In early state-level societies, we see for the first time the state and elites marking power onto individual bodies. Through the use of tattoos and brands to punish criminals, denote slave status, or mark ownership of animals, these are examples of state power being inscribed directly onto the body, as a way to control unruly or criminal bodies. At the same time, elites used very different adornments and modifications—such as elaborate hairstyles, jewelry made of precious stones, beautiful clothing, and cosmetic surgery—to demonstrate their elevated status. The differential marking of criminals and the lower classes continued into the twentieth century in many societies, and of course the use of specialized adornments among the elites to distinguish themselves from the other classes continues as well.
In modern society, we see that the desire to mold the body as a sign of social status is unchanged, with men and women using makeup, jewelry, hairstyles, cosmetic surgery, dieting, and fashion to transform their bodies in accordance with the current dictates of style. Fashionable bodies are young, thin, and beautiful, and when commonly practiced forms of adornment and modification (such as dieting, makeup, and hairstyling) cannot achieve these characteristics, more extreme modifications are available to those who can afford them. Full face, hair, and body makeovers are purchased by the wealthy and are also seen on television shows like “The Swan” and “Extreme Makeover,” and rely on modern surgical procedures such as bariatric surgery, cosmetic surgery, cosmetic dentistry, cosmetic dermatology, and hair implants and weaves.
Also in modern societies, we have seen the development of nonnormative body modifications such astattooing, piercing, stretching, branding, scarification, and genital modifications, which allow individuals to step outside of the bounds of the normal social order, and mark membership in alternative subcultures, such as bikers, punks, convicts, gang members, or among those who practice alternative sexualities. Also in the twentieth century we saw the development of a movement that not only uses nonnormative and often extreme body modifications but relies on them for aesthetic, spiritual, sexual, and personal growth. This movement, known as the modern primitives movement, borrows body modification techniques and religious and cultural beliefs from non-Western societies to resist and challenge modern social practices. Ironically, however, while the traditions borrowed in the modern primitives movement generally serve to mark traditional peoples as belonging to the social order, those practices, when used in the contemporary West, serve instead to separate the wearers from society, rather than integrate them. Even more ironic, perhaps, is the fact that many of these traditional forms of body modification have now disappeared from the societies in which they were practiced, often stamped out through Western imperialism, and only exist now in cannibalized form among modern primitives.
According to theorist Michel Foucault, in state-level societies, power is inscribed on bodies through modes of social supervision and discipline as well as self-regulation. But at the same time, bodies also can be sites of resistance as they always entail the possibility of counterinscription, of being self-marked. Thus the use of body modifications in ways that are not only not socially sanctioned but are explicitly antisocial can be seen as a way in which disaffected or marginalized bodies can mark themselves in accordance with their owners’ self-image. Contemporary members of the body modification movement who use extreme modifications in nonnormative ways see themselves as taking control of their own bodies and expressing their individual identities. Proponents see these modifications as ways in which they actively transform the self. However, mainstream society typically views them in a very different light, and sees them as a disfigurement or mutilation.
Extreme modifications such as heavy tattooing and highly visible tattoos (i.e., on the face, hands, or head), multiple piercings as well as genital and nonnormative facial piercings, brands, intentional scars, and especially the use of implants, genital modifications, or voluntary amputations, are seen by some as a symptom of body dsymorphic disorder, and are generally frowned upon and are often criminalized or heavily regulated.