Sunday, January 18, 2015

Heterogeneity and Body Modification

When the class discussed the ancient Chinese practice of footbinding compared to the modern ubiquity of high heels, one idea came up again and again as an essential difference between the two: Western women have a much greater degree of choice than did Chinese girls, who for all intents and purposes had no say in the matter. While an American or European woman's choice to go without stilettos may result in the occasional scornful glance or social disadvantage, no one is going to restrain her and force her foot into a Manolo. I believe this reflects a much broader trend when it comes to body modification in the contemporary Western world: we choose if, and how, to modify our bodies, making it a fundamentally different practice from traditional body modification.*

From footbinding to adult circumcision, almost all of the traditional forms of body modification we discussed in class had the common purpose of a young person eligible for marriage. Through body modification, young men showed their courage and young women their beauty, and both showed off the visible evidence that they had been accepted by their society. Body modification that makes young people eligible for marriage can only prevail if all members of a society agree, more or less, on what it means to be eligible for marriage; in other words, "mandatory" body modification can only exist in a largely homogeneous society. However, immigration, technology, and globalization have made the modern Western world a fundamentally heterogeneous place. Body modification still exists, but in a radically different way, as it becomes an individual choice rather than a rite of passage. Some women wear heels to elongate their legs, while others opt for sneakers; some men get sleeves of tattoos, while others don't; etcetera.

While modern Western body modification may be meant to beautify its subjects and attract romantic partners, the basic purpose of body modification is no longer to brand its subjects as accepted (and marriageable) members of society. Many, many Americans (and others) who choose to modify their bodies will tell you they did it simply because they thought it would "look cool" (me and my seven ear piercings being an example). In that way, the net effect of body modification has been turned on its head, and body modifications in the West now advertise individuality rather than conformity.

(*infant circumcision is the only real exception I can think of to this)

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