Docent Discussions

Body Modification Across Cultures


Mütter EDU Staff

May 20, 2021

Greetings, loyal readers, and welcome to another installment of , our semi-regular series where we feature works by our dedicated Mütter Museum docents. This article comes courtesy of Angelie Cesario. Angelie offers an overview of body modification across different cultures.

With popular shows such as Bridgerton and The Great, corset searches and purchases have increased significantly in the past year. According to Vogue, with this rising popularity, corsets are now found all over social media and in many clothing stores both online and offline. But where did corsets originate? What effects did they have on the body? And what can they tell us about other forms of body modifications and beauty standards?

Although corsets can be traced back to as far as 1600 BC, they became most noticeably popular in the 16th century. They were often worn by women but were sometimes were worn by men as well. Although garments similar to corsets have been used around the world, they were and continue to be mostly associated with Europe and the western world. Over the years, the design of corsets has changed, but the purpose has not: they were meant to shape the body into a desirable figure during each time period. In pursuit of the “hourglass figure,” tight lacings of corsets often lead to reduced lung capacity, hardness of breathing, and fainting. In more serious situations, it would lead to chest deformities and compressed organs.

In cultures all around the world, body modifications are done for a number of reasons, including meeting a beauty ideal, signifying social status, or marking membership to a group. In Indonesia, a popular type of body modification is dental filing. In one area of Indonesia, women file their teeth into sharpened points to be seen as more beautiful. Meanwhile, in Bali, Indonesia, both men and women have their canine teeth filed down ceremoniously as way to ward off evil spirits and represent the change from animal to human.

Similar to Indonesia, the pre-Columbian Mayans also partook in dental modifications. In Central America, dental inlays were very popular among the Maya. These dental inlays consisted of drilling the frontal teeth (the incisors and canines) and then filling those holes with semi-precious stones such as jade, turquoise, or obsidian. According to anthropologists at the University of Western Ontario, these dental modifications are believed to be related to ritual traditions or for aesthetic purposes.

In Thailand, a popular body modification is neck elongation where brass coils, also known as neck rings, are used to elongate the neck of women in the community. Anthropologists have dated this practice back to the 11th century, and it has been practiced in other areas such as Africa and India. Contrary to popular belief, these rings actually do not elongate the neck. Instead, these brass coils push the collarbone and ribs down, giving the illusion of a longer neck. Although the origins of neck rings are debated, today they are associated with beauty and wealth.

When looking at different types of body modifications cross-culturally, it’s important not to judge and recognize that each culture has their own standard of what is considered beautiful. So what can beauty standards tell us when looking at them cross-culturally? And what are the things around you that might make you want to “modify” your body? Let me know in the comments!


Bass-Krueger, Maude, and Elle Timms.  British Vogue, British Vogue, 21 Jan. 2021.

 Bradley University

Goldberg, Johanna.  Books, Health and History, The New York Academy of Medicine, 29 May 2015.

Harris, Karen.  History Daily, 15 Aug. 2019.

National Geographic, director.  YouTube, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2011.

Ramírez-Salomón, M., et al. “Pulp Pathosis Associated with Ancient Maya Dental Inlays.” Archives of Oral Biology, vol. 95, 2018, pp. 202–208., doi:10.1016/j.archoralbio.2018.08.008. 

Wijana, Hannah.  AFAR Media, 9 Dec. 2020. 

Williams, Jocelyn S., and Christine D. White. “Dental Modification in the Postclassic Population from Lamanai, Belize.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 17, no. 1, 2006, pp. 139–151., doi:10.1017/s0956536106050267.