Body modification has worked its way into mainstream culture in recent years, but it’s far from a new practice. Nose piercing has been a popular custom in Middle-Eastern, Indian and Asian cultures since Bible times.1 For centuries, Chinese women’s feet were bound to enhance their beauty and chances of marrying.2 High-born Mayan infants’ heads were flattened to denote their social status, and Mayan warriors filed their permanent teeth to points to show their fierceness.3 Scarification is a long-standing symbol of accomplishment in certain African cultures; to this day, elders mark younger tribe members’ bodies as they complete rites of passage.4 These are just a few of the many, many examples of body modification that can be found throughout history and across cultures.
Motives for Modifying
Why has body modification been such a constant throughout history? Each culture has had its own unique reasons for practicing body modification, but they all have roots in these basic underlying motives: (1) to enhance physical beauty/aesthetics, (2) to denote social status/wealth, (3) to mark life achievements, (4) to aid the physical body (e.g. enhance sexual pleasure or ease child birth), and/or (5) to gain spiritual enlightenment.
The Spiritual Side of Modification
The Church of Body Modification (COBM) was founded on that fifth motive—on the belief that worthy body modifications are virtuous and can aid in spiritual enlightenment. COBM members believe that any alteration or activity that “strengthens the bond between mind, body, and soul”5 is worthy if done safely and consensually. That includes piercings, tattoos, tongue splitting, human suspension, fire-walking, fasting, and other extreme body modifications and acts performed for spiritual growth.
You don’t have to be a COBM member to practice spiritual modification. Anytime you alter your body with a higher purpose in mind—with hopes that the experience will be transcendental and bring you closer to God or the Universal Soul—you’re engaging in worthy body modification.
Whether directly named or not, worthy body modification practices appear in many cultures and religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and even Catholicism and Christianity. Consider how Opus Dei practitioners scar themselves during flogging as penance to further them along the “path to sanctity”. 6, 7 Yogis use their split tongues in Khechari Mudra breathing exercises to plug their nostrils, "seal" their bodies, and enter a catatonic state that facilitates development of spiritual consciousness.8, 9 In the Native American Sun Dance Ceremony, tribe members’ chests are pierced to facilitate human suspension or pulling during the ritual, which is most often performed for spiritual gains. 10 Some Southeast Asians use piercing as a form of penance and attempt to enter an “analgesic trance” beforehand—a state that develops higher consciousness and opens them to deeper spiritual growth during the piercing process.11
Worthy body modification is a unique method of obtaining spiritual enlightenment that any open-minded individual can pursue. Unfortunately, too many people are close-minded and can’t even contemplate how body modification can be a spiritual experience. Such people sometimes overlook their own “normal” modifications while looking down their noses at those who engage in any form of extreme body modification. They forget that they’ve altered themselves in some way, too, with haircuts, hair dye, makeup, tans, fake nails, whitened or capped teeth, pierced ears, exercise, plastic surgery, and/or a slew of other socially-acceptable physical changes. If we’d just acknowledge that we’re all the same because we all want to be unique, body modification could be the thread that unites humankind and truly enlightens us.
If you want to learn about specific worthy body modifications, tune in to our upcoming blog posts on scarification, extreme and unusual piercings, tongue splitting, and human suspension. You’ll also find a wealth of community knowledge in our Body Mod Forum and more extreme body modification pictures like the ones shown here in our Body Mod Photo Gallery. Note that you have to register for an account before participating in the forum or viewing mature content in the gallery.