In our final day of partnership, we explored the diverse world of body modification. I defined body modification as any deliberate act to change one’s physical appearance. When we looked at some examples from around the world like Nigerian earlobe stretching and Japanese teeth blackening, the students seemed shocked. They could not believe that someone would do that to themselves! I explained that in their communities, the modifications were more typical and held meaning. One very insightful student then noted that we all get our hair cut, and we see it as normal, though it may not be in other cultures.
Following in that theme, we considered the question: who modifies their bodies? Simply put, everyone does. I presented evidence from as far back in human history as 5,300 years in the form of Ötzi the Iceman and his 61 tattoos. We looked at examples of body modification in its many forms from a wide selection of cultures. Finally, we discussed examples of body modification in our own culture. The conclusion we reached was that people modify themselves in different and sometimes extreme ways in depending on the place, time, and situation, but modification itself is very normal.
I then queried the fledgling anthropologists: why? Why do people modify themselves? The kids gave a range of astute answers, because it’s beautiful, to express yourself, and to identify yourself, among them. I added that in some places body modifications are thought to connect people to the spirit world, or bring them closer to their ancestors. In other situations, body modifications mark people of a certain social status, using Polynesian chiefs and their full facial tattoos as an example. Finally, we delved deeper into the idea that people modify themselves to look beautiful. I pointed out that the idea of what is beautiful varies between and within cultures, so when people change themselves to look a certain way they are responding to their own cultural conditions. We hope that explaining that all communities have their own internal logic and meaning attached to their actions will help the students respond with tolerance when encountering people unlike them.
Then it was time to have some fun and do some of our own body modification. Students had the option to create their own tattoos, paint their faces, and adorn their hair with feathers and flowers.
At each of the stations they had the opportunity to look at examples from other cultures and the meanings they attached to their ornamentation. We thought the kids would take their cues from the examples, but most of them were keen to create their own styles.
I think they used the opportunity to express personal identity and creativity more than anything and evidently had fun doing it.
All in all, we had a great last day of a wonderful semester at TMSE. I know I learned a lot from the experience and hope the kids did too. I would like to thank everyone involved for making anthropology a fun and enlightening part of the TMSE partnership.