A June issue of the Polish National Geographic edition is beautiful in this slightly shocking and amazing way, reminding me of the old issues of the NG, back in the 60s, 70’s and 80’s so many people into body modification used to rave about – images of the African tribes with many different, so alien to us, Westerners, looks that we couldn’t think about them without a shudder and disgust. And here it is, the second decade of the 21st century, with millions of people modified in so many ways all around the world and the good ol’ NG looks retro and sounds so as well.
The article devoted to body modification got the title ‘Body can stand everything’ and describes a few ‘exotic’ to us, the average white Westerners, body modifications. ‘Neck stretching’ practiced by the Padaung women is right next to lip stretching of the African Mursi and Suri tribes; tribal scarification is next to teeth filling/ teeth blackening and nostril stretching of the Apatani women.
It starts with a nicely open-minded, anthropological stand: the author discusses briefly the history of body modification, mentions Őtzi and spices it up with the term of ‘social skin’ coined by Terence S. Turner. Obviously, the various forms of body modification have their own meanings in their own contexts and there are, or were, reasons for practicing them. It reads nicely and the introductory words of the editor-in-chief of the Polish edition of the NG also invites the readers to approaching the subject with open mind: ‘mark your own oddities before you’ll pass the judgment on others!’
The problem is that the author of the text somehow couldn’t resist adding a typical, closed-minded stand of the Western old school of thinking about different cultures throughout the text. The Mursi have ‘grotesque discs pushed into their lips’ (although this example may be a quote from an anthropologist who studied this tribe!) and their lip plates are also described as ‘decoration’ (quotation marks included which implies that it’s not seen this way). The women from the Apatani tribe are described even worse: ‘nowadays girls from this tribe prefer to look attractive and unnaturally stretched nostrils can be seen only on their grandmothers’ (the word underlined by me). And there are also a few words devoted to the facial tattoos of the Chin women: ‘allegedly they disfigured themselves to turn off the Burmese kings’ only to juxtapose it with the Chin women’s own opinion: ‘the elderly women who wear traditional tattoos say that they make them feel attractive and feminine.’
The question is whether the author somehow, maybe subconsciously, shared her own opinion on the forms of body modification that are both new and rare in the Western world or if she just expresses a typical to the old Western way of thought disgust toward the Otherness. The bodies of the Others have always fascinated us, forced us to watch them closely only to walk away feeling stronger and better about ourselves (‘we are not barbarians,’ ‘we are not freaks,’ ‘we are civilized and sane hence we do not hurt ourselves!’). An average reader of the magazine would take a look at the cover, experience a slight shock, comment in not a very positive way and then go over ‘disfigured,’ ‘grotesque,’ ‘unnaturally stretched’ and ‘prefer to look attractive,’ feeling that our own aesthetics is the only right one as we do not disfigure, we do not make ourselves look grotesque and there’s nothing ‘unnatural’ about us! And thus once again we get reinforced this old ‘us vs. the Other’ way of thinking, feeling, living. What’s worse, we actually still have it thrive around – all we need to do is to watch a random talk show episode devoted to body modification to see the audience getting shocked and convinced that people showing off and discussing their ‘mods’ definitely are not ‘normal.’
In a way, the NG seems unable to follow the changes in the world – it keeps us updated on the modern science, changes in the world, peoples and species dying out but it is so focused on the ‘exotic’ tribes outside our ‘civilized’ world that it is not observant enough to really notice what’s going on under the cover of Western world. The final lines of the article mention the modern trends in body modification (eyeball tattooing, the ‘Western’ form of scarification and branding) ‘that paradoxically appears in the ‘civilized’ world’ but there won’t be following it up, there won’t be more information on it. Is it not ‘exotic’ enough? Is it too tame and still familiar only because the ‘Modern Primitives’ or the ‘Modern Modified’ look like us? What I would like to see is an in-depth article about modern forms of body modification as practiced in the Western world, reasons behind them and making people not only look, read and experience a mild shock but also wonder why and how literally all of us modify our bodies. Comes to think of it, wouldn’t it be great to let the ‘Others’ speak up for once and let us know what they think of us?