Meeting Notes: Bodily Modification

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.

O’Connor, Sue. Book of Skin. London: Reaktion Books, 2003.

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