When you think about what body modification means, it might invite images of massive ear gauges and forked tongues, but the reality is usually far less severe. The majority of people purposefully alter their bodies one way or another throughout their lives. The term “Body Modification” invites a certain level of uncertainty. Given how pliable the human form is, modifications can extend from surface-level changes down until they push through the previously fathomless areas of anatomy; and, in this sense, I will be visualizing this descent with the analogy of an iceberg. 

The highest point of our iceberg represents the most trivial changes one can make to themselves, while still being deemed a purposeful modification. I suppose you could argue that any change to one’s body is a “purposeful modification,” but that delegitimizes the more fervent decisions people make when they truly alter themselves. For instance, I don’t consider gaining a few pounds of fat because all you eat is frozen pizza as a mod, despite you having made specific choices and performed actions that resulted in your BMI fluctuating. I feel the most basic, above-water modification the average human being can make, regardless of race, location, age, any parameter you care to suggest, is to their hair. 

Outside of bathing, hair alteration is the most common form of grooming worldwide. The majority of humans, over the course of time, have justified cutting their hair to represent the dominant beauty standard of the era. Through colonialism, straight European hair was spread across the world, and for the majority of modern history, it has been the benchmark against which all hair types are compared. However, a corrective shift has begun in the last decade. Market research organizations such as The NPD Group and Mintel have found that during the last decade, sales of hair relaxers have decreased while sales of products designed to care for natural hair have increased. This shift has been exacerbated by two major factors: education and the internet. Through learning about social conformity and the interaction between cultures in even just a simple history class, more and more people are able to understand the ridiculousness of just one beauty standard being applied to a diverse world. Through the internet, we are able to share and source information on hair care and connect with likeminded people who define beauty in terms that align more with who we are. This has allowed hairstyles that might once have been deemed “adventurous” to become commonplace.

Outside of “mainstream” beauty standards, religion plays a significant role in expressing beauty through modifying one’s hair. Professor Frank Korom says that in religion “Hair is so often about power,” and this can be seen in the majority of the world’s largest religions. In many depictions of God or holy figures, long hair creates an imposing figure, and those following the religion mimic this growth to show their devotion and express their identities. This is the case with Rastafarian faith, in which locs imitate the mane of a lion. Those who practise Rastafarian faith often never cut their hair, reflecting an overarching lifestyle choice of living as naturally as possible. Buddhism teaches the opposite, instructing followers to shed their hair as part of their renouncement of ego and worldly possessions on their path to Moksha. Adversely, this identification of hair as a “worldly possession” isn’t shared by people who follow the Sikh religion, in which hair is considered a gift from God, and any alteration of it goes against God’s creations. There is a full spectrum of beliefs about how hair should be cut, from bald to as long as possible, and a slew of hairstyles that are connected to the religions of the world.

Bob Marley, who was a practicing Rastafarian

Modern culture in the developed world has normalized haircutting as an aesthetic choice, and those not practicing a religion that involves hair modification tend to make decisions for their hair based on societal expectations. It’s in our nature to fear ostracization, thus historically, any sample of same-gendered people in a specific region would share very similar grooming habits, often influenced by the times they were living through. For instance, ever since World War One, men’s hairstyles have become relatively shorter than they have been in the past, simply for their convenience and practicality on the battlefield. This was proven during the sixties and seventies, when the staunch anti-war advocates sported hair to their shoulders. As we moved into the final few decades of the twentieth century, the grooming industry pushed back on this and promoted short hairstyles on men once again, which required frequent trips to a barber and ultimately more capital in the business. While women’s hair shortened during World War Two and the following years, it once again grew as the beauty industry realized that in the case of the “average female,” it was more profitable to promote products and hair care than frequent trims. Since the 2010’s we have seen this reflected in men’s beauty as well, with market research showing men’s grooming products skyrocketing as more and more ditch the high-and-tight and take part in more complicated styles. Though of course, this all has further cemented hair as a status symbol, as those with the resources and time to care for their appearance are likely not involved with laborious activity.

George Harrison, an advocate against war

The justifications for haircutting vary from religious reasoning to societal expectations, and the styles often bolster confidence in one’s beauty and self-worth. Despite society’s timid steps towards hair diversification and acceptance, there are still traditional cornerstones of beauty we must transcend in order for it to be a true free-for-all. We are still conducting early research on how attractiveness can be quantified and contextualized; in the case of hair, we are collecting data on reactions to hairstyles such as male pattern baldness vs complete baldness, or a prominent vs small forehead. These inquiries have allowed researchers to uncover subconscious opinions and societal trends, which together might enlighten us on the path to defining what “beautiful hair” actually means. If we don’t yet understand why hair is beautiful, then we are even further from understanding the meaning of beauty itself. Going forward in this series on body modification, I will explore the search for acceptance and recognition through tattoos, piercings, and plastic surgery. By the end, I want you to walk away with a new perspective on body modification and an understanding of the economic, religious, and societal justifications that cause someone to alter their bodies. This truly is only the tip of the iceberg.