Reshaping & Piercing
Some societies focus on the same part of the body but shape or pierce it in different ways for different reasons... the Dogon of Mali file their teeth into sharp points but in Bali pointed teeth are associated with monsters and negative energies such as jealousy and anger, so people's teeth are filed flat.
Reshaping can alternatively be a more permanent modification of the human musculoskeletal system through practices such as head shaping, foot binding and surgery. There is mention of reconstructive surgery in India and Rome in antiquity although it only really developed as a discipline in the early 20th century as surgeons tried to repair the ravaged faces and bodies of soldiers wounded in the First World War. Such 'plastic' or 'cosmetic' surgery procedures are still used to correct birth defects as well as disfigurements caused by injury or disease such as burns or scars. Increasingly however it is being used on a voluntary basis, to tuck, lift, smooth, reduce or inflate bodies in attempt to look younger and slimmer. Since youth and slenderness are most closely linked to the feminine ideal of beauty in Western society the majority of these procedures are undertaken by women although there is a growing trend for cosmetic surgery among men. Today it is technically possible to reshape every exterior part of the body.
In addition, reshaping can be used to alter the appearance of one of the body's more flexible assets, skin, through piercing or stretching. Piercing is an ancient form of body adornment and is done for cultural or religious reasons by some while for others, particularly in the modern West, it can be a very personal act done for spiritual, ornamental, or sexual reasons.
Whether personally or culturally motivated, reshaping creates a particular visual effect. This is usually in accord with aesthetic values to which all or most members of that society ascribe and pronounce as the definition of beauty. To be not so shaped or marked may exclude that person from social life. The practical experience of such exclusion may vary dramatically between different places in the world. Among the Mursi in Ethiopia, for example, the insertion of a wooden plate into a girl's lip at puberty – which increases incrementally in size year on year – is the traditional signal to the members of her group that she is now a woman and eligible to marry. The plates are only worn on special occasions such as rituals, dances and duelling contests, but should she fail to observe these customs, she may be called lazy and could risk losing some of the bridewealth pledged by her prospective groom. In Mesoamerica the wearing of large ear-spools made of valuable materials such as gold, jade and obsidian were a mark of high status and permitted their wearer authority and influence in the community. In the Western world, reshaping is more often an individual choice but those who fall outside of fashion diktats and bodily norms may be subjected to social prejudices; for example, those people whose teeth are not white and straight, those with unconventional body piercings, or those who alter their bodies in other non-conformist ways.
Some societies focus on the same part of the body but shape or pierce it in different ways for different reasons. Teeth and ears are good examples; the Dogon of Mali file their teeth into sharp points but in Bali pointed teeth are associated with monsters and negative energies such as jealousy and anger, so people's teeth are filed flat. If a person dies before this procedure can be carried out, it is performed on the corpse to prevent ill-fortune befalling the soul in the afterlife. Ear piercings among the Dogon are linked to the ear's visual resemblance to the female sex organs. However, other there are those who regard the ear as an orifice vulnerable to evil intrusions and use earrings as a form of protection.
Teeth are also a good illustration of how some practices endure over the centuries. Dental jewellery is gaining popularity as a cosmetic enhancement in modern society led, like so many contemporary trends, by the celebrity scene. However, it is by no means new: remains of Mayan people, who thrived on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula from 1000 BC to AD 800, have been discovered with small gemstones implanted in the front teeth.
Further information is available in the Museum's Introductory Guide to reshaping the body, which is available here.