Humans are a funny lot. Throughout time we have sought to change our bodies – either to look like someone else, or to look like no one else. To identify as a tribe but distinguish oneself as an individual. The body is but a vessel to carry around our brain, and sometimes things get a little strange in the top paddock.

Can this be part of a novel? I believe so, perhaps even make it a feature. To envy another is after all, a very human trait. To the beautiful go the spoils – money, power, and the best mate. Or do they become the spoils?  Beauty without power becomes more of a victim, a prisoner in their own shell, and while envied, may also secretly envy others their freedom. Envy, jealousy, ambition, power, love and hate are all part of most novels, regardless of genre.

I’ll add in now for those that want to try this at home – any body modification that results in injury is illegal, and no, that they consented doesn’t matter. Just because someone wants their willy removed, doesn’t mean you can hack it off in your garage.

Body modifications reflect their culture and time. What is odd to one will be sought by another – and who are we to judge what is attractive when the very concept of beauty changes from one generation or continent to the next?

Of course, not all body modifications are voluntary or for beauty, but a way of stigmatizing. Here the topic can be quite disturbing, venturing into some dark aspects of power and often religious traditions. Genital mutilations, severing the hands of thieves, brands for slaves, and creating eunuchs all fall under this category. A few fantasy books describe some of these as they end up as beggars. But people modified in this way often gained power themselves – eunuchs becoming famous singers, for instance. The tiny ‘lotus’ feet produced by foot binding were a status symbol. If you were rich enough to not need to walk, then that was wealth indeed. Given the patriarchal nature of the world, too often modifications/mutilations were carried out on women, but not always.

Modifications can be grouped into tattoos, piercings, shape change, scarification (burning or cutting the skin), additions – putting something under the skin, or removal.

Tattoos have been around for a long time – Otzi the iceman (around 3,000BC) had tattoos that may have marked massage points for his arthritis. Egyptian mummies win at 5,000 BC with still visible animal tattoos. Today the most heavily tattooed person has 100% of their body inked. They are often used as a rite of passage – in the military, or the navy for a trip to the mysterious Orient. Sailors used to get a picture of the crucifixion on their backs, in the hopes of avoiding a flogging. In the future tattoos could be bar codes, bank details, social security or medical monitors.

Piercings can be simple earrings or more elaborate. The Hottentot tribesman in one of Henry Rider Haggard’s books had an earlobe hole enlarged and carried his snuff box in it. In Star Trek, the Bajorans all had a pierced ear and jewellery that denoted their beliefs. The record holder today has 1,103 piercings. Clearly like many of these practices, one can get carried away.

Shape changing has a long history as well. The practice of modifying the skull ranged from Mongolia to Peru and Africa. The Peruvians used to elongate the skull, a habit neatly included in the Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull movie, where this trait was linked to aliens. Sorry for the spoiler, but seriously Indiana, what were you thinking?

Other shape changing methods are neck stretching using coils of wire, lip stretching – both found in Africa. Using corsets in Victorian times to give a silhouette also resulted in internal problems and occasional death. But breast enlargement is a fairly modern one, also resulting in health problems. People still make the news with horn inserts or cat whiskers as well. Science fiction is often full of body modifications to weaponize or improve being human. Cyborgs, computer linkages and tech implants raise the question of how much of the human remains before they become something else?

So in terms of a novel, one can explore the visuals of these things – from the external perspective. A sailor home with a suntan and a blue sparrow tattoo clues up Holmes on his travels to the Orient. A historical criminal branded for life trying to regain their position in society. A romance where the competition has had extensive ‘work’ done to look gorgeous. Is a tattoo the mark of a Deatheater?

But the flip side – the dark side of why people do this. Why they do this to others, and why they do it to themselves makes for grim reading indeed. Body modifications or mutilations are but the external result of human cultures and ideals. What are the characters trying to tell you?

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World Building: Body Modifications
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