A person’s decision to get a tattoo, piercing, or any other form of body modification can come from any number of reasons. However, people who don’t understand body alterations (mainly American) tend to write off this decision as an act of rebelliousness or a cry for attention. While this reasoning may encapsulate what tattoos and piercing have become in mainstream culture for some, those people tend to be unfamiliar with the history of body modifications and their cultural significance. The truth is body modifications are performed throughout the world as a sign of beauty, religious rite of passage, group affiliation, and so on. Defining when and where they come from is a little more problematic.

The History of Body Modifications

With all the different types of body modifications, it’s easy to see how the origins of tattoos, piercings, and more bizarre body mods, like earlobe stretching, tooth filing, and neck elongation, can't be traced back to a single continent, country, or culture. In fact, piercings on their own cannot be traced back to a particular culture or religion considering nose piercings are associated with Hinduism, earlobe stretching (represented in mainstream culture as “gauges”) has been traced back to King Tutankhamun and ancient Egypt, and even nipple piercing dates all the way back to Ancient Rome.

As you can see, outlining the history of body modifications is a dubious task. So if you’re looking to narrow down the history of body modifications to a single time period and culture, you’re out of luck. Different body modifications come from different parts of the world and go on to influence more contemporary forms of body art. Why these cultures started practicing their own form of body alteration is another matter entirely.

Why People Modify Their Bodies

Some of the more outlandish body modifications — earlobe stretching, tooth filing, and neck elongation — beg the question: why? In some cases these traditions are lost even on the culture that upholds them. For example, the women of the Kayan culture in Thailand and Burma, who are often referred to as the “long-neck” or “giraffe” tribe, wear rings around their necks to create an illusion that makes their necks look longer when its only pushing down their collar bone and squeezing their ribcage. Although even the Kayan people claim they do not know where this tradition came from, they know why the tradition is still carried out today: it's a sign of beauty.

Teeth filing or teeth sharpening is one type of modification that tends to be shrouded in mystery. Unlike neck elongation, this practice cannot be traced back to one culture. The variety of cultures who have been known to sharpen their teeth include the Aborigines of Australia, the Mayans of Central America, and various cultures found on the Indonesian island of Bali. Now, while Aborigines practices teeth filing for spiritual reasons, the Mayans did it to distinguish between members of the upper class. Other reasons for teeth sharpening: To imitate animals in Africa; as a rite of passage and beauty in Bali; and as a gender identifier, based on which teeth are filed, in the Congo.

Public Perception Regarding Body Modifications

It’s pretty clear why an elongated neck or teeth filed into sharp points would be seen as unorthodox or even threatening in the U.S. But what about tattoos and piercings that are not located on a person’s face? After all, almost every person with a tattoo or nose piercing has heard, "Aren’t you worried about getting a job?" at some point in their lives. Well, as the number of U.S. adults with tattoos has increased to one out of every five Americans, so has the public’s exception for getting inked. Yes, tattoo-sporting Americans still face some type of judgement, but for the most part tattoos and even facial piercings are accepted, even by the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. So it could be fun to see what cultural crossovers involving body modifications end up being commonplace in the future.