Tin of English toothpowder from the 1960s, for cleaner, whiter, teeth. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Although clothing, jewellery and cosmetics provide temporary methods of altering our body image, some people seek to make pe
By using implants and prosthetics people can be given a new body image to help them to pass as ‘human’
rmanent modifications. Most of these modifications are made in order to fit in with social expectations, which depend on the time and place in which people live.
In some parts of the world there is a much longer history of modifying the body than others. For example, practices such as scarification have been carried out in parts of Africa for centuries. In Western countries modification, through technologies such as cosmetic surgery, is a more recent phenomenon. Cosmetic surgery may even be used to make more dramatic changes, with some people using it to imitate the ‘beautiful’, if unrealistic, body image presented by the media.
Orthodontics, which is primarily concerned with the growth and development of healthy teeth, is often called upon to modify the body in order to allow people to have a ‘normal’ smile.
Not all of the modifications that are carried out in order to fit in with societal norms are voluntary. In China, prior to the twentieth century, foot binding was forced on many girls from the age of four as a means of enforcing the male-dominated hierarchy. Small female feet were also seen as beautiful, so the practice was partly an attempt to ‘improve’ upon the natural body.
Modification is not just carried out in order to correct natural defects, or perceived deficits. Re-building a body that has been damaged by disease or warfare is an important part of medicine. Through plastic surgery and by using implants and prosthetics people can be given a new body image to help them to pass as ‘human’. Conflicts, especially modern warfare, have an important role to play in the development of these medical specialties, providing countless patients and the necessity to discover new techniques to treat them.
This syringe contains liquid collagen for cosmetic surgery. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
‘Fitting in’ is not the only reason why people change their bodies. Extreme body modification, through amputations, implants, and so forth, results in a body image that is very different from social expectations. The reasons for carrying out these changes may be varied and extremely personal. However, a major motive for doing so seems to be that participants feel that their natural body is wrong – and modification gives them the ability to achieve their desired body image. Therefore, even though the body image they adopt, or aspire to, is not the one generally expected by the society in which they live, it is still determined by the technologies available in their time and place.
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