We are the only species which consciously, deliberately alters its appearance. This has been true throughout human history and will always be so because bodily expression can communicate things which words never can. Far from a superficial, insignificant medium of expression, the customized body lies at the heart of human nature and capability.
‘From 1760 to 1770 a Jesuit missionary named José Sánchez Labrador lived amongst the Caduveo tribe of what is now Brazil. Many things about this people's way of life shocked and annoyed Labrador and perhaps none more so than the amount of time they spent each day painting intricate arabesque patterns on their faces.
The Jesuit argued that, as they had little to eat, they should be spending this time hunting, gathering or growing crops and, furthermore, that in painting their bodies they were tampering with God's handiwork. For their part, the Indians were shocked and amazed that anyone could object to their body painting. 'Don't be so stupid,' they chided Labrador, 'If we didn't decorate ourselves then we would be just like the beasts of the jungle'.
For the Caduveo and many other tribal peoples it is the action of decorating, adorning or modifying the body which is seen as that which separates humankind from the animal kingdom. For some such peoples, as with the Caduveo, the distinction hinges on whether the body is painted. For other tribes it is a matter of wearing enormous lip plugs in piercings made in their flesh. Many tribal peoples from the Arctic to the South Seas define humanity by the action of tattooing or scarring the body. For the Balinese, it is filing the teeth flat which separates people from animals. And for still other tribal peoples the dividing line between humans and beasts is the action of shaving body, head or facial hair (a belief which one can imagine has been a source of difficulty for many bearded anthropologists).’
'When we look around the world at surviving groups of tribal peoples we see a fantastic degree of variation of lifestyle. Some are monogamous, some promiscuous. Some are peace-loving, some ferocious fighters. Some are highly religious, some less so. Some are highly competitive proto-capitalists, some are proto-communists. Some have highly hierarchical social structures, some are egalitarian. Some wear clothes, while some (at least to our eyes) go naked. But, there is one thing which all tribal peoples have in common: they all practise some form of body adornment, decoration or modification.
No explorer, missionary, trader or anthropologist has ever discovered a group of peoples who, when it comes to the appearance of their bodies, are prepared simply to let nature run its course. From Africa to Asia, the Arctic to the South Pacific, tribal peoples cut, shave, dye or decorate their hair; paint, tattoo, scar or pierce their flesh. Some bind the heads of their infants, stretch their necks or compress their waists. Most groups attach feathers, shells, bones, flowers, leaves or ornaments made of metals or some other material to their bodies. No group of which I am aware does all these things but, what is more important, no group does none of them.'
'The decoration of the body, far from being a frivolous and insignificant expenditure of time and resources, can be a highly practical, efficacious and necessary activity. Without it we would have great, perhaps insuperable, problems creating and maintaining those networks of social and cultural relationships which have always been and will always be the foundations of human accomplishment. As Mr Spock would put it, the Nuba man or the Western Punk who both spend hours every day putting on make-up and adjusting their hair styles are engaging in a highly logical activity. . .
Intelligence and communication skills are closely linked and any creature capable of inter-galactic travel would have the wisdom to utilize all available channels and modes of communication – including body decoration. Indeed, if I were to make a science fiction film in which alien spacecraft landed on Earth, the aliens which emerged through pneumatic steel doors to greet us would be covered from head to toe with dazzling decorations which flashed out non-verbal messages as they lit up like pinball machines.'
‘We are the only creature on this planet which chooses and manipulates its own appearance. This isn’t something new. Human beings have been altering their appearance for as long as there have been human beings. Nor is customising the body freakish or even exceptional. No society has ever been found where appearance is dictated only by genetic inheritance. Everywhere, to be normal, acceptable and attractive is to do certain things to your body - rubbing bright red mud into the hair, cutting intricate patterns of scars in your skin, wearing a suit and tie, etc. - which defy and subvert what nature intended.
Or, to put it the other way around, it is human nature - indeed, at the very heart of human nature - to customise the body. From the most technically ‘primitive’ societies to the most (so called) ‘advanced’, from 100,000 years ago to the present day, human appearance has always been a cultural as well a biological creation. An individual born in another era or in a different society will acquire an entirely different standard of what a ‘normal’ human being should look like.'
‘Why do human beings persistently alter their natural appearance? From the perspective of the (so called) ‘developed world’ the most likely and obvious reason is that such alterations of the body provides an invaluable means of self-expression. We want to stand out from the crowd - to be different and unique - and hair-styling, make-up, jewellery and other adornments, our choice of clothing, etc. offer a straight-forward means of accomplishing this. Furthermore, our particular choice of appearance style serves to tell others about our personal values, beliefs and approach to life. That is, our presentation of self exploits a complex communication code which, arguably, says more about us than words ever can - or, at least, unlike words, offers the means to broadcast ‘where we are coming from’ to people we’ve not even yet met. In this way our chosen appearance style functions as an advertisement for ourselves - the first crucial step in our interactions with others.'
‘Where our contemporary world differs from that of the traditional tribes and peasant communities is in the fact that we have choice - in selecting which look (and therefore which 'tribe') we want to opt for. As well as choice and complexity our world is also characterised by rapid change and this too has a profound impact upon the customized body. New fashions come and go with each season and particular styletribes gain or loose popularity. The result is a perpetual motion machine of different, constantly changing ways of altering the appearance of the human form. All of which is in marked contrast with the situation in any traditional society where an appearance style may remain constant and unchanging through dozens of generations.’
‘Having left behind the dictatorship of fashion, able to choose between dozens of different styletribes - or, increasingly, to simply go it alone as unique, extraordinary individuals - we stand at an unprecedented point in human history. Never before have we had such choice and possibility in how to look/be. Never before has the customized body been so unfettered in its potential metamorphosis.'
‘Imagine the confusion of a group of Martians on a visit to our planet. Touching down in the Mount Hagen area of New Guinea they see a long line of women all with identical red, blue and white faces. Stopping off in the Amazon, they observe members of the Tchikrin tribe with red limbs and black torsos. In the Sudan amongst the Nuba peoples they see men with bodies which are white on one side, black on the other and women with either red or yellow bodies. Setting down in New York’s East Village they encounter a group of vibrantly multi-coloured Punks and in London, a gathering of deathly white, vampiric Goths with huge, black skull-like eyes and jet black lips.
So what colour are human beings?
Innately very dull creatures human beings have always striven to and often succeeded at making themselves one of the most colourful and decorated of all species.’
‘Not the naked ape, we are and always have been the adorned ape. This drive towards physical transformation lies at the heart of human nature. And by the way, perhaps those Martians would themselves be variously coloured and decorated and therefore not in the least bit confused by human body decoration. What nonsense in mainstream science fiction to presume that rational, advanced, sentient beings would fail to understand the functional value of decorating, adorning and transforming their bodies.’