the skin. In this process, known as scarification, scalpels or cauterizing tools are applied to selected areas of the skin, and the resulting scar tissue is the desired result.

Better technology has improved technique and ease of application for all kinds of tattooing; in addition, more sanitary conditions have lessened the risk of diseases such as hepatitis. These two points have no doubt contributed to the revival and renewed respect for the practice of tattooing. However, as it will be discussed, changes in attitudes toward the body have also played a part in its reawakened popularity.

Body Piercing

Body piercing also has a long and varied history, dating back to ancient times. There are mentions of body piercing in the Bible. In addition, it was a frequent practice of ancient Romans. Roman warrior soften pierced their nipples, considering this to be a sign of strength and masculinity; it was also a practical measure, a way of attaching cloaks to the body.

Roman gladiators, who usually held the status of slaves, also underwent body-piercing, though as slaves they had little choice. Often gladiators would be subjected to genital piercing, primarily through the head of the penis. This was partially a protective measure, allowing the ringed penile tip to be tied close to the body during battle, protecting it from injury. But it was also a territorial measure, since they were considered property of their owners. Placement of a larger ring through the penile tip could also prevent sex, making it essentially a male chastity belt, to be removed at the discretion of the gladiator’s owner.

Aztec and Mayan Indians were known to have pierced their lips as part of religious ritual, believing this brought them closer to their god. They also pierced the septum, believing this gave them a fierce, intimidating appearance during battle. Aztecs and Mayans were also fond of lip labrets, which were often made of precious metals and served highly decorative purposes.

During medieval times the art of body piercing lost favour, regaining popularity during the Renaissance period. It enjoyed unprecedented popularity during the Victorian Era, due to the sexual pleasures it was known to enhance.

Until recently, body-piercing, like tattooing, was primarily associated with fringe groups in western society. However, today it no longer exists solely in the realm of punk rock and fetish scenes. Nose-,nipple-, and navel- piercing is now common in contemporary western society, alongside the more traditional pierced ears and the less visible genital piercings.

Diet and Exercise

Diet and exercise – often used together – are another form of body modification. The diet industry is huge in western countries. Appetite suppressants, both prescription and over-the-counter types, are extremely popular. Fad diets such as the South Beach Diet or the Atkins Program attract and retain large numbers of followers. Health clubs and gyms are another large part of this industry, selling memberships which promise buyers a new way of life and a fit – and thin – future. To members of a society who desire this more than anything else, it is not a hard sell.

Excessive dieting can lead to life-threatening eating disorders. The primary disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia, and they primarily afflict women, mostly in their teens and twenties. Although “anorexia “itself literally means “loss of appetite,” this disease often has more to do with a denial of appetite rather than loss of desire for food.

Its sufferers will go for extended periods of time without eating, or will eat just the barest amounts of food, in an effort to become an/or remain thin. The most tragic aspect of anorexia is that often the sufferer loses a sense of her own body, refusing to acknowledge that she has gone way beyond “thin” – anorexics are often emaciated.

Bulimia is a disorder which is characterized by ingestions of large amounts of food – binging – followed by a period of purging, to rid the body of the unwanted calories. Purging may be achieved by vomiting, either self-induced or through chemicals such as syrup of Ipecac. Excessive laxative use is also associated with this disorder. Often bulimics will have a low-to-normal body weight as compared to anorexics, but sufferers of both disorders face similar health problems due to electrolyte imbalance, nutritional deficiencies, and related complications.

Susan Brood sees eating disorders as complex, multi-layered disorders in which the sufferer sees her body as alien, as a threat to control, as an enemy. She also sees it as a gender/power issue and a protest against the confines of femininity.

Exercise, on the other hand, can be seen as a way of actively asserting control instead of passively denying oneself. It can be argued that exercise is taken by some for the sake of exercise, but there is no doubt that it is also an activity that is undertaken to combat corporeal excesses and to exert control over the body.

Some forms of exercise – for example, body-building and weight-lifting, can also be a form of exerting control without the concomitant existence of an eating disorder, and are more commonly undertaken by men, though women are involved in this as well.

Surgical Modification

Surgical modification can be called many names, among them: plastic surgery; reconstructive surgery; or, as Sander Gilman prefers to refer to it: aesthetic surgery. Indeed, this type of surgery includes a wide variety of procedures, from surgically correcting a birth deform such as a cleft palate, to disfigurements due to accident or injury…or from a subtle removal of “crows’ lines” or other signs of age, to more dramatic adjustments to a too-large nose or an unacceptably sharp chin. The most extreme result of this type of surgery involves gender modification.

Surgical body modification is different from most other forms in that it generally implies a level of secrecy that the others do not. The procedure and the recuperation period that follows both take place behind closed doors, sometimes even in foreign lands. Furthermore, the reappearance of the individual after the procedure is not accompanied by any sort of fanfare; there is an implicit assumption that the individual has always appeared thus, or if the change is dramatic, that it is not to be spoken of.

Discussions of surgical body modification in this paper will focus primarily on elective surgery undertaken for purely cosmetic purposes, so that it may be explored and assessed as part of the larger societal trend towards achievement of physical perfection at any cost.

II. Literature Review

Sander Gilman’s comprehensive body of research is well worth exploring, particularly two of his books: Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Raceland Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery, and Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. His works provide abroad and thorough base for any study of body modification, though his primary focus is on surgical enhancements.

Yet while Gilman thoroughly addresses the subject of aesthetic surgery, the focus is on the surgery itself, as well as upon the need for it and what that need signifies. Discussion of the body itself is limited in Gilman’s work; it is seen only in terms of its potential for surgical alteration. In addition, other types of body modification – such as piercing, tattoos, weight-loss regimens, exercise – are only briefly covered in his work. While he speculates on the significance of aesthetic surgery thoughtfully and articulately, his ideas do not go beyond surgical issues (though, to be fair, they do not pretend to; heist very clear about the scope and limitations of his research).

For broader looks at the concept of the body and the various modes of modification now prevalent in society, we can turn to other researchers. Much of the current literature seeks to approach the concept of the body from a different angle, focusing on the body itself. Interestingly enough, many of these researchers find significance in the fact that focus on the body seems to be missing in much of the earlier literature, or, if not missing, submerged.

Bryan Turner begins his book The Body and Society by immediately introducing the duality of the body, opening with what is at once seemingly simple yet very complex statement: “There is an obvious and prominent fact about human beings: they have bodies and they are bodies(Turner 1996, 37). He goes on to point out that despite this very obvious fact, there is a seeming lack of information about the body in sociology; he explains that beyond a wealth of historical and mathematical data, there is really no actual investigation of the bodying and of itself – or, rather, that this information is there, but deeply encoded: “in writing about sociology’s neglect of the body, it may be more exact to refer to this negligence as submergence rather than absence, since the body in sociological theory has had a furtive, secret history rather than no history at all (Turner 1996, 63).

Joanne Entwisted cites Turner several times in her own work, though her perspective is clearly focused on the significance of clothing and fashion. In “The Dressed Body,” she addresses, as the title of her essay suggests, the symbolic meaning of clothing. She points out that there is an abundance of straightforward description concerning the particulars of style: colours, hemlines, cut, accessories – but this rarely goes beyond details of style. There is very little literature that looks at the very subtle and complex relationship between the body and clothing. Since social norms demand that bodies must (almost)always be dressed, she finds this lack telling: “dress is fundamental to micro social order and the exposure of naked flesh is, potentially at least, disruptive of social order” (Entwisted 2001, 33-34).

In fact, Entwisted, like many of her contemporaries, views the body as an entity in and of itself, asserting that “we experience our bodies as separate from others and increasingly we identify with our bodies as containers of our identities and places of personal expression.(Entwisted 2000, 138).

Chris Shilling echoes both Turner and Entwisted about the seeming lack of focus on the body itself. However, Shilling points out that this is now changing, and that academic interest in the body itself is steadily growing: “the sociology of the body has emerged as a distinct area of study, and it has even been suggested that the body should serve as an organizing principle for sociology (Shilling 1993, 1).

As for what has brought about this new and much-needed shift in perspective, Shilling and others agree that it seems based on conflict. It is perhaps Shilling who best describes the paradox at the core of this change: “We now have the means to exert an unprecedented degree of control over bodies, yet we are also living in an age which has thrown into radical doubt our knowledge of what bodies are and how we should control them (Shilling 1993, 3). This paradox is a recurring theme in the literature, both in the writings about the body as well as the multitudinous passages about the various procedures to which it is subjected to in today’s world.

There is, however, a general consensus that surgery is the most dramatic form of body modification – in particular, cosmetic surgery(Gilman consistently refers to it as “aesthetic surgery,” which seems much softer and much more positive term). Cosmetic surgery for most of these researchers includes any kind of surgical enhancement that is performed solely for aesthetic ends, although the definition of “aesthetic” can vary widely.

Other types of surgeries are considered as well, including those involving gender modification. However, most of the literature studied for this paper has tended to focus on the more mainstream applications of aesthetic surgery. Transsexual operations, and the many issues therein, are acknowledged by virtually all researchers, but they are not explored in any depth in the sources considered for this paper. Considering the many procedural and ethical issues involved in transgender procedures, this is not surprising. It is a rapidly changing surgical sub-specialty, and one with wide-ranging sociological and psychological issues, none of which can be adequately dealt with in footnote to a more general piece of research.

The Body as Object

Indeed, the body seems to have become a thing separate from the self, continual work-in-progress with a growing number of options and “enhancements” to choose from. The theme of body-as-object is echoed throughout the current sociological literature and in other disciplines as well. Speaking of the body as art, Lea Verging posits that

The body is being used as an art language by an ever greater number of contemporary painters and sculptors….It always involves, for example loss of personal identity, a refusal to allow the sense of reality to invade and control the sphere of the emotions, and a romantic rebellion against dependence upon both people and things (Verging 2000, 1).

Entwisted explores the relationship between the body and societal pressures, asserting that there are “two bodies: the physical body and the social body” (2001, 37). To understand the role of dress, she further notes, “requires adopting an approach which acknowledges the body as a social entity and dress as the outcome of both social factors and individual actions” (2001, 48).

Entwisted explains that in contemporary culture, the body has become the “site of identity”: “We experience our bodies as separate from others and increasingly we identify with our bodies as containers of our identities and places of personal expression” (Entwisted 2000,138). However, when we consider that society pressures us to achieve a single, consistent ideal of perfection, it seems a contradiction to accept the concept of body as a vehicle for personal expression. What personal expression is there in sameness?

Verging reconciles this seeming contradiction by perceiving the body as a vehicle for art and language:

The use of the body as a language has returned to the scene of the world around us in new and different forms, and it speaks through altered declinations….By way of tattoos, piercings, and citations of tribalism. Through manipulations of its organs. The instrument that speaks and communicates without the word, or sounds, or drawings. The body as a vehicle, once again, for declaring opposition to the dominant culture, but also of desperate conformism. (Verging 2001, 289).

Shilling explores the concept of the body as machine, particularly in the world of sports: “The ‘body as machine’ is not merely a medical image, however; one of the areas in which the body is most commonly perceived and treated in this way is in the sphere of sport” (Shilling1993, 37). He explains that the vocabulary used in the field of sports serves to depersonalize the body, to transform it into an object whose sole purpose is optimum performance: “the body has come to be seen ‘as a means to an end…a factor of output and production…as a machine with the job of producing the maximum work and energy’ (Shilling 1993, 37).

Turner also addresses the concept of body mutilation as an attempt to assert control in a chaotic world, relating it back to Christianity. He describes the body as “a genuine object of a sociology of knowledge.”(Turner 1996, 64). He explains that the Western world customarily treats the body as “the seat of unreason, passion and desire,” and goes on to discuss the battle of the flesh with the spirit: “flesh was the symbol of moral corruption which threatened the order of the world: the flesh had to be subdued by disciplines, especially by the regimen of diet and abstinence” (Turner 1996, 64).

Chaos vs. Order

The concept of chaos is another recurrent theme in recent discourse nobody modification. Entwisted sees fashion as one way in which individuals attempt to assert control over the ever-increasing chaos of today’s world” “If nakedness is unruly and disruptive, this would seem to indicate that dress is a fundamental aspect of micro social order “she asserts (2001, 35).

This is echoed by Armando Favas in Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry. “Chaos is the greatest threat to the stability of the universe,” he writes(1996, 231). He goes on to explain how we need social stability taco-exist, that it gives us the framework for appropriate sexual behaviour, the ability to recognize and negotiate among various social hierarchies, and the tools necessary to successfully make the transition from childhood into mature adulthood. “The alteration or destruction of body tissue” asserts Favas, “helps to establish control of things and to preserve the social order” (1996, 231).

Favas sees self-mutilation as an attempt on the part of the self-mutilator to control the chaotic world around him or her. He also points out that self-mutilation is often culturally sanctioned. Whether or not a practice falls under the category of “mutilation,” according to Favas, depends on whether or not there is a change to or eradication of body tissue. Clearly tattooing, scarification, body-piercing and surgery meet this criterion.

This focus on the body is particularly significant, as Shilling points out, questioning why, “at a time when our health is threatened increasingly by global dangers, we are exhorted ever more to take individual responsibility for our bodies by engaging in strict self-care regimes” (Shilling 1993, 5). As he and other researchers point out, our inability to control outer chaos seems to have resulted in our focusing on our bodies as disparate parts of ourselves and of our universe: this is one small way we can assert control, or at least feel as though we are.

Surgical modification can be called many names, among them: plastic surgery; reconstructive surgery; or, as Sander Gilman prefers to refer to it: aesthetic surgery. Indeed, this type of surgery includes a wide variety of procedures, from surgically correcting a birth deform such as a cleft palate, to disfigurements due to accident or injury…or from a subtle removal of “crows’ lines” or other signs of age, to more dramatic adjustments to a too-large nose or an unacceptably sharp chin. The most extreme result of this type of surgery involves gender modification.

One point that should be reiterated here is that surgical body modification is unique. It is different from most other forms in that it generally implies a level of secrecy that the others do not. Both the procedure and the recuperation period that follows both take place behind closed doors, sometimes even in foreign lands. Furthermore, the reappearance of the individual after the procedure is not accompanied by any sort of fanfare; there is an implicit assumption that the individual has always appeared thus, or if the change is dramatic, that it is not to be spoken of.

III. Body Modification: History, Significance, Implications

Sander Gilman offers the most comprehensive history of aesthetic surgery, along with a broad and varied perspective. In his books Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery, and Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, he addresses the complex reasons behind the growth of aesthetic surgery, and explores its significance and complexity. In the first volume, he clearly focuses on it primarily as a form of psychotherapy. The second work is rich in historical detail and thoroughly traces the development of aesthetic surgery from its earliest days to modern times.

Gilman follows the development of aesthetic surgery over the course of the nineteenth century, and notes that during this time “the idea that one: could cure the illness of the character or of the psyche through the altering of the body is introduced within specific ideas of what is beautiful or ugly (1998, 7).

He also asserts that the lessening of the stigma of mental illness is directly related to the fact that in today’s society, the view of aesthetic surgery as a type of psychotherapy is gradually becoming accepted. According to Gilman, “psychotherapy and aesthetic surgery are closely intertwined in terms of their explanatory models” (1998, 11).

He explains that the lessening of the stigma of mental illness has resulted in healthier attitudes towards psychotherapeutic interventions well as a growing acceptance of aesthetic surgery, and he discusses the issue from a variety of viewpoints: the patient, the physician, society at large. Addressing the concept that “happiness” is the primary motivation that spurs individuals to pursue this avenue of change, he is careful to study the various definitions people offer for “happiness” and discusses these within the larger societal context. “Aesthetic surgeons operate on the body to heal the psyche,” asserts Gilman. “Being unhappy is identified in Western culture with being sick. In our estimation only the physician can truly ‘cure’ our spirits and our souls’ “(1998, 25).

According to Gilman, it was during the Enlightenment that the concept of happiness ceased to be one of a collective morality. During this period, he writes, “the hygiene of the body became the hygiene of the spirit and that of the state” (1999, 21).

Today, he asserts, the “pursuit of happiness” is no longer a collective goal but an individual desire” (1998, 27). This equating of unhappiness with pain is a concept that began to be formulated in the second half of the nineteenth century, and is closely tied to social and cultural attitudes toward the body and the blurring of the distinction between “somatic and mental pain,” as he phrases it.

Indeed, it is remarkable how often aesthetic surgeons cite “happiness “as the goal of the surgery. “Happiness” for aesthetic surgeons is utilitarian notion of happiness, like that espoused by John Stuart Mill, who placed the idea of happiness within the definition of individual autonomy… Happiness, the central goal of aesthetic surgery, is defined in terms of the autonomy of the individual to transform him- or herself (Gilman 1999, 18).

In Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, he states that “body imagery follows the lines of political and cultural power,” and he offers a clear, in-depth history of aesthetic surgery in the western world, carefully noting its connection to social, political and technological changes (Gilman 1999, 105).

He also carefully traces the history of aesthetic surgery, explaining its strong affiliation with syphilis. Apparently, one of the results of syphilitic infection was damage to the nose, and that attempts to surgically reconstruct the nose were therefore strongly and inextricably tied to venereal disease and the concomitant loose morality. The association made between nose surgery and syphilis was so deeply ingrained that it continued to taint aesthetic nose surgery for many years: “The rise of aesthetic surgery at the end of the sixteenth century is rooted in the appearance of epidemic syphilis. Syphilis was a highly stigmatizing disease from its initial appearance at the close of the fifteenth century” (Gilman 1999, 10).

Gilman also discusses the impact of important historical events on the development of surgery in general and on reconstructive surgery in particular; he describes the effect of the American and French Revolution and the American Civil War on body image and on the role of aesthetic surgery in restructuring it. Significant changes in aesthetic surgery took place following the upheaval that resulted from these political revolutions. In a society thus destabilized after years of repression, radical changes in thinking occurred, including changing concepts of the body: “It is not that the reconstructed body was invented at the end of the nineteenth century,” explains Gilman, “but rather that questions about the ability of the individual to be transformed, which had been articulated as social or political in the context of the state, came to be defined as biological and medical”(1999, 19).

Later developments, such as globalization, have had a huge impact on aesthetic surgery. For reasons of privacy, availability, and/or cost, many people will travel to foreign surgery sites. Since they often spend considerable amounts of time in these locations, they often end up bolstering the economy as tourists, hence spurring an entirely new and thriving industry of medical tourism. Gilman describes medical tourism as a thriving business due to the widespread and increasing popularity of elective aesthetic surgery.

“Fitting In”

“You can become someone new and better by altering the body,” Gilman tells us as he plunges into a lengthy examination of the role body modification has played in society. He begins by discussing the assimilation of foreigners into society, and the steps to which people will go to achieve the goal of “fitting in” or “passing” for something they are not: “the transformation of the individual, such as the immigrant, into a healthy member of the new polis” (Gilman 1999, 20).

According to Gilman, happiness may be sought through aesthetic surgery because it offers individuals the opportunity to redefine themselves. Categories of inclusion and exclusion, whether tacit or broadly delineated, impact strongly on societal hierarchies. “Happiness in this instance exists in crossing the boundary separating one category from another,” explains Gilman. “It is rooted in the necessary creation of arbitrary demarcations between the perceived reality of the self and the ideal category into which one desires to move” (Gilman 1999, 22).

The categories are defined so that there is no question about which category is most beneficial. Of course, the advantages o


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