In a poor, remote village on the Thai-Burmese border, many local Kayan women carry an item of great value – brass rings – around their necks. These shiny collars can weigh up to twenty-two pounds, disfiguring the bodies of those who wear them.
This tradition has been part of Kayan culture for nearly one thousand years, and ancient folklore says that a woman’s neck, long supported by the brass rings, can break if her collar is removed. To outsiders, the ancient body modification customs of the “long necks” may seem bizarre. But to Kayan men and women, the sight of a bare female neck is a rare event and oddity.
Body modification practices occur in many forms around the world. In some African tribes, children’s faces are scared with painful tattoos. In Sumatra, Indonesia, teeth are filed. In a rural Cameroon village, some mothers practice “breast ironing” to flatten the chests of their young daughters.
In Western cultures, our body modification ‘norms’ could be viewed as extreme. We mold the teeth of teenagers with bands of metal and cosmetic alternations – like chest, arm or leg implants – are on the rise. In 2006, nearly two million cosmetic surgeries were performed in the United States alone. And it’s not just female patients – Since 2005, chest implants for men have doubled. From facelifts to liposuction to buttock enlargements, it’s becoming more common to go under the knife in the quest for the ‘perfect’ body.
Body modification not only defines ourselves, but the cultures we live in. What makes a person radically change his or her body? And how far would you go to change the body you were born with?