OUCH! Extreme Ethnic Body Modifications Around the World

Culture/History, Featured — By Rachel Greenberg on May 20, 2010 at 6:00 am

When westerners hear “body modifications”, hardcore kids with stretched earlobes and assorted nose rings may come to mind. Think again! Traditional cultures around the world still practice body modification that seriously puts our punks to shame. Although many of these practices may seem exceptionally invasive and painful to us, they are seen as a right-of-passage for young adults in the eyes of their elders; if they can handle the suffering of the modification, they can handle the challenges of being an adult in their community, making us think that Bar Mitzvahs aren’t so bad after all!

For the most part, the cultures in the world that still engage in intense body modifications are those that have been left relatively untouched by the outside world or who have actually gained influence from the practice. Body mod tourism isn’t as rare as you’d think, and is controversial. Although this influx of tourists have brought wealth to impoverished tribes and attention to cultural practices, some argue it has also lead to a deteriorating way of life for many rural people or the cheapening of certain traditions.

Whether or not you support this kind of tourism, one thing is clear: travelers can still catch a glimpse of some pretty unbelievable ethnic body modifications that are currently in practice all over the world.

Neck Rings

The image is ubiquitous with Thai tourism: thick golden coils wrapped around a young woman’s impossibly elongated neck. Although these images may seem like a page out of National Geographic (or off the wall of your local Thai restaurant), this exotic and oddly beautiful tradition is much more than it appears. Here’s a little taste: anatomic misconceptions and accusations of slavery are ahead!

Images: jmolives/Euti-RTW/Flickr

Although the rings, which women begin to wear around 5 years old, may look like they are stretching necks, they really aren’t. In actuality the heavy rings push down on the womans’ collarbone, changing the angle of their shoulders. The left shoulder in the snazzy visual to the right is a normal one and the one on the right has been pushed down due to years under heavy gold coils, creating the long-neck illusion.

The practice of wearing neck rings originated in Burma with a few, small subset groups of the Kayan Tribe. Although the Kayan tribe as a whole were located in what is now Myanmar for hundreds of years, they were forced to flee to Thailand in the 60s and 70s becuase of military conflict.

Most Kayans lived for a short time along the Thai border in refugee camps and were soon placed in permanent homes by the Thai government. Shockingly, the Kayan women who wear neck rings were singled out of the masses of Burmese refugees and settled in a neighboring camp and have never left. Many sources report that the Thai government did this so the women could be used for tourism purposes, which explains why neck rings are now associated with “Thai culture.” According to a BBC report, today most of these women are stuck in limbo working at tourist trap “villages,” posing for pictures and unable to move on due to complicated (and seemingly malicious) bureaucratic Thai refugee laws.

Images: SpiritwoodPix/ bizzo 65/Flickr

Although these women can be seen in their “villages” around the city of Mae Hong Son on the Burma-Thailand border, be prepared for a tourist trap that may look more like a “human zoo” than a traditional village.

Lip Plates

Although there are many independent cultures who have at some point donned lip plates, there is only one remaining tribe that still actively practices lip stretching: the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia. According to tradition, six months to a year before a girl is to be married, a small incision is made in the middle of her bottom lip and a stick is put in. Slowly over time larger disks are inserted until her lip is stretched big enough to be used for a basketball hoop. In addition, many girls have their two lower teeth knocked out to accommodate for the huge plate.

Images: marcopax/Nguyn Ngoc Chinh/Flickr

Rational behind this practice is unclear to anthropologists. Other than the inherent disfigurement and pain, many Mursi women have trouble speaking normally and often drool since they essentially have no lip or teeth on the bottom of their mouth. One Darwinian-ish theory is that the practice was started so women could prove their strength and therefore worth as wives and mothers. The bigger the lip plate, the more physical strife the woman is able to withstand and the stronger she will be as a partner to her husband.

Although there are many unknowns about lip plates, one things for sure: Mursi men seem to love it. For the women of this tribe getting a lip plate is the only hope they have for a decent marriage – the bigger the lip, the more desirable a woman is and the more cattle the groom’s family has to “trade” for him to get a wife.

Image: Paola Pannuti/Flickr

Along with limited marriage potential if they chose a life sans-lip plate, Mursi women also face added pressure from the outside world to continue with the practice. Currently the Mursi struggle to survive economically and face drought and worsening agricultural conditions. Ironically, their lip plates and reputation as an “untouched” African people have lead to an exceptional  amount of tourism into their home in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia and is currently helping to sustain the Mursi financially.

Image: siricheng/Flickr

San Yak Tattoos

They may be extra trendy these days (think the vertical tattoo that runs down Angelina’s back), but San Yak tattoos have adorned the holy and superstitious for hundreds of years in Thailand and Cambodia. Traditionally the tattoos are a mix of Buddhist prayers and images and shamanistic spells that have survived from the pre-Buddhist, Hindu religion in Southeast Asia.

Image: Ursula in BBK/ Flickr

Because of the religious nature of these tattoos, holy men or even Buddhist monks themselves will tattoo people using the traditional method of long metal needles, tapping ink deep under the skin. The level of detail the tattoo artists are able to achieve is stunning given the rudimentary tools, but the popularity of these tattoos aren’t just for their aesthetic appeal. Like religious amulets, San Yak tattoos are believed to ward off evil spirits and give their owner ridiculous amounts of luck. Like St. Christopher medals, the more the better.

Image: freekeow/ Flickr

You can spot San Yak tattoos on monks and regular people alike, especially in Southeast Asian countries, who need a little luck. Perfect example: the tattoos are incredibly popular among many Muay Thai boxers.

Nose Plugs

The Apatani tribe lives in the district of Arunachal Pradesh, India. The tribe keeps no written records, but they do have an exceptionally unique way of identifying their women. Traditionally women get face tattoos and distinctive nose plugs at an early age which they wear for the remainder of their life. According to some anthropologists, this practice was created in order to make the women unattractive to neighboring tribes who might otherwise want to kidnap their super hot women.

Images: cameraschool/rajkumar1220/Flickr

Although this practice has been around for hundreds of years, it is very quickly losing popularity. Not many women who were born in the 80s and beyond have chosen to get nose plugs, so as the older women of the tribe pass away, so will the tradition.

Image: rajkumar1220/ Flickr

Image: rajkumari1220/ Flickr


Scarification, or the practice of making permanent scars for aesthetic reasons, is traditional in many parts of Africa. Although Westerners might balk at the thought, many tribes in Northeast Africa see being marked as a right of passage. Scars can denote age, social status, wealth, or increase a person’s sexual attraction (really, are fake boobs that much less of a body modification?). Most scarification is made in repeating, geometric patterns by cutting the skin and then rubbing ash or acidic juice into the wound to assist in creating a lasting scar. Marks on the face, back, belly, legs (aka pretty much anywhere) are common.

The lip-plate sporting Mursi tribe also liberally practices scarification, and for this practice both men and women are invited to join in the fun.

Images: deepchi1/siricheng/Flickr

Nuer people in Sudan are famous for their geometric facial scarification. They receive scars as a mark of adulthood in the tribe. It is believed if they can sustain this process, they are ready to be respected as grown ups. Different subsets of the Nuer tribe make their own unique markings; certain subsets draw 6 lines across young men’s foreheads while others utilize geometric designs to make their mark.

Images: Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak/Jason Brooks/Flickr

Seen any crazy bod-mods on your travels? Leave a comment!

Tags: body modification, Burma, China, lip rings, major ouch factor, myanmar, neck rings, no seriously that looks like it hurts, rose discs, scarring, scars, tattoos, Thailand


  • Eric says:

    An illuminating article demonstrating, once again, that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder – and evolving notions of beauty.

  • Celeste Brash says:

    In reality Westerners are the most hardcore with body modifications. Just think plastic surgery! It is interesting though to look at what to us might seem like crazy pictures and realise that our society is equally as radical.

  • chris says:

    Pfft, plastic surgery is undetectable when done correctly. People donning modifications such as those above and worse(tongue splitting for one) in the western world are labeled as freaks and rightfully so.

  • The one says:

    Never has the beauty of the one been more sincere as to that which God bestows upon us.

  • Derp says:

    WTF is “The one” talking about? Neck rings too tight?

  • michelemoses says:

    Wow! looks painful!

  • Bebe says:

    No different than Americans and their extreme ways for gaining ideal beauty & eternal youth. Take a look at Heidi Montag, Bruce Jenner, Joan Rivers, Michael Jackson (sorry, but true), Lisa Rhinna’s lips, Priscilla Presley and Pam Anderson’s chest. Tell me those aren’t extremes. It’s gotten so, natural beauty is not the norm anymore. Perfect straight white fake looking teeth, two bags of silicone, demonic looking fake eye contacts, rail thin frames and tight skin pulled faces aren’t so attractive either. We can stick up our noses at other cultures, but seem to forget how ridiculous our own culture has become. These people on this page are people who have been doing this for centuries and it’s part of their culture. What’s our excuse? Whenever we see a young girl at the supermarket with obvious fake double D’s, we know. She’s got on the low cut tank top or dress just begging… please look at me… I’m beautiful now. I’m carrying around two big bags of silicone under my skin. Can’t you see them peaking out of my top. I’m beautiful!!

  • siil says:

    i don’t understand why are people comparing “modern” and those ancient modifications?
    people CHOOSE to put silicon into their boobs, or Botox into their face, or Synthol into their muscles…
    but these tribes are freaks of stupid painful traditions… why on earth has somebody a right to think, “the more PAIN you can withstand, the more attractive you are” ?? besides that of course a woman must give birth to about 10 children, hell yeah maybe 2 live even longer than 5, woohoo let’s be happy for 2 alive and mourn 8 dead (most likely because of infection or starvation)!! that just shows some levels of intelligence…
    i’m sorry if you don’t like my opinion, but that’s just how things are and you can go to hell protecting these extremists…


  • colorful customs says:

    i’ve seen most of these before, never saw the nose plugs though, it may look odd to me, and i can’t say i really understand what would make them do this to themselves, but i’m fairly certain they probably feel the same about some of the things i do. whatever floats your boat i guess

  • amazing man says:

    “Actuality, the “modern” young people in the occidental world, make the sames creazies, with your faces or bodys this barbarian peoples,but whitout significative razons; religions,financials or social status,bridal,major beautiful,etc.Not, ours young people, maybe for sexual or social adecuations integratives,rebeldy,the undercover depression, and part of adicctive drugs personality”

  • andres cely says:

    para chris,, los verdaderos mounstros son los corruptos,, los q roban y matan y eso no se nota a simple vista tampoco, la sed de poder, la ambicion la envidia,,, pero sobretodo la estrechez mental…eso si da miedo y deberiamos erradicarlo de la sociedad. mientras q todo lo q nos haga unicos diferentes es lo q nos enriquece.

  • Alban says:

    Matenlos a todos, son asquerosos especimenes!!!

  • Nataruma says:

    While we may not understand or appreciate the reasons these ancient traditions exist, no one can dispute the fact that it is an interesting cultural difference, and not something to be scoffed at. Just because someone has different beliefs or customs, doesn’t make them ‘crazy’ or a ‘freak’. You may not agree with the reasons behind why these people have such practices, but these practices have existed for many centuries for them, and it is how their society functions ‘normally’. Your norms may not apply, and vice versa.

    Wanting everyone to look the same, behave the same, and believe the same things would be extremely oppressive.

  • Truely Me says:

    That we see other people’s cultures as weird or crazy and they think same of ours too, only reveals that in our attempt to enhance our beauty or portray our self worth , we are only making a mockery of our selves. God’s creation is perfect, any attempt to enhance, only mars it. WE ARE FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE!!!

  • sophieamelia says:

    Nataruma, you are one of the very few on here which in my eyes has any brains.

    Why people, do you feel you have the right to judge others because they are different. what makes you any better. At least these people are doing it for traditions/religions etc. What are our western society doing it for: attention? self harm? Does their difference intimidate you?

    Just because something is different it does not mean you need to pass opinion.

    Celeste I agree.

    Chris, that is a ridiculous comment. Breast enhancements are not okay because you supposedly can’t see them. Do you realise how dangerous those things can be? I think not. Have you thought about where these tribes/cultures are putting these enhancements? Most of these do not cause serious damage to their welfare. granted that some of the lip plates are obviously a little unpleasant to have, but compare that to our nipple/ penis/ eyelid peircings, breast enhancements and whatever else our society has now thought about manipulating and how they affect things if they go wrong.

    I like body art. personally I do not have any but if there was a family/cultural tradition then I would do it.

  • Mattew says:

    @Alban, la unica persona asquerosa aqui eres tĂș, deseandole la muerte a otro ser humano, a un hermano de una u otra forma. Me da verguenza y lastima como ciertas personas son tan cerradas y solo aceptan como “normal” lo que ellos consideran, eso si es asqueroso y primitivo, pero esa es mi opinion y realmente no importa mucho. Asi que cuidate, esperemos que ningun familiar o alguien que quieras decida modificarse o tatuarse, ya que “las cosas duelen cuando le suceden a alguien que queremos”. Bye


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