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Topic section: Body image and adornment
Body image and adornment
Adorning the body with, for example, clothes, cosmetics or jewellery is a method of changing one’s image that is quick and can be dramatic. Decoration of this type tends to be reversible and is a much easier modification than weight loss. But when people adorn their bodies there are certain expectations as to how they should do this
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This is a copy of a bust of Queen Nefertiti, and highlights the use of cosmetics by the ancient Egyptians.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Fashions come and go and are dependent on the time in which we live. For example, in the eig
Adornments can be used to symbolise status
hteenth century it was fashionable for men to wear wigs – they were even viewed as status symbols. Fashions, and the body images they create, can also vary from place to place. In the West, the media and the fashion industry are powerful forces that drive expectations of how we should adorn our bodies and they are not above influencing the changing of styles for purely commercial gain.
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These English cosmetic devices include cheek plumpers, eyebrows, and breast pads, to adorn the body according to the fashion of the day.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Adornments, as with all aspects of our body image, can be applied to fit in with expectations, or to stand out. The most common adornments expected by society are clothes and cosmetics, with cosmetics dating back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Piercings and tattoos have histories of similar length. In certain societies these types of adornments were signs of status and belonging and not just for decoration. For example, having a first tattoo served as a rite of passage among the Tahitians. Certain groups, such as the Hell’s Angels, still use symbols of this type to identify people who belong.

Although decorating the body is often seen as an attempt to beautify it, this is not the whole picture. Adornments can be used to symbolise status. They may also be used because of the way they feel. This is cert
Picture: 02_10437150.jpg
A collection of 19th and 20th century pins from Borneo for piercing the penis.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
ainly the case with some piercings, such as the palang, which is a male genital piercing. Shock factor is another motive behind adornments, tying in with the idea that people sometimes make changes to their bodies in order to stand out. So, people may dye their hair or get a piercing in an effort to make a statement and establish themselves as ‘individuals’. Ironically, in doing so they join the hundreds of other ‘individuals’ who have blue hair or pierced tongues, thereby sharing a body image and forming a subculture.

In the future, new ways of adorning the body may appear, or they may just mimic earlier fashions. Whatever the new trends are, they will probably depend on the time and culture in which they are developed and worn.
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Topic section: Body image and weight
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Images and ideals of the slender body contrast ironically with heavier and heavier realities. Sedentary life styles and cheaper food during the twentieth century have made it easier to pile on the pounds. The contradiction between image and reality has caused much unhappiness.  > more

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Topic section: Body image and modification
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Modifying the body itself to fit in with social expectations has a long tradition. Some modifications, like orthodontics, are intended to make people look 'normal'. Others, like cosmetic surgery, are conducted in search of outstanding beauty.  > more

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Topic section: Curiosity and difference
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Christian thought has dominated European beliefs about humanity and difference. From the enlightenment, deviation from the ideal through gender, race or looking different, meant being classified as different.  > more
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