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Karen Padaung Girl Portrait

A Kayan girl in Northern Thailand wearing neck-extending brass coils.

Body modification (or body alteration) is the permanent or semi-permanent deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons, such as spiritual, various social (markings), BDSM "edgeplay" or aesthetic[How to reference and link to summary or text]. It can range from the socially acceptable decoration (e.g., pierced ears in many societies), to the overtly religiously mandated (e.g., circumcision in a number of cultures) to corporal punishment, to statement by the rebellious (e.g., tongue splitting). Some even become physically addicted to the adrenaline/endorphin release associated with a painful procedure in a way analogous to that experienced by those who self harm. Some people experience an abstract but distinct compulsion to modify their body that appears to have no underlying or external reason.

Some futurists believe that eventually humans will pursue body modification with more advanced technological means, such as permanently implanted devices to enhance mental and physical capabilities, thereby becoming cyborgs[How to reference and link to summary or text]. For the substantial number of people with heart pacemakers and brain implants such as cochlear implants and electrical brain stimulators for Parkinson's disease, this is already a reality[How to reference and link to summary or text].

Body art is any body modification for artistic or aesthetic reasons. However the term is often extended to all socially significant markings, often displaying the bearer belongs to some hereditary (e.g. tribal), age, religious or other group, and therefore on body parts that remain or can be 'decently' exposed in public, except if the group is private or even secret[How to reference and link to summary or text].

Typology of body modification[]

  • Body piercing - permanent placement of jewelry through an artificial fistula; sometimes further modified by stretching
  • Tattooing - the mechanical placement of ink in the dermis
  • Scarification - cutting or removal of dermis with the intent to encourage intentional scarring or keloiding
  • Branding - controlled burning or cauterizing of tissue to encourage intentional scarring
  • Tongue splitting - bisection of the tongue similar to a snake's
  • Subdermal implant - implantation of an object that resides entirely below the dermis
  • Transdermal implant - implantation of an object below the dermis, but which exits at one or more points
  • Extraocular implant (eye jewelry) - The implantation of jewelry in the outer layer of the eye.
  • Breast ironing - Pressing (sometimes with a heated object) the breasts of a pubescent female to prevent their growth.
  • Female genital cutting - removal of the labia minora or the clitoral hood
  • Male circumcision - removal of the foreskin, sometimes also the frenulum--conversely some men choose to take up foreskin restoration.
  • Meatotomy - splitting of the underside of the glans penis
  • Headsplitting - splitting of both the underside and the top of the glans penis
  • Subincision - splitting of the underside of the penis, also called urethrotomy
  • Superincision - splitting of the top of the penis
  • Genital bisection - splitting of both the underside and the top of the penis
  • Scrotal bisection - splitting of the scrotum
  • Genital beading - also known as pearling

Body modifications occurring as the end result of long term activities or practices

  • Corsetry or tightlacing - binding of the waist and shaping of the torso
  • Cranial binding - modification of the shape of infants' heads, now extremely rare
  • Foot binding - compression of the feet to modify them for aesthetic reasons
  • Non-surgical elongation of organs by prolonged stretching using weights or spacing devices. Some cultural traditions prescribe for or encourage members of one sex (or both) to have one organ stretched till permanent re-dimensioning has occurred, such as
    • The 'giraffe-like' stretched necks (sometimes also other organs) of women among the Burmese Kayan tribe, the result of wearing brass coils around them. This compresses the collarbone and upper ribs but is not medically dangerous. It is a myth that removing the rings will cause the neck to 'flop'; Padaung women remove them regularly for cleaning etc.
    • Stretched lip piercings - achieved by inserting ever larger plates, such as those made of clay used by some Amazonian tribes.


One controversial objective of body modification is the attempt to resemble another race, such as Asians having their epicanthal folds modified supposedly to resemble non-Asian eyes (it should however be noted that they are not normally made 'rounder' or set deeper, and that 'double eyelids' were an ideal of beauty even in the Tang dynasty) or skin lightened with dyes (or even surgically), or suntanning[How to reference and link to summary or text].

Other sources of controversy stem from the notion of attempting to artificially beautify the natural form of the body, often leading to charges of disfigurement and mutilation. Extreme forms of Body Modification are occasionally viewed as symptomatic of body dysmorphic disorder, other mental illnesses, or as an expression of unchecked vanity[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Often the general public are unprepared for some forms of modification and reports of the ostracism of modified individuals are widespread within the modification community[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Unlicensed surgery performed outside of a medical environment can often be life-threatening, and is illegal in most countries and states[How to reference and link to summary or text].

"Disfigurement" (a subjective term) and "mutilation" (regardless of any appreciation this always applies objectively whenever a bodily function is gravely diminished or lost, as with castration) are terms used by opponents of body modification to describe certain types of modifications, especially non-consensual ones. Those terms are used fairly uncontroversially to describe the victims of torture, who have endured damage to ears, eyes, feet, genitalia, hands, noses, teeth, and/or tongues, including amputation, burning, flagellation, piercing, skinning, and wheeling[How to reference and link to summary or text]. "Genital mutilation" is also used somewhat more controversially to describe certain kinds of socially prescribed modifications to the genitals, such as circumcision, female circumcision, castration, and surgeries performed to conform the genitals of individuals with intersex conditions to those of typical males or females[How to reference and link to summary or text].

Individuals known for extensive body modification[]

  • Cindy Jackson
  • The Lizardman
  • Hao Lulu
  • Katzen ("Cat woman")
  • Lolo Ferrari
  • Pauly Unstoppable
  • Orlan
  • Stalking Cat ("Cat man")
  • The Enigma
  • The Great Omi
  • Stelarc
  • Jocelyn Wildenstein
  • Michael Jackson

See also[]

Sources and references[]

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