Saturday, July 26, 2008

In Pursuit of Beauty: Human History of Body Alteration

Is cosmetic surgical body alteration immoral? It's an interesting question and one that millions of people have been asking for a long time, but it may surprise you to learn that humans have been altering their bodies in the pursuit of beauty for centuries.

Not long ago, I ran across an article stating that plastic surgery came about in 1967 when a physician's assistant commented to the doctor that a blood pack felt like a breast. This was, indeed, the beginning for the idea of silicone breast augmentation (though not even the beginning of breast augmentation itself, as the Chinese have record of women having glass spheres implanted in their breasts more than 1,000 years ago), but not the beginning of cosmetic surgery. In fact, plastic surgery is nearly 4,000 years old and other body image alteration procedures with aesthetic purposes, like tattooing and scarification are even older.

The Ancient Origins of Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery actually began in India in the 700s BCE. At this time, ancient Indian doctors, including the famed ancient surgeon Sushruta Samhita, were fairly regularly performing rhinoplasty (nose jobs) - it was a common punishment to have one's nose cut off in many ancient societies - and otoplasty (aesthetic ear surgery). These procedures were largely reconstructive and utilized skin grafts mostly taken from other areas of the face, like the forehead. A text authored by Sushruta illustrates the procedure of cutting away skin from the forehead and manipulating it downward to reconstruct a missing nose.

The ancient Romans also utilized skin grafts for cosmetic surgery by the 1st century BCE. The Roman's efforts were also largely reconstructive, with exception to the work of a brilliant ancient Greek surgeon operating in Roman named Galen. There are records of Galen performing purely aesthetic rhinoplasty on women and men of wealth who simply wanted a new shape to their nose.

The first American plastic surgeon was Dr. John Peter Mettauer. Mattauer performed the first cleft palate repair in 1827 with surgical instruments he created himself.

Skin grafting and rhinoplasty were performed by Italian and German doctors as far back as the 1300s and 1400s, but no elective surgeries were common until the late 1800's after the American Civil War when anesthetic was discovered. Previously, all surgeries were extremely painful. The surgeon would also be forced to deal with a patient that could move and kick; therefore, they could harm the outcome of their surgery and possibly harm the surgeon.

Cosmetic Body Alteration

The alteration of the human body for cosmetic purposes may be even older than plastic surgery. For eons, tribes of humans have been discing their lips, stretching their ear lobes, binding their feet, filing their teeth, and tattooing and scarring their skin all in the name of attaining their culture's aesthetic ideal.

It would take forever to cover all the tribes throughout history who have practiced body modification and the specifics of those alterations. Sufficed to say that the history of body alteration is long and extensive. It's only recently that the Western world has begun to re-embrace our human tribal heritage and stop, by-in-large, referring to body alteration as "body mutilation". Many in the West have even begun to re-adopt some of these tribal practices like body piercing, ear stretching, and branding.

Women in Bali have been filing their teeth to sharp points to attract husbands for generations. Similarly, women of the Kayan people of Myanmar stretch their necks with brass rings to elongate them and catch the eye of a suitor, as well as to attain their beauty ideal. Women in some areas of China practiced foot binding for a millennium, from the 10th century into the end of the late 20th century. Tribes in Africa practice ear stretching (as the woman pictured above) and lip-discing (also pictured above) - in fact, this woman is considered the most beautiful woman in her tribe. And, of course, tattooing has been an enduring human practice in both sexes and crossing into almost all cultures for ages.

Religion and Body Alteration

If tribes have been practicing body alteration and enhancement for thousands of years, why are people in the Western world still so averse to it? We may find some clues in the beginnings of this prejudice with two of the Western world's major religions: Judaism and Christianity.

Although many conservative Jews and Christians may not want to believe it, all of the world's religions have borrowed from previous belief structures, and the two above are no exception. The Jewish faith, much of which influences the Christian religion, may be responsible for passing on an Egyptian spiritual belief. Egyptians believed that life after death was no different than life before death - you had the same needs (food, water, money, etc) and even the same face. It was so important that the dead remember how they looked in life that they were mummified and placed in tombs with many images of their previous form. Although the Egyptians wore heavy make-up, wigs and jewelry, Egyptians were one of the first primitive peoples not to practice some form of extreme body modification.

Judaism may have borrowed this attachment to the physical form along with the idea that the spirit must look like the body after death, despite only vague explanations of the appearance of the non-physical form after death in Jewish and Christian texts. Both Jewish and Christian writings (and those shared between the two) allude to the "sacredness" of the human form and its derivation from the image of God himself, which may also contribute to the belief that body alteration is immoral.

As I have said in other posts on this blog before, it's my belief that - as everyone's mother once told them at one time or another - what's really important is on the inside and it cannot be modified with needles, blades, or knives. The way I see it, I am not my body. My body is merely the vehicle for my mind and spirit. Is plastic surgery immoral? In my opinion, plastic surgery is no more immoral than piercing your ears or wearing cosmetics.


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And, of course, tattooing has been an enduring human practice in both sexes and crossing into almost all cultures for ages.Towson plastic surgeon

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