Body Modification & Body Image

We tend to think of human bodies as simply products of nature. In reality, however, our bodies are also the products of culture. That is, all cultures around the world modify and reshape human bodies. This is accomplished through a vast variety of techniques and for many different reasons, including:

  • To make the body conform to ideals of beauty
  • To mark membership in a group
  • To mark social status
  • To convey information about an individual’s personal qualities or accomplishments

Certain body modification practices, such as neck elongation or tooth filing, may strike Americans as strange and exotic, we must realize that we modify our own bodies in countless ways. Dieting, body-building, tanning, ear piercing and cosmetic surgery have long been common in the United States, and practices such as tattooing, body piercing and scarification are becoming increasingly popular.

People may seek to control, “correct” or “perfect” some aspect of their appearance, or to use their bodies as a canvas for creative self-expression. While some seek to improve their body-image, this is not necessarily a motivating factor for everyone who engages in body modification. Additionally, some attempts at body modification can also have unintended negative consequences that might ultimately damage self-esteem. 

Historical and Global Contexts of Body Modification 

Body modification occurs across the globe today in various forms and for many reasons (Barker & Barker, 2002, p. 92). Examples of body modifications from around the world include nose piercing associated with Hinduism, neck elongation in Thailand and Africa, henna tattooing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, tooth filing in Bali, lip piercing and earlobe stretching in Africa, and female and male circumcision in many areas of the world (Larkin 2004; Barker & Barker 2002; Bendle 2004).

Two prominent historical examples of body modification are foot-binding and corseting. For hundreds of years, foot binding was commonly performed in China on girls, beginning between the ages of 3 and 7 and continuing throughout their lives. All toes but the big one were broken and folded under. The foot was then wrapped very tightly.  The bandages were changed frequently, maintaining constant pressure. By the end of the process, women’s feet were usually only a few inches long (Hong 1997). Men reportedly found the tiny feet, swishy walk, and apparent frailty highly erotic. Although foot binding essentially crippled the women who underwent the process, parents continued the practice to improve their daughter’s chances of attracting a husband. When China was opened to the West, the process began to die out, and by the 1950s it was largely a relic of the past. 

Other cultures have imposed similarly constrictive and debilitating body modifications on women’s bodies. In Western nations during the Victorian era, women were expected to wear stiff corsets in an attempt to obtain the ideal curvaceous feminine figure with broad hips and tiny waists, cinched as small as 12 inches (Riordan, 2007: 263). Such corseting was, in fact, a form of permanent body modification. With severely tight lacing, women’s bodies came to “literally incorporate the corset as the ribs and internal organs gradually adapt[ed] to its shape” (Riordan, 2007:263). This practice both reflected ideas about women’s natural frailty and contributed to such notions, as tight lacing left many short of breath and even unable to stand for long periods of time without support. 

While such restrictive corsetry has gone out of fashion, Western women and girls are now encouraged to discipline and control their bodies with other practices such as extreme dieting and punishing exercise regimes. In addition, both women and men in the US today are increasingly modifying their bodies through practices such as cosmetic surgery, body piercing, tattooing and tanning.

Cosmetic Surgery

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), in 2008, Americans underwent 10.2 million cosmetic procedures, paying out just under $12 billion (Mann 2009). While the general economic downturn has led to a slight decrease in such procedures, cosmetic surgery has increased dramatically in the last decade. In fact, while the majority of procedures are performed on women, men’s use of cosmetic procedures has increased 20 percent since the year 2000 (Atkinson 2008). 

Opinion is divided on the benefits of cosmetic surgery. Some suggest that cosmetic procedures can improve self-esteem and combat negative body image. Others see surgical interventions as a sad indictment of a culture with rigid and narrow ideas of beauty—a culture that values youth, sexuality and appearance more than experience, character and substance (Jeffreys 2000). Critics also note the potential risks associated with cosmetic surgery. In addition to the risk of post-operative infections and other surgical complications, one recent study revealed a correlation between plastic surgery, substance abuse and suicide (Lipworth, 2007).

Piercing, Tattoos and Scarification

Practices such as body piercing, tattooing and scarification, once only associated with more marginal or deviant social groups in the United States, have now become more mainstream.

Body piercing has become increasingly popular and socially acceptable in the US in recent years. One recent study of American college students found that 60 percent of women and 42 percent of men were pierced (Kaatz, Elsner & Bauer 2008). Common piercing sites include the ears, nose, tongue, eyebrow, lip, nipple, navel and genitals, with the ear being the most common site for both males and females (Larkin 2004). While some engage in piercing for the sake of fashion, researchers report that for others, it is a way to take control of their bodies, especially after being violated. As one rape victim reported: 

  • “I’m getting pierced to reclaim my body. I’ve been used and abused. My body was taken by another without my consent. Now, by the ritual of piercing, I claim my body as my own. I heal my wounds” (Jeffreys 2000: 414). 

Tattooing has likewise grown in popularity over the last decade, with an estimated 10 percent of Americans sporting tattoos (Kaatz, Elsner & Bauser 2008). While once associated largely with criminality and deviance, today Americans are likely to see tattoos as a way of controlling their identities, expressing their creativity, and asserting their identity (Kang & Jones 2007). One recent study suggests that individuals who were moderately to heavily tattooed have “an increased sense of self-confidence after having pierced or tattooed their bodies” (Carroll & Anderson 2002: 628).

Tattoos may also act as a means of commemorating or moving on. It is not uncommon for trauma victims, those with disabilities or serious illnesses, or marginalized groups to tattoo as a way of claiming positive ownership of their own bodies, their own identities (Atkinson 2004). In this way, tattooing can serve to heal, to empowering, and to promote body acceptance and self-esteem. On the flipside, however, researchers have found that for some, tattoos serve as painful reminders of poor choices—rashness, intoxication, failed relationships, and other profound regrets (Houghton 1996). Some also report feeling embarrassment or discomfort about how others might view them because of their tattoos, feelings that can contribute to negative body-image and low self-esteem (Houghton 1996).

While not as common as piercing and tattooing, scarification is also an increasingly visible practice in the US today. Scarification, widely practiced as part of initiation and puberty rites in cultures throughout the world, involves the cutting (or sometimes burning) of the skin in ways designed to leave permanent scars. The scars often form intricate patterns across the skin.

Because scarification is a physically demanding (and painful) process, Jennings (2009) reports that in the US today it is often associated with sadomasochism and other subcultures that stress the experience itself as pleasurable, cleansing or transformative. If practiced as part of a group ritual, many participants report feeling a heightened sense of community, group membership and acceptance (Pitts 2000). Nonetheless, some practitioners also report feeling more vulnerable, even socially ostracized, by such permanent scarring (Pitts 2000). 


Ideas about physical beauty not only vary a great deal from culture to culture, but also change over time. American views of suntanned skin have changed dramatically over the past century. In Victorian America, pale skin was the ideal. Women wore hats and gloves and carried parasols to shield their skin from the sun. At a time when many people still earned a living by laboring out of doors, a pale complexion was an indication of affluence and indoor work and leisure. By the late twentieth century, however, most people were earning a living indoors. So tanned skin became an indication of affluence, a sign that one had the time and money to lounge by the pool, play golf or tennis, or travel to tropical destinations.

As the suntan became associated with both health and wealth, even those without access to swimming pools and tropical vacations increasingly aspired to the new physical ideal. And the indoor tanning industry was born. Tanning is now a $5 billion dollar a year industry with some 40,000 tanning outlets nationwide (Looking Fit Magazine 2009). 

At least one recent study has suggests that some individuals become addicted to tanning, despite its well documented links to skin damage, severe wrinkling, and skin cancer (Warthan, Uchida & Wagner 2005). Others suggest that tanning addiction, what some have called “tanorexia,” may be linked to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Excessive tanning may be stem from an obsession with perceived physical flaws and the compulsion to “correct” them. As health practitioners have observed: 

Only by looking at the psychological factors that go into sun-tanning behavior can we understand the young woman who waits in line at a tanning salon, although she understands that tanning will age her skin and can cause cancer…Low self-esteem, body image distortion and undiagnosed depression and anxiety can drive some to act self-destructively in the pursuit of some idealized image of beauty (Deleo & Silvan, 2006).

Ask Yourself 

How do you and those around you modify your bodies? What motivates you to do so? What are the potential benefits and risks (physical, emotional and social) of such body modification practices? 

To what extent do rigid and unrealistic ideals of beauty encourage us to change our bodies? Should we try to conform to these ideals or try to change these ideals?