Words by Eleanor Barnett
In our second meeting on our termly theme of bodily modification, we were really excited to hear two talks that focused on the alteration of skin. First, Dr Gemma Angel (UCL) presented a paper entitled, ‘The history and anthropology of European tattoos: a case study of the dagger-through-the heart tattoo’. Angel discussed the largest surviving European collection of preserved tattoos from the Wellcome Collection in London, 300 of which were gathered at the turn of the 20th century by Dr La Valette in Paris. Amongst the samples an example of a dagger-through-the-heart tattoo warrants particular comment. With roots in Christian iconography, Angel explained how the positioning of the tattoo – on the left chest – expressed the emotional pain of heartbreak. Fabiola Creed (University of Warwick), then presented on ‘Sunbed consumption in contemporary Britain, 1978- 2016’, a part of her compelling forthcoming PhD thesis. Mainly focusing on newspaper adverts, Creed argued that sunbed use was understood as vital to maintain the ‘ideal’ or healthy looking body in the later 20th century.
In the course of our discussion it became clear that neither tattoos nor tanning can be studied without considering their canvas, the body, and more specifically, the skin. Skin is our sensory gateway to the material world; through touch we are connected not only physically, but emotionally, to others. Covering our entire bodies, it is the most apparent feature of the self understood in physical terms. Modifying skin is intricately tied, then, to emotions and personal identity. Indeed, Angel explained how tattoos were a way for sailors to remember the ethnographic experiences that had shaped their characters. The dagger-through-the-heart motif can be seen as a physical expression of inner emotion, and indeed the physical pain experienced in etching the image into the skin can mimic the heartbreak that it depicts. Similarly, Creed’s consideration of adverts from the 1980s evidenced that tanned skin was associated with the health, athleticism, and wealth of the wearer.
A tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey, and a depiction of a woman using a modern sunbed. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, & Flickr.
But modified skin could also be a sign of the ‘other’. After the 1980s tanning ‘boom’, tanning has slowly become associated with ‘tanorexia’ – the tanned body is now stereotypically working class, feminine, and vain. Meanwhile, our evidence of 19th century tattooing largely comes from the photos, drawings, and human remains collected by criminologists, like Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924), since tattoos were believed to be a physical sign of the psychotic and criminal mind.
Together, the talks allowed us to think more clearly about how we might study the history of the body: through the institutions that try to define it, through personal accounts, or through bodily remains? As is clear in the case of tanning (but equally with food, medicine, or tattooing), medical authorities, the government, and advertising agencies have all sought to enforce patterns of consumption that rely on idealised conceptions of the body. These notions are not always harmonious – sunbed use, for instance, continues to be advertised today against the broadly negative health impacts elucidated by the medical profession and in governmental advice. Studying adverts, pamphlets, and laws, would allow us to explore these official (often conflicting) narratives. Personal accounts, like diaries, would better illuminate historical agency. Angel was careful to note, however, that it is rare to find clear written expressions of the personal reasons that one might get a tattoo from the 19th century. Humans remains instead offer a unique and sensory insight into the historical subject, but without the context to trace the lives of the people behind the specimens the true meanings of the bodily modification can remain obscure.
This discussion raises questions about power. Is bodily modification an expression of personal empowerment and individual/ group identity, or evidence of conformity to societal norms or official advice (unconscious or deliberate)? What’s more, in the case of tattooed remains, samples are only available from those who had no control over the fate of their body after death, most likely from military contexts, prisons, or asylums. In the histories we write about embodied peoples of the past, we must consider the ways in which our own selection of sources contribute to narratives of power and agency over bodies and selves.
If you’d like to learn more about their research, please follow the links below:
Words by Katrina Moseley
Meeting date: 17/10/2017
Our first session of term saw us discuss an activity so innate to humanity that we couldn’t help but pore over our own examples of personal and cultural encounters with it. From tattooing to teeth whitening; breast implants to bionic enhancements – not forgetting the array of more ‘mundane’ activities like hair removal; it seems that most of us are complicit in the act of modifying our natural appearance. But what exactly is the body’s natural, unmodified state? Are the boundaries of modification first and foremost historically contingent, or might we more usefully think of these lines as markers that are continually contested and reasserted across class, gender, racial and other divides?
Maud Wagner, the first female tattoo artist in the United States, taken in 1907. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In grappling with these questions, we were continually brought back to the ideas of control, authorship and agency. As one member of the group queried, does anybody ever own the decision to modify their body, or is the act of bodily modification inescapably the outcome of some kind of social pressure? This question led to an interesting discussion about consciousness and unconsciousness: should extreme weight gain be thought of as a form of bodily modification, or does ‘modification’ always imply a desired and self-directed process? Moreover, as in the case of corneal (that is, eyeball) tattooing, under what circumstances might agency be wrested away from individuals by the (assumed) superior authority of medical and other professionals?
Far from being a trivial or superficial subject, then, bodily modification implies significant socio-cultural questions around policing, norm-making and autonomy. What signifies modification to one set of individuals (think here, for instance, of the contested act of “scarification”) might well signify mutilation (or self-harm) to another. The boundaries between self and society, manifest in the blurred boundaries between state-funded ‘medical’ interventions and private ‘cosmetic’ enhancements appear likewise confused and conflictual: laser surgery to remove a birth mark is categorised as a legitimate NHS procedure before the age of eighteen; thereafter it is a costed cosmetic improvement.
As the session drew to a close, we were struck by the extent to which both our own discussion and public discussion more widely had been compelled to focus in on the visibility of tattooing. On the surface of things, tattooing implies important degrees of self-work and self-expression – yet, it is also a lens through which to group, mark and categorise others. Whether understood by the actor as a mark of self-identity or not, the permanence of a tattoo is read in relation to various ‘cults of personality’ (the gang member, the army member, the hipster etc.), which invariably render the outcome of tattooing something other than a self-expressive act.
With thanks to those who made it along to our first reading group. We are looking forward to another lively discussion on a different theme next term! And in the mean time, to some fascinating papers on bodily modification!
Food for thought
Some of the reading materials that surfaced from our discussion:
Brown, Jennifer N., and Marla Segol, eds. Sexuality, Sociality, and Cosmology in Medieval Literary Texts. 1st ed. The New Middle Ages. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 [Chapter six]
DeMello, Margo. Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. ABC-CLIO, 2007.
Fleming, Juliet. Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England. London: Reaktion Books, 2001. [Chapter on ‘tattooing’]
Herzig, Rebecca M. Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. New York: NYU Press, 2015.
Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. New Ed edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Khomami, Nadia. “Dorchester Hotel ‘Could Be Sued’ over Grooming Rules for Female Staff.” The Guardian, December 2, 2016, sec. Money. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/02/dorchester-hotel-could-be-sued-over-grooming-rules-for-female-staff.
O’Connor, Sue. Book of Skin. London: Reaktion Books, 2003.
17th October in Room 11, The History Faculty, Sidgwick Site, at 5pm. All welcome!
The theme for Michaelmas 2017 is ‘Bodily Modification’. Topics may include topics but are not limited to, tattooing, piercing, tanning, and hair removal.
Our major research questions for this term, are broadly: the cultural/ religious/ political reasons for bodily modification; how it is linked to notions of health; and what it says about identity formation and the significance of the body/mind in this process.
The first meeting is a reading group – please ask to be added to our mailing list to receive the suggested reading.