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.
Excerpt from Bodystyles © Ted Polhemus
‘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 CUSTOMISED BODY
‘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. And there have always been and will always be those - like so many of the people who kindly agreed to be photographed for this book - who bravely stretch and push forward the definition of acceptable appearance.’ p.7
‘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. But even today, in the modern world, that which appears to be done in the pursuit of individuality may actually serve to accomplish its opposite - demonstrating our membership in some social group or ‘tribe’. pp.7-8
‘The tribe is humankind’s most important invention. An inter-generational system, it allowed our most distant ancestors to pass on and build upon the discoveries made within one lifetime. The tribe also imposes rules and regulations which make communal life efficient, productive and powerful. But ‘our tribe’ is only a vague mental construct until it is literally embodied in the form our tribe’s distinctive appearance style. If tribe A decrees that the body should be painted with red stripes while the neighbouring tribe B decrees that the body should be painted with blue dots then immediately a clear line has been drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In this way the customized body - far from being frivolous - played and continues to play a crucial role in human development.’ p.8
‘Where our contemporary world differs from that of the traditional tribes and peasant communities of the third world 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 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. pp.8-9
‘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. p.9
‘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 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.’ p.11
‘Body painting (the world’s first art form?) turns human skin into a three-dimensional canvas. The transitory nature of such decorations allowed our ancestors to become the first animal which could, unlike the leopard, change its spots. Aside from the aesthetic potential of such decorations, they also soon acquired a communicative function - their depiction of animals or seemingly abstract patterns, the choice of particular colours and so forth a sort of ‘storyboard’ of ancient myths and a schematic representation of tribal values, beliefs and organisation. By means of body painting (and, in time, the other body arts) humankind was set apart from the rest of the animal world, neighbouring tribes became visually distinct and individual personal difference within each tribe were ‘colour coded’ for instant identification.’ p.11
‘To appreciate the true antiquity of tattooing it is necessary to appreciate its logic. Our ancestors were traditional peoples - wary of change, determined to preserve the status quo - and the permanent alterations of appearance made possible by the discovery of tattooing was (and is) perfectly suited to such a lifestyle. For example, the permanence of a tattoo could reflect the permanence of a rite of passage which marked (literally) a young man or woman’s coming of age and lifelong membership in a tribe. While our modern world may celebrate change and impermanence with the ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow cycles of fashion, traditional societies are naturally drawn to those body arts like tattooing which resist the transitory and underline enduring stability.’ p.23
‘Not the naked ape, we are and always have been the adorned ape. It is part of human nature to take beautiful objects from our surroundings - flowers, leaves, feathers, stones, metals - and attach them to our bodies.
We do this either to make ourselves more attractive or because the ornament itself is seen as magically powerful (a talisman). Just as importantly, such objects can serve to convey information about us - our wealth (a diamond necklace, the precious shells worn by a native of New Guinea) or our status or role (a wedding ring, the huge feather headdress of a native American chief). Especially where clothing isn’t worn (our Western assumptions about modesty being a comparatively recent invention) adornment serves to identify and summaries an individual - to signal to others where he or she is ‘coming from’. p.37
‘Desmond Morris has suggested that head hair developed primarily as a marker of species - our ancestors’ naked bodies topped by flowing manes of hair immediately setting them apart from other species. This makes sense but I doubt that it is the whole story. What strikes me is the extraordinary extent to which human hair can be customized by cutting to varying lengths, braiding, knotting into ornamental shapes, razoring off, dying, coating with mud, wax, animal fat, etc., colouring with powders or dyes, tying with cords or ribbons, curling, frizzing, backcombing or straightening, extending with animal or human hair, adorning with anything from feathers to flowers, beads to bones. More so even than skin, our hair seems to have been designed specifically as a medium of expression. There’s simply so much you can do with it.
Put crudely, I’m suggesting that we have hair so that we can have hairdressers. If this seems a frivolous explanation this is only because we so persistently underrate the practical, even crucial, significance of body decoration. Like all species, our ancestors needed visual differentiation from other animals but, uniquely, as a tribally organised species our ancestors needed the means of differentiating themselves according to which tribe they belonged to. We have already seen how modifications of the skin (for example, by means of body painting, tattooing, scarification and piercing) can serve this purpose but positioned so prominently at the top of the body, so perfectly suited to customizing and so minimally ‘functional’ in other senses of the term, head hair seems to be that part of the body most purpose-built as a medium of expression.’ p.49
‘A covering of the face designed to disguise or transform identity, masks date back at least to the stone age. Found on all continents and in an astonishingly wide range of cultures - from the ‘secret societies’ of tribal Africa to the Incas of Peru and Aztecs of the Americas, from the ancient Greeks to the Rio Carnival - the persuasiveness of masks causes us to consider just why it should be that human beings are so desirous of concealing or altering their identity.
While our own recent and contemporary masks seems predominately designed to conceal who you are (for example, at a masked ball or fancy dress party) the much more ancient - and no doubt - function of masks was to transform what you are. A magical, extraordinary invention (in its own way, at least as imaginative as, say, the creation flint cutting implements or the harnessing of fire), the mask made it possible for its wearer not only to escape his or her personal identity but the bounds of human existence as well.’ p.69
‘For the last few hundred years Western society has, in the main, dismissed body decoration, adornment, fashion and style as unimportant leisure activities which only the frivolous relish and which only the foolish take seriously. (Put another way, this has usually meant that we in the West categorise such activities as ‘feminine’.)
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that ‘serious-minded’ primatologists, physical anthropologists, linguists, animal behaviourists and such like (usually men) should balk at the idea of allocating body decoration a central role in the definition of human nature. To do so would involve students of animal and human behaviour in an uncomfortable reappraisal of their own physicality (and their own body decoration - or lack of it). And because of the tendency in the West (during the last couple of hundred years only) to dismiss body decoration as a feminine pursuit, such an approach would have resulted in an emasculation of mankind itself. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we reject the idea that our unique capacity for self adornment is, and always has been, a central feature of our humanity.’ p.30
‘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. Many practise circumcision or clitoridectomy. 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.
Combining this information with the findings of those physical anthropologists who have excavated the caves and burial sites of the earliest Homo sapiens, we come to the inevitable conclusion that throughout the history of our species and everywhere in the world, human beings are self-adorned animals - creatures who steadfastly refuse to let nature alone dictate their appearance.
We are the only known life form which does such a thing. Chameleons, squids, some frogs and a few other animals may change their coloration but (unlike us) all of these animals change their appearance purely according to genetic programming. Only human beings are designer species. . . Human beings are many things, but at what is perhaps the most fundamental and basic level of our humanity we are an animal which is born rather drab and monochromatic but which ( be it through the adornment of the skin and hair or, in clothed societies, through the adornment of clothing) goes through life in Technicolor display. We are customized chameleons - visibly and existentially (and the point of this book is that the two are always related) self-made organisms.’ p.31
‘Is this - our obsession with altering our appearance - the reason why we lost our fur and became, except for small patches of hair, ‘the naked ape’? A coat of fur is both protective and beautiful but you just can’t do anything with it. Flesh and hair, on the other hand, are materials of expression which offer almost unlimited possibilities for customising.
It seems to much of coincidence that the one and only self-adorned animal should have ended up with the perfect medium for artistic expression purely by chance. Biological evolution is far too slow a process to respond to individual societies’ definitions of ideal beauty but, given the hundreds of thousands of years of human history, it might well have responded to the practical advantages of body decoration and modification and provided us with the perfect canvas for the expression of our selves personally and communally.
What I am proposing is nothing less than a radical (for us, but not for tribal peoples) redefinition of humanity itself - that Homo sapiens left the rest of the inhabitants of this planet far behind because we discovered the benefits of changing our spots.’ p.31
‘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 foundation 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.’ p.42
‘Do intelligent life forms on other planets wear make-up and decorate their bodies? Judging from the portrayal of aliens in science fiction films, it is clear that our general assumption is that they do not. We presume that any life form intelligent enough to have mastered space travel would find no need for such a frivolous activity - that superior intelligence and body decoration are antithetical.
My own view, on the other hand, is that intelligence and communication skills are closely linked and that any creature capable of inter-galactic travel would have the wisdom to utilise all available channels and modes of communication - including body decoration. Indeed, if I were to make a science fiction film in which aliens space craft 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.’ p.43
‘To make sense of body adornment and decorations it is necessary not only that we categories them according to their social function, their process of signification and their meaning, but also that we categories them according to their transience or permanence. It is this final characteristic which dominates all the others - for whether an adornment is permanent or transient will always decide what particular social functions it is most suited to and will always provide an additional meaning (sometimes the primary one) to its signification. (A tattoo of the word ‘MOTHER’, for example, says much more about one’s maternal relationship than would a transient decoration of the same design.)’ p.48
‘From the earliest prehistoric times to the present day, tribal socio-cultural systems have been highly traditional: always trying to preserve the status quo, and to ward off change. And it makes good sense that they should be so conservative. If the social body should not be preserved, if it should be destabilised by outside forces or by the failure of a new generation to ‘fall into line’ then the very survival of all those individuals who constitute the membership of that society would be put into jeopardy. The permanent body arts are the most effective devices ever created for preserving the status quo and vouch safeing the continuing of the social unit.
Because tattoos, scars and piercings are permanent decorations, they are a perfect means of demonstrating and reinforcing permanent social relationships. For tribal peoples, the most important such relationship is that between the individual and his or her society. Thus when a young man or woman reaches the age when he or she is ready to become an adult and fully-fledged member of society, the most effective method of ensuring the permanence of this relationship is to permanently alter their bodies in some symbolic way in a rite of passage ritual.
For this reason, throughout the world and throughout human history, tattooing, scarification, piercing, tooth filing or removal, etc., have been utilised as a means of ensuring that the act of becoming an adult member of a tribe is a permanent social transformation. At the same time, such permanent alterations of appearance serve to demonstrate the supreme commitment of the individual to his or her society. Aside from laying down your life, there is no more powerful means whereby an individual can confirm commitment to the community.’ p.49