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Judging from Appearances: The Search for Identity through Body Modification

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 bythe 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 of each constructed category are subject to change as society changes. The ideal is to be to move from the negative category to the positive category; the “catch” is that categories are subject to frequent change.

Gilman and other researchers refer to “the discourse of ‘passing.’ “This discourse came into existence during the racially charged nineteenth century, and is, according to Gilman, “the very wellspring of aesthetic surgery.”

Citing the research of sociologist Max Weber, Gilman discusses the concept of validity and acceptance, which are only gained when one is recognized and accepted by the prevailing social group: “validity through group consensus.” In this light, Gilman posits, we can see “passing” as a type of “silent validation” (Gilman 1999, 26).

Race and Feature

In Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing, Clinton Sanders writes that “in western societies body sculpting to attain beauty or to avoid identification with disvalued groups is a common practice” (Sanders 1989, 7). He then goes on to describe the many ways in which people try to merge into the desired social group. Kinky hair is chemically straightened, while “ethnic” noses are permanently reshaped through plastic surgery. Less invasive procedures are dietary changes and exercise routines, which will reduce or increase body measurements in keeping with the style of the time.

Richard Dyer echoes and expands on this in White. He discusses the use of skin lighteners on black skin, pointing out that “a black person who uses lighteners does not succeed in passing him or herself off as a member of another race” (Dyer 1997, 50). He compares this to tanning, which is the reverse, but points out that the two are very different. The aim of chemical lighteners by blacks is to “pass” themselves off as members of a different race, or of a different hierarchy within their given race. This is a much different goal and not one which is sought through tanning.

Dyer also points out that the ultimate goal of the process of lightening the skin is, as noted earlier, to “pass,” and that there is no greater ridicule than when this fails: “the failure to achieve this aim is a source of ridicule...” He also discusses the pop icon Michael Jackson, whose changing skin tone has given rise to rumours over the years. Notes Dyer: “Few things have delighted the white press as much as the disfigurement of Michael Jackson’s face through what have been supposed to be his attempts to become white (Dyer 1997, 50). “In the United States, there was an explosion of hair straightening and skin lightening among African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century,” Gilman adds (1999, 111).

The “Ethnic” Nose

Gilman, Dyer and others spend a great deal of time discussing the nose. No other body organ seems to have caused so much anguish nor received so much attention throughout the course of the development of aesthetic surgery. Its initial and unfortunate association with syphilis accorded this organ a significant amount of power as a social marker, much of which was unmerited.

Gilman explains that “the difference of the too-short nose is a racial difference and racial differences” in the nineteenth century were seen as “signs of character” (Gilman 1999, 85). Furthermore, he explains that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the noses of. “the black and the Jew” were thought to be “signs of their ‘primitive ‘nature.” He relates this back to syphilis: “this was primarily because the too-flat nose came to be associated with the inherited syphilitic nose” (Gilman 1999, 85).

In the late nineteenth century there arose the new problem of the “pug “nose, which was associated with Irish ethnicity rather than with syphilis. Thus aesthetic surgery began to evolve into a way to “create new Americans out of the noses of Irish immigrants” (Gilman 1999, 91).“Their new noses did not mask the sexual sins of their parents, “explains Gilman, “but the fact that their parents came from elsewhere, in the case of the pug nose, from Leland” (Gilman 1999, 91).

When political and cultural climates change, body imagery is soon to follow. This was clearly seen in Vietnam. After American troops left the country, notes Gilman

a detailed physiognomic study determined the relative facial dimensions of the Vietnamese so as to provide an adequate, non-Westernizing model for the relationship among the features, including the form and shape of the eyes, for aesthetic surgeons. This was clearly in response tithe explosion in aesthetic surgery, which remade the faces and breasts of the women of Vietnam into ‘Western’ faces and bodies (Gilman 1999,105).

In a similar vein, Asian-American women came to thought as having a “‘blank’ look that is equated in American society with ‘dullness, passivity, and lack of emotion.’” To remedy this, explains Gilman, aesthetic surgery again came into play. Asian-American women began to have their eyelids restructured to match more accepted Caucasian features. They also had their noses restructured, specifically by having the bridges heightened and the tips made less prominent. “Whether black, Irish, or Asian, the nose that is too small or too flat has been altered by the aesthetic surgeon because of its “otherness” in relation to Western ideals, writes Gilman (1999, 117).

The anxiety associated with the Jewish nose began to be matched at the beginning of the twentieth century by yet another anxiety about therein. “The nose and its surgical repair seemed a natural analogy to myths about Jewish sexuality, which haunted the medical literature of Europe. Jewish sexuality, as represented by the practice of infant male circumcision, became the touchstone for the belief that Jewish social practices were the cause of the biological differences of the Jew.(Gilman 199, 137).

Today in the U.S. and other western nations, body modification is widely practiced in all classes of society. Often body modification is the result of societal pressure for perfection.

It can be seen, however, that the precise social significance of the body has definitely begun to shift. Shilling notes that in the past, the body was defined by national government, but that recently women - and men - have begun to “reclaim” their bodies, and to assess their self-identities in new and different ways (Shilling 1993, 30). Along with this, however, there is the development of a new technology, one which offers a range of surgical enhancements that have until now been the stuff of science fiction. Thus arises the paradox: we can remoulded redesign our bodies, can surgically manipulate them into anything we want them to be - however, we are not quite sure what it is we want them to be.

In addition to the confusion of our own self-identity issues, there are social and demographic changes in western society which cannot be ignored. The elderly population is now larger than ever before: there are more of us, and we are living longer. The needs of the elderly will no doubt impact societal attitudes and affect the way we look at ourselves as humans and as individuals.

Methods of categorization have been shifting as we seek to redefine sexed gender, nature and culture, biology and society. Boundaries have begun to blend and merge, and resulting confusion is even more problematic. Change is both constant and rapid, welcomed and feared. The need to exert control over our bodies seems stronger than ever, yet it is accompanied by a crisis in their meaning.

Additional considerations are advances in such areas as transplant surgery. These exacerbate our uncertainty about the body by threatening collapse the boundaries upon which we have come to rely. The line which separates body from technology has begun to shift, leading to issues of legal and political importance. “The idea that the body is the location of anti-social desire is thus not a physiological fact but a cultural construct which has significant political implications” (Turner 1996,65).

It has also been suggested that this excessive dependence on reality, coupled with the obsessive need to control our bodies, is one way in which we respond to a chaotic world. Huge global issues menace our futures, and we react to this by looking inward, but in the most superficial of ways.

The concept of chaos is another recurrent theme in recent discourse nobody modification. We have seen that fashion is one way in which individuals attempt to assert control over the ever-increasing chaos of today’s world. As Entwisted posits, “if nakedness is unruly and disruptive, this would seem to indicate that dress is a fundamental aspect of micro social order (Entwisted 2001

Symmetry, too, became a consideration, as seen by the growth of dental aesthetics during this period. Even, symmetrical teeth became the standard form, and to display a perfect smile was a strong social asset. “No greater marker for happiness can be found in Western culture than the smile (Gilman 1999, 153).

With the passage of time, the demands placed on aesthetic surgery grew and became more complex: it was no longer enough just to “pass.” What mattered now was to “pass” into that particular group of society that was tacitly understand to be erotically desirable. It seems that about this time there was much conjecture about the shape and size of the female body. Take, for example, the buttocks:

The buttocks have ever-changing symbolic value. They are associated with the organs of reproduction, with the aperture of excretion, as well as with the mechanism of locomotion through discussions of gait. They never represent themselves (Gilman 1999, 215).

Various “ethnographic studies” were undertaken of the female body - primarily by men, of course. One of these ethnographers was Hermann Heinrich Plods, whose extensive writing on the female anatomy gets quite detailed. He and others wrote pages and pages about the subtleties of breast shape and size, categorizing them according to race, ethnicity, and of course, the prevailing erotic standards of the time. One authority on the subject described the breasts of “white” and “yellow” races as virginally compact, while those of the “black” race were thought to resemble a “goat’s udder” (Gilman 1999). Even the measurements of the areola are described as having been determined brace.

It is no surprise, then, to learn that about this time the breast became the frequent object of the surgeon’s scalpel. Augmentation came into vogue. There seems to have been little argument about the importance or value - or even the safety - of surgically increasing female breast size. Rather, the issue became a controversy of what materials should be used to achieve this (Gilman 1999, 248).

Men, though with less frequency, also seek out aesthetic surgery, and this is on the increase. “Judging by the increasing rates at which they are having aesthetic procedures, men, too, are susceptible to the fear that without the help of aesthetic surgery they will be condemned to live in the wrong body (Gilman 1999, 257).

IV. Case Study: Television

The length to which individuals will go in the pursuit of perfection is perhaps best exemplified by popular television shows such as “Extreme Makeover,” “The Swan,” I Want a Famous Face,” and “Nip/Tuck.” “Extreme Makeover,” “The Swan,” and “I Want a Famous Face” all fall under the category of “reality” - unscripted, true-to-life television. Each of these shows is aimed at changing the lives of individuals by changing their physical appearance.

“Extreme Makeover” follows the progression of individuals who are selected to be completely made over, including plastic surgery. This includes, but is not limited to: rhinoplasty (nose reconstruction);breast augmentation or reduction; liposuction; lasik surgery (which surgically corrects vision and eliminates the need for glasses and/or contact lenses); cosmetic dentistry (including teeth whitening, straightening, and implant technology); diet; wardrobe; and of course, makeup.

The show starts off by asking contestants - male and female - to state the things they most dislike about their bodies. After this they are whisked off to have these blemishes removed or improved, hidden or enhanced.

Unspoken, but understood, is this: that this new outward self will improve their lives. No one doubts this. No one even questions it - thesis how deeply etched it is on the American psyche. Indeed, it is the same in much of western civilization: we are never good enough; there is always room for improvement; a nip here, a tuck there, and voila: perfection, happiness, success! The effect this message is having on younger generations, who make up the majority of this show’s audience, is truly frightening.

MTV’s “I Want a Famous Face” is an even more disturbing variation on this theme. In this show, contestants will do just about anything to physically resemble their favourite celebrities. It is a sad and empty premise for a show - even sadder when one considers the young and impressionable individuals who are most likely to be watching. What kind of messages can they be getting from a television show that encourages people to physically reconstruct themselves in the image of pop icons?

Things get even more bizarre with “The Swan.” This show seems to be the most vicious variation on an already-sad theme: the contestants are individuals who have been altered in every way possible. Therefore-and-after version of the individual contestant means nothing here: it’s not about anyone’s “personal best,” but rather about the final product. Message: you are only as good as your plastic surgeon. Or: your plastic surgeon is only as good as the material s/he had to work with - namely: you. Again, all of this is subject to the constantly vacillating norms of society.

It is significant to point out that these “reality shows” are not based in reality at all. There is nothing realistic about an individual being drastically altered through artificial techniques, then miraculously and seamlessly re-integrated into mainstream life.

This so-called “reality” costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, although the “lucky” contestant doesn’t have to foot the bill. Furthermore, this transformation process trumps all else: whatever life the “lucky” contestant has led up to this point is now forever altered, for better or for worse.

Of course, those of us watching the show will be convinced - as long as we want to be convinced - that all this change is for the better. We have no concern about costs. We will gloss over health risks. We will believe, if we want to believe, that this fresh new person, who is now not only blemish-free, but beautiful, is living a life of perfection.

Which makes us ready for “Nip/Tuck,” which is not a reality show, but is perhaps more lifelike than many reality shows.

“Nip/Tuck” is set, rather fittingly, in Miami, Florida, a popular vacation site with a somewhat plastic reputation. The series follows the weekly exploits of two plastic surgeons as they minister to the needs of patients in their search for physical perfection and the presumed happiness this will bring.

A typical episode of the show opens with an innocent-sounding request: “tell me what you don’t like about yourself” - this fits quite nicely into Gilman’s assertion that aesthetic surgery is the new psychotherapy.

“What don’t you like about yourself?” The repetition of this opening reinforces to the audience the fact that there is something “wrong “with all of us; that this “wrong” thing can be surgically removed, improved, enlarged, or reshaped - through surgical procedures.

The show features two main characters, Doctors Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon), who function as a sort of good doctor/bad doctor team, not unlike the good cop/bad cop pairings so familiar to us from crime shows. In an arguably lame attempt to cast plastic surgery in a positive light, one of the doctors expresses an interest in doing pro bono work for victims of crime, in this case the victims of a serial rapist who is known by the suggestive and horrifying moniker, “The Carver.”

That rape and mutilation are indeed violent, heinous crimes, no one will dispute. However, the suggestion that aesthetic surgery - even as it masquerades under the lofty aegis of pro bono work - will erase the damage done by such an act is completely misleading. To anyone who has ever been the victim of rape and/or disfigurement, it is callous and insensitive.

It is clearly evident that these programs do educate watchers about some aspects of cosmetic surgery. Though often under-played, the very real aspect of surgical risk is always present. At the other end of the spectrum are the horror stories of those who skipped a step or two, or who skimped on the cost and opted for a plastic surgeon who was not “board-certified,” only to have their dreams of a perfection dashed, but to have their natural looks, however imperfect, only worsened.

Again, what is left unsaid: board-certified surgeons are only just that: board-certified. In this gamble with beauty, there are no guarantees.

Some plastic surgeons bemoan the fact that shows like “Nip/Tuck “denigrate their professional status, portraying them as nothing more than “glorified beauticians”; however, most seem unperturbed by the comparison - and why should they, when their services are more sought-after than ever?

Most practitioners agree, though, that the complex, multi-dimensional approach that any truly good surgical procedure must encompass, is either lacking or glaringly glossed over in the TV versions. Often there is a team of professionals - surgeons, anaesthesiologists, recovery specialists - involved every step of the way. In addition, there are concerned and often confused family members waiting in the wings, worrying about their loved ones, wondering what all this change will mean in their relationships. This does not often make for pleasant viewing - and certainly will not appease an audience that is geared up for a quick-fix, fantasy tale.

So-called “reality-shows” often end up giving wrong impressions: change does not happen overnight; in addition, change is not always what one might expect, and even if it is, that does not necessarily guarantee happiness.

One certain result of “Nip/Tuck” is that - for better or for worse - it has helped to lessen the stigma of plastic surgery. The profession itself has been given a “nip/tuck” - though whether this is a blessing or accurse remains to be seen.

Rd. Robert Norman begins his essay on “Nip/Tuck” by summarizing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark.” The story is about physician with a perfectionist personality who decides to operate on his beautiful wife to remove her one imperfection: a birthmark. She goes along, ostensibly to please him - she herself doesn’t seem bothered by this single blemish, which is a small, faint facial scar - but she is bothered by the fact that it bothers him.

During the course of the operation, she dies. This, concludes Norman, is a clear message that “nature, in all its randomness, can only be changed or altered at a price.”

Conclusion

If there is one point that has been made abundantly clear during the course of research for this paper, it is this: in the arena of body modification, there has been exponential change. Huge leaps have been made in the last century, and in the last few decades, those leaps have undergone phenomenal expansion. This in itself is significant.

As we have seen, society has progressed since early days. Body modification is at one end of the continuum. It is ubiquitous. It is exciting and also frightening. Discussions of surgical body modification in this paper have focused 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.

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.

This paper has focused on four specific areas of body modification: tattoos and scarification; piercing; diet and exercise; and finally, surgical enhancement. Initially the spectrum I had hoped to cover was much wider, and would have included sex-change procedures. However, gender mutation is no longer a minor subset of body modification; it is rapidly becoming a discipline of its own, and it needs to be addressed as such.

As shown earlier, body modification has existed in various forms for thousands of years - some argue that “decorating” or enhancing the body is a normal and natural act; others assert that this “normal” and “natural” act has grown to unreasonable and unacceptable levels.

Society has made rapid progress since the early days, when crude hematite extractions and animal fragments served as makeup and jewellery. Television commercials and magazine advertisements continually bombards with suggestions for body modification on a number of levels. 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 poison [Botox]; others can be permanently altered, again through surgery.

Today in the U.S. and other western nations, body modification is widely practiced in all classes of society. Often body modification is the result of societal pressure for perfection. It can be seen, however, that the precise social significance of the body has definitely begun to shift. Shilling notes that in the past, the body was defined by national government, but that recently women - and men - have begun to “reclaim” their bodies, and to assess their self-identities in new and different ways (Shilling 1993, 30). Along with this, however, there is the development of a new technology, one which offers a range of surgical enhancements that have until now been the stuff of science fiction. Thus arises the paradox: we can remoulded redesign our bodies, can surgically manipulate them into anything we want them to be - however, we are not quite sure what it is we want them to be.

In addition to the confusion of our own self-identity issues, there are social and demographic changes in western society which cannot be ignored. The elderly population is now larger than ever before: there are more of us, and we are living longer. The needs of the elderly will no doubt impact societal attitudes and affect the way we look at ourselves as humans and as individuals.

Methods of categorization have been shifting as we seek to redefine sexed gender, nature and culture, biology and society. Boundaries have begun to blend and merge, and resulting confusion is even more problematic. Change is both constant and rapid, welcomed and feared. The need to exert control over our bodies seems stronger than ever, yet it is accompanied by a crisis in their meaning.

Additional considerations are advances in such areas as transplant surgery. These exacerbate our uncertainty about the body by threatening collapse the boundaries upon which we have come to rely. The line which separates body from technology has begun to shift, leading to issues of legal and political importance. “The idea that the body is the location of anti-social desire is thus not a physiological fact but a cultural construct which has significant political implications” (Turner 1996,65).

It has also been suggested that this excessive dependence on reality, coupled with the obsessive need to control our bodies, is one way in which we respond to a chaotic world. Huge global issues menace our futures, and we react to this by looking inward, but in the most superficial of ways.

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

This has been echoed by Armando Favas: “Chaos is the greatest threat to the stability of the universe,” he asserts (1996, 231). He goes onto explain how we need social stability to co-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). This may seem overly dramatic to some, but drastic times call for drastic measures.

Perhaps the most dramatic consideration here is that in light of the threat of huge global dangers, our refusal to acknowledge and address them is a fundamental failing that may have disastrous and irreparable consequences: “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.

In Section VII, number 87, the last aphorism of Hippocrates, he writes, “Those diseases which medicines do not cure, iron cures; those which iron cannot cure, fire cures; and those which fire cannot cure, are to be reckoned wholly incurable.” We must tread carefully in this dangerous new world of technology.

According to Sander Gilman

To become someone else or to become a better version of ourselves in the eyes of the world is something we all want. Whether we do it with ornaments such as jewellery or through the wide range of physical alterations from hair dressing to tattoos to body piercing, we respond to the demand of seeing and being seen...in a world in which we are judged by how we appear, the belief that we can change our appearances liberating” (Gilman 1999, 3).

The price we pay for that liberation remains to be seen.

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