#FolkloreThursday: Body Art

#FolkloreThursday: Body Art April 7, 2016

A photo I took of beads while at Kamakya Temple in Assam, India.
A photo I took of beads while at Kamakya Temple in Assam, India.

For this week’s #FolkloreThursday post, I thought I’d define and discuss a genre of folklore that is often overlooked as trivial, or as something that shouldn’t/doesn’t count as folklore: body art.

See, I’ve worked pretty hard to discount the notion that folklore is “just” fairy tales, myths, and legends… but even once people wrap their heads around that, they often tend to stick to defining folklore as primarily verbal. And there are many well-known genres of folklore that are performed and transmitted verbally: jokes, riddles, proverbs, slang, and so on. So it’s not unreasonable to think of “folklore” and leap straight to the verbal stuff.

However, folklore also exists in customary and physical forms. Material culture, the physical manifestation of folklore, is found in all societies, because all humans share the same basic physical needs (for food, shelter, and clothing), and they meet these needs in ways that are patterned by both tradition and variation. Body art is a genre belonging to the category of material culture, and we define it in folklore studies as any intentional aesthetic supplementation to or modification of the body.

I get this definition from Dr. Pravina Shukla’s book The Grace of the Four Moons, which I talk about in my post on how the self is the first audience. For all that Shukla’s book is an ethnography of women’s daily dress in India, it’s important to consider how these concepts apply close to home.

As I state in my post:

“A lot of students came to my body art class expecting to spend the whole semester talking about tattoos and other permanent or extreme body mods. We will certainly discuss those things, but I’m also trying to give my students vocabulary and concepts for studying the daily clothing choices that surround them. I’m assigning a handful of fieldwork projects, for example, that could include looking at tattoos and piercings, but will mostly be about observing the clothing of people around them. I like to think that I’m giving them tools to critically interpret the visual culture of clothing, in order to perhaps be a bit more savvy about brands and advertising and the commodification of bodies.”

So, no, body art isn’t just about tattoos and other major body mods. We study daily dress as well as special occasion attire; costumes, uniforms, and nudity; hair (on your head, facial, grooming in general) and makeup; and body shaping technologies, from corsets and footbinding to dieting and bodybuilding.

Body art is important to study because it showcases social hierarchies, economic stratification, religious identity, and gender, among other things. Our bodies are at once very intimate and personal, and very public and visible.

Many societies, for instance, differentiate between how people of a certain gender should dress and groom their bodies, despite the fact that sexual dimorphism in humans (the physical differences between adult male and females, to briefly be very binary about it) is pretty minimal, compared to other species of mammals. In India, where I’ve traveled, as well as learn from Shukla’s book, women’s daily dress maps where they are in their life cycle (single? married? with children or not? widowed?) as well as portraying important aspects of their heritage (religion, region of origin, ethnicity, caste). In the U.S., women’s bodies are increasingly held to unrealistically narrow beauty standards, with economic class being a major structuring element of which beauty technologies women will have access to in order to be slimmer, tanner, more symmetrically featured. At the same time, beauty subcultures have proliferated, with more trends and styles than ever to choose from.

In Shukla’s words, gender is a core structuring element of body art, and this is especially true of religious body art:

“the study of body art regularly shows how religious identity is expressed through clothes, hairstyle, and accessories – a burqa, side locks, or a yarmulke – and the absence or presence of certain ornaments, such as a pendant depicting Jesus on a cross, or a flash of red sindur on the hair part. Specialized apparel indicates differences of religion and culture to others, ad also to the self. The Hasidic Jewish community distinguishes itself by specialized clothing for each gender: the men in large black hats, black kaftans, beards, and side locks (peyes), and the women in long-sleeved dresses, wearing either turbans or wigs (sheitel), since they are not supposed to show their hair in public. Someone passing by will recognize these people as orthodox Jews, and members of their community will be able to tell, by specifics of dress alone, which of the six social classes of Hasidic Jews somebody belongs to; the people so dressed will be reminded by their clothing of their responsibilities in behavior” (419).

Shukla goes on to discuss the daily dress of Pentecostals, Amish, and Mormons, alongside the dress of Muslims and Jews which, in the context of North America, often has a political connotation.

I’d add that a major body modification – circumcision – with religious components has become both mainstream and quite controversial in recent years in the U.S. Activists point to an infant’s lack of ability to consent to this surgical procedure being done on their bodies, as well as how it interferes with sexual functioning (which has always been a claim regarding female genital cutting). In the U.S., male circumcision is not done for religious purposes per se, but rather became popular in the last century due to the anti-masturbation campaign. And yet, in other countries and cultures and eras, it remains a marker of religious identity.

By providing you with a definition of body art and some key examples of how it expresses identities such as gender and religion, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. If we all engage in this form of folklore daily, sometimes with more reflection and sometimes with less, what does it mean when we focus on it, on the traditions and variations we enact on our skin, hair, and faces? How are we expressing our various identities, or alternately concealing them? And how does this awareness enhance our knowledge of the cultural spheres we’re constantly navigating?


Shukla, Pravina. The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

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