body adornment


body adornment
   Contemporary body adornment practices include tattooing and piercing (the two most common forms), scarification, branding, and, arguably, certain kinds of attire (especially cross-dressing and clothes which fetishize the body), make-up and body painting, hair styling, body building and other forms of ‘body sculpting’ (cosmetic surgery, transgender transformations, corsetting, plus other less common techniques of body-part modification, such as scrotal elongation by weighting). Mixing ‘tribalism’ or ‘modern primitivism’ (most commonly based around a blend of shamanistic, Native American, Oriental and Polynesian inspirations) with practices associated with sexual subcultures (fetish and sadomasochism) and, increasingly, cyberpunk aesthetics, the body adornment ‘scene’ has become a distinct and visible subculture in contemporary Britain.
   Simultaneously, its practices have proliferated, with tattooing and piercing enjoying prominence among assorted subcultures, including ‘new age’, ‘queer’, and music-based and style-based cultures such as crusties and punks. Although tattoos and certain forms of piercing (especially ear piercing) have long been popular, other forms of body adornment have also percolated into the mainstream (nose and navel piercing, for example), leading to debates about legislative regulation on health and age grounds. Proponents of body alteration argue that the body is a primary means of self-expression, and that adornment is a form of resistance to powerlessness in modern life. Marking oneself as different is seen to challenge social norms. Pleasure is also evoked as a motive for adornment: both the pleasures of public shock or transgression, and the more private pleasures of heightened erotic possibility and sensation. These erotic aspects are commonly emphasized in cultural commentaries, and are especially central to the so-called ‘fetish scene’ which links adornment with other sexual practices such as bondage, submission-domination and sadomasochism (although there is no necessary co-existence between the two).
   Cosmetic surgery and body building are in some ways distinct from piercing and tattooing, but deserve inclusion since both involve the purposeful alteration of the body for assorted motives, including pleasure. While these exist separately from other forms of adornment, there are significant crossovers. Similarly, cross-dressing and ‘genderbending’ modifications warrant inclusion here, but cannot be understood solely in this context, for these too encompass a range of practices with quite distinct motives and meanings.
   See also: ‘gender benders’
   Further reading
    Polhemus, T. and Randall, H. (1996) The Customized Body, London: Serpent’s Tail (lots of photographs, and useful overviews of many aspects of the body adornment scene).
   DAVID BELL

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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