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