SBS VICELAND’s Needles and Pins has proved to be a vicarious wince of a docuseries. Rounding out the first season is "Tribes and Tongue Splitting in the UK", an episode that dives into the growing “body mod” movement in modern-day Great Britain.
But braving extents of searing pain in order to outwardly morph the body is nothing new. Since ancient days, a surprising number of tribes and cultures have pushed the limits of what’s expected of the body to both aesthetic and symbolic ends.
Scarification is the practice of etching intentional scars into one’s flesh. Kind of like tattooing, but with more scar and less ink.
Rooted in ancient tribal cultures stretching from the African continent across to Papua New Guinea and down to New Zealand, this method of minor mutilation has long been used for a variety of purposes. These include to beautify the body, to usher a child into adulthood, to mark a woman’s willingness to procreate and a man’s capability to protect, and to shed blood in order to summon the gods.
In almost all cases, the scar receiver must stifle all outward expressions of pain, as even a whimper is considered an act of cowardice.
Everywhere from China to Mexico and Indonesia to Sudan, humans have willingly taken to their own teeth with a chisel. Mayans of means would hand carve their pearly whites into assorted shapes and designs in order to distinguish themselves from the lower class.
Even today, dagger-like teeth in the mouths of the Mantawai women of Indonesia ratchets up their desirability, though I’m sure also increases the potential for intimacy-related accidents.
Since roughly 8700 BC, the elongation of the lower lip and subsequent insertion of a disc was a popular symbolic practice for more ancient cultures than you’d expect.
In Ethiopia, women would (and some still do) gradually cultivate a widening lip hole as they aged, taking great pride in the specific design of their ornamental disc, as it represented their inner power and esteem.
In Amazonian tribes, lip-plates represented a woman’s journey from her female caregivers into her husband’s house, or her social maturity into someone worthy of marriage. For her male counterpart, lip-plates were often worn by chiefs of war and popular orators.
Largely attributed to China's Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), foot-binding was a method of forced demureness fuelled by the notion that smaller and more delicate trotters were synonymous with beauty. Story has it that (primarily higher-caste) Chinese women modelled their feet on the Song emperor’s favourite concubine, who bound hers together and danced on a lotus flower.
By the 12th century, foot-binding was pervasive and considered mandatory for any woman with marriage on their to-do list. This bizarre beauty standard powered through to last century, waning due to Chinese intellectuals returning from studies in European universities with new feelings of disparagement.
Perversely, after the en vogue method of disfigurement fell out of favour, Chinese women with disfigured feet were shunned by men, and many refused to bare their soles to anyone, no matter the circumstance.
Watch the final episode of Needles and Pins on SBS VICELAND on Tuesday 9 May at 8:30pm, after which it’ll be available any time on SBS On Demand.