Body modification, which includes now-mainstream tattooing and piercing has a history as long as that of humans themselves. Cultures across the world have tatted, pierced, and scarred themselves for various reasons. Body modification has been performed to designate class, as a rite of passage, for beauty, for spirituality, and as a show of strength. Nowadays, it seems body modification is undertaken to push back against society, where once it was primarily used as a way to become more integrated with others.
In Thailand and Burma, women wear multiple rings on their necks to create the illusion of a longer neck, which is the society’s ideal of beauty. The tradition is so old, its practitioners are not sure where that standard came from. The Mayans in Central America sharpened their teeth so people could tell who was the reigning class. These modifications would seem startling and bizarre in Western cultures, but for those who practice them, it’s a way to gain acceptance.
In societies where body modification has not been historically common, body modification has become a way to rebel. People are pushing the envelope. Tattoos and earrings have been more prevalent than ever, so people try out extreme mods like tongue-splitting, ear-pointing, eyeball tattooing, and under-skin implants. It seems like the more pain the mod causes, the more impressed the mod community is.
Some modifications aren’t even meant to be permanent, so it seems their intent is to show off how much pain the person is able to endure. Temporary corset piercings require multiple piercings up the back, which are then laced with ribbon. Sewing together the lips or eyelids is often done during intense protests, so the pain has a purpose. The professionals who do these mods are called “cutters,” and you can’t find them in your everyday tattoo-and-piercing shop. To get noticed, cutters will hang out at big exhibitions and conferences, and gather fans on Instagram, though as a warning, scrolling through some of those profiles can make one a bit squeamish.