Ancient practices of body modification: What is really considered body modification? Well, any physical alteration technically is, so it makes it a broad category that is practiced for different reasons: cultural, rites, social, religious, aesthetic. That being said, fashion is a popular style at a particular time in history. I always wondered what the origins of certain styles came from.
What is the oldest form of body modification? What are some examples of body modification? Listed below are top 10 of the ancient practices of body modification.
10. Hair coloring
In the Stone Age, millions of years ago, Cave people already used ginger to color their hair. Ancient Egyptians used henna to cover their greys and they could also cover them not only with black but also with red, blue, green and gold, from different plant extracts. Romans and Greeks used lead oxide and calcium hydroxide; they, later on, applied fermented leeches after they understood that the other combination was too toxic. Moreover, Romans prostitutes were required to dye their hair yellow to promote their careers.
In the late 19th century, the first modern dye was discovered by accident. Professor Willian Henry Perkins was trying to find a cure for Malaria but he occasionally created the formula we use today. The only downside back then was the colors, a pinkish purple.
About fifty years later, L’Oréal made the first commercial hair dye. Today, more than half of the women in the Us collar their hair and more than two-third did it at least once in their lifetime.
Tattoos have been around forever also, it was a common costume in Ancient Egypt, in what is now France, Portugal, Scandinavian countries. Based on 12,000 years old prehistoric tools that we found on sites. It is said that tattoos were applied as a healing method, religious worships, to gain status, magical properties, accomplishments, or even punishments.
The tradition started to fade away with the rise of Christianity, viewed as something barbaric. It was later on brought back by oversea travels in the 16 century, by the influence indigenous people were getting brought back to Europe. Then sailors and poor people – had some. Then came a time when only the bourgeoisie could afford them. They slowly became cheaper and since the ’60s, the hippies made this rebellious act acceptable again.
Now in America, about 30% of people have a tattoo, and the numbers keep rising. Now it’s mainly used for fashion purposes and is more and more welcomed in professional, social, environments.
Archeological evidence showed that scarification, the act of deliberately making scars on our skin by skinning (cutting one’s skin, and taking it away), abrasion (rubbing ink, chemical agents, or different things on it) to get the desired designs, was utilized 8000 BC. A statue of the fertility goddess was found in Ain Ghazal, in Jordan, with deep signs of scarification around the buttocks and abdomen.
We found proof of the operation everywhere aside from Europe. Signs demonstrate scarification being either employed as a social, cultural, or political gesture, rites of passage and age-grades, to promote a sexual attraction and enhancing sexual life, group and cultural identity, spiritual relationships, aesthetic values, medicinal, healing rituals, demonstrating the ability to endure pain.
Now it’s mainly done by teenagers as an act of despair, punks, fraternities, and sororities or for the nostalgia of the exoticism being ancient societies, or to look different, good, and unique.
It’s hard to tell why, how, or when our love for puncturing whole in our bodies started. The oldest mummy ever found dating from 3,300 BC, called Ötzi, had his ear pierced. It was mostly a male accessory Julius Cesar had his ear pierced, pharaohs were the only one who could have their navel pierced anyone else found with this piercing was executed.
Genital piercing for men in ancient Greece and Rome were used for sport and to prevent slaves from having sex. Septum piercings were popular among tribes, to make warrior men look more threatening. Aztec and Mayan shamans and or priest would pierce their tongue to communicate with the gods. Sailors would pierce their ear so that if they were found dead someone could pay for their funeral, etc.
By looking at how outspread and relatively constant through the history of humankind that piercings are here to stay.
Now young baby girls get pierced almost at birth and in the U.S 32% are pierced.
Branding or stigmatizing, burning the skin to leave scars is often executed with metal and fire although many other techniques have been developed throughout the centuries, such as moxibustion (with incense), with chemicals, with small iron bars (striking), electrosurgery branding, freezing (cold iron), and cautery pen.
Historically speaking, branding was largely used for livestock. This probably reinforces the feeling of guilt, shame, and humiliation when forced upon humans. Ancient Romans would for example burn runaway slaves with the letter ‘’f’’. Among other cultures, they would burn slaves as proof of ownership. In the same line of idea, prostitutes were branded and are still by their pimp or their owners. Criminal as public humiliation (specifically when it’s on their forehead or cheeks), physical punishment, and an indelible criminal record.
Today branding lost some of its negative connotations. People used it as an identity, body decoration, rites of passage in fraternities, or even as a religious initiation in some sect like the Vaishnavism because it would supposedly heights the state of awareness.
5. Skin Bleaching
Although, skin whitening practices weren’t well documented. But we know that, throughout time, famous figures did it. Queen Elizabeth was using arsenic wafer, Cleopatra applied honey and olive, the Greeks and Romans were putting mercury on their skin.
Initially, it was probably used to cover birthmarks and dark patches. Then a simple stigma was created – White is pure and black is evil. Later on, pale skin has been associated with wealth and status, because only the rich could afford not to work the fields, therefore not being exposed to the sun.
Throughout the ages, people put chalk or dust, powder, paint and white lead, paint, mercury, cashew milk. Many of which were Detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. But it seems that status, opportunities are more important than certain side effects such as hair loss, skin corrosion, muscle paralysis, tooth deterioration, blindness, premature aging, developing skin cancer, etc.
Ironically, since the time of independence, skin bleaching gained popularity in African diasporas, as colonies were using commodity racism – whiteness as a way to sell their products.
Even more ironic, in the 1930’s it became a sign of wealth among people with pale skin who have a tendency to want it to be darker with sun-tanning cream or tanning machine, or an excessive exposure to the sun by the seaside resort. Seems like everyone wants what they don’t have…
4. Plastic Surgery
Plastic surgeries go way back 4,000 years ago, physicians were mainly skin grafts used to correct facial injuries or as healing methods. In the Middle Ages, the rise of Christianity created yet another shift in human beliefs and behavior. Science fell into the hands of religion and mysticism. Surgeries were then prohibited by church law, by Pope Innocent III. But during the renaissance, advancement went on, eyelid surgeries were performed, and perhaps the foundation for surgical breast reduction.
Then, the 1st world war caused significant advancement. Military physicians facing modern weaponry had to implement innovations and reconstruction methods to give back people a good physical appearance, which was already linked to a high degree of success.
It started to be more mainstream in the ’60s and the ’70s with the discovery of silicon. As plastic surgery became more affordable, surgeons were then forced to do more cosmetic surgery.
As now botox is our anti-aging go-to, shows like ”extreme makeovers” are controversial but still extensively watched. Over 1.8 million cosmetic surgeries were performed in 2018 and numbers are increasing and the age of participants decreased.
3. Dental modification
Having a crooked smile was perhaps always frowned upon. Ancient societies would use cords made of catgut (afire found in the intestine) instead of metal brackets to correct dentistry. In Bali, canines were being filled down because they represented anger and jealousy. Many tribes, up to this day, like the Amhara, Azande, Maasai, Nuer are still filing their teeth or removing them for spiritual purposes or would sacrifice them to gods. In 100 AD. Mayans displayed their wealth by carving symbols or inserting jade directly onto their teeth which we could now compare as the ancestor of grillz for rappers.
Because of poor hygiene and the lack of technology, these modifications would come with loads of risks, pain, infections, and deaths.
Today a trip to the dentist or orthodontics is something almost trivial and accepted. Having straight white teeth is a must and braces are in a sense their rite of passage towards beauty. On the other hand, fillings and the ablation of an extra set of teeth in our society have a strictly practical function.
Perhaps we’re and will always be wired to be attracted by strength and healthy bodies. Spartans or Gladiators in Rome, Prussian, or the way that Greeks would train themselves in gymnasiums to develop their strength goes way back. From there it made it to India where resistance training with dumbbells emerges.
In the 17th century, weightlifting was accompanied by a car pulling and lifting animals. It would attract crowds that would follow the strongmen. Later on, in the 20th century, competition like Mr. America took over and grew over the years becoming a humongous competition up to the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the amount of people working out is bigger than ever. Men and women are getting ripped and the usage of protein shake or other substances is acceptable. Moreover going to the gym is a trend, looked upon as something good, being cut for men, and at least fit for women is a beauty standard.
Historically speaking, it originated from East Africa as a way to purify the body by reducing sexual pleasure. The practice was then borrowed by Jews and Muslims around the world, as a religious practice, as one of God’s commandments to Abraham. But, the Greeks and Romans held the prepuce in high value, They passed laws to protect it from ever being sniped.
Today, removing the male foreskin is the most common surgery in the US. Ethical or not, mostly performed on infants, grown-man still decide to go under the knife all over the world. It is said to be better, less weird, hand healthier. Studies showed that it would help lower man’s risk to contract HIV, urinary tract infections, and penile cancer. Whether it is done for religious, medical, social, cultural it is still genital mutilation.
Influenced by peer pressure reinforced by porn’s hoodless hairless penises, focus on the aesthetic but disregard the benefits of the foreskin, protecting the penis from abrasion, and being sexually sensitive.