Body Modification at its most Extreme

Recently a blog listed a ranking of the ‘top ten most physically modified people.’ It’s got some fairly well known characters in there that make plenty of cable TV appearances, etc. There were also a few I hadn’t previously been aware of. While so many of these people’s choices are beyond the average person’s wildest imagination, they also are spectacular examples of the range of options, opinions, motivations, and beauty ideals that construct our appearances.

There is a decent amount of academic research, and a larger amount of well written popular texts on the subject, and thankfully the bulk of it is nonjudgmental or degrading, but instead, analytical and informed work on the motivations and outcomes of being so farm outside the norm. Often the key is defining that ‘norm’, be it regional, ethnic, economic, gender, time period, or otherwise.

But, it does surprise me how even in areas of research such as dress, there are still a decent number of people who are vastly critical of outsider behavior, and do research to try to support their angles. I was at a huge conference a few years ago at which a professor went on and on during her presentation about how horrible it was that many of her young female students had even the mildest tattoos. Seems to me that even if you’re not into it yourself, if you are a scholar of an area such as dress you’d at least attempt to be more objective or just analytical about things.

I’m coming from the other end of the spectrum, in that I adore, and participate in body modification, but yet in my attempts to be objective I do have (if not criticisms) then at least questions and analysis of those who are as heavily modified as those in this list. While I’d have similar debates about tons of L.A.-style plastic surgery, extreme body building, and the like, body modifications that originated in cultures outside of one’s own have a fascinating other layer to debate. This has to do with the power of these choices when they are not tied to their original rites of passage or similar cultural or religious motivations, but instead are based in aesthetic preferences or group identification of groups differing from those who created the look.

It’s so subjective to asses at what point it’s an homage or exploitation of imagery that is may not be fully understood by the new wearer. However, in this postmodern world of bricollage and appropriation, it is up for debate the value of that position. I do think the boundaries are fascinating though, in that people can perm or straighten their hair, dress in the role of another gender, or a host of other things that are seen as normal or only slightly out of bounds-but-the push toward body modifications in less common ways equates freakdom in the public eye.  Maybe it’s all in the numbers. The more people doing it the less freaky I guess-although that’s a pretty elementary assessment. Hence, the proliferation of tattooing, piercing, hair dying in ‘unnatural’ colors and other body mods that have moved closer to the mainstream, and one does have to wonder in that all-too-cliche way, what people will do with their dress to be outside of the norm it in the future.  In the meantime, enjoy the pictures as they are great images. 

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1 Comment

  • Emily August 30, 2007 06.50 pm

    Just like with everything else, I find this such a personal choice that, as long as it doesn’t affect me (and I don’t have to look at anyone in the top 10 every day. . . some of it’s scary!) it really doesn’t matter. I wonder what the long-term health impact is, if any. Who knows, we may find out studs and branding actually produce some sort of enzyme that helps prevent Alzheimer’s. The threshold for pain is what really boggles my mind. And truthfully, it does make me wonder about motivation. Volunteering for pins and needles is hard for me to understand, save a tattoo perhaps, which is so mainstream.

    Aren’t most of these mods originated in tribal settings?


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