Body Modification and Sexual Selection

This entry was written by Sophie Morrish as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Evolutionarily speaking, we should all be looking for strong traits to continue on the health and fitness of our species. Sexual selection’s ideas of ornaments and bright colours, as well as the significance of ‘shiny things’ to some animals especially birds, correlates with the connection between sexual selection and body modification. However, in modern day, there is rarely a singular type of person that everyone will be attracted to. Everyone is attracted to different things. Body modification is the act of voluntarily changing one’s body’s aesthetic. Body modification, in the form of tattoos and creating scarring and holes in the body, not just in the form of piercings, has been going on across the world for hundreds of years. However, recently body modification has become a prevalent stylistic choice in modern day western society. One study in 2008 of college students in America showed that 60 percent of women and 42 percent of men were pierced (Kaatz, Elsner & Bauer 2008 via Bradley University 2019). The most popular forms of body modification today are piercings, with ears, lips, tongues and brows being considered the most popular places to pierce.

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The motives for body modification – cross cultural studies

One major motive for having body modification is belonging. Evolutionarily speaking forming a group defence is less likely to leave you vulnerable. One of the main areas where tattoos became a marker for comradery and teamwork was the military “In the 1940s, tattoos were very popular among military personnel, who decorated their bodies mainly with patriotic designs and hearts with the names of their girlfriends” (Laumann and Derick, 2006 via Koziel & Sitek 2013). One major group that used body modifications as a symbolic group representation in the western world was the punk and anarchism movements of the 1970s. The increasingly rebellious and aggressive acts that the people in these movements were committing, was only matched by their increasingly intense body modifications. “Tattooing predicts more serious deviance; as individuals who brutally mutilate their bodies in such a barbaric way cannot contain other "primitive" or contra-normative impulses” (Atkinson 2004), this theory about tattoos and what they symbolise directly aligned with punk perspectives and thus was a fitting representation. The punks took pride in their body modifications wearing them as badges of honour using them as identifiers to one another that they were serious about the cause. One of the main reasons for tattooing and other forms of body modifications as proposed by evolutionary and social psychologists is to have them as a sign of strength and power. The ability to show that they underwent a significant amount of pain to have procured said ink or piercing proves they are willing to handle pain and therefore anyone likely to try and aggress them would lose out. As there is seen to be no direct reward for the pain caused by having one’s body modified “social-psychological interpretations of tattooing as irrational, “risk-taking behaviour”” (Atkinson 2004). Social marginalisation and ill repute have historically followed people with body modifications, as they have been routinely cast out of society. The reason for the ill repute of tattoos came from pre-1900s when it was “used to mark criminals, slaves and misfits” (Cultural Research Services 2000). An example of this is how criminologists have historically used tattoos and other body modifications as marker for criminality “Despite making some inroads into the mainstream, body modification remains controversial and symbolic of nonconformity, especially among adolescents” (Dukes & Stein 2011). People with body modifications are stereotyped as bad, dangerous and looking for crime (Lane 2017). Having a dangerous looking exterior, without having to prove real strength, is a great tool evolutionarily, there would be less risk of competition and less threat to survival. One other major reason for body modification is because it is culturally appropriate or deemed necessary for acceptance into a certain culture. Historically speaking body modification rituals have been going on for centuries. One example of this is the Kaningara people of the Black water, Papua New Guinea ritual scarification is performed as a method of initiation, the ritual is solely for men. The scarification is seen as a passing down of knowledge and spirituality between the men of the population (Krutak 2013). The ritual symbolises the journey to becoming a man, moving away from one’s mother and towards the possibility of having their own family. This form of body modification is seen as essential by the Kaningara people and refusal to take part would see a man cast out (Krutak 2013). In this way the body modification becomes a powerful representative of belonging and family, as well as spiritual pride. The main reasons for tattoos of today is artistry, decoration and memory, unique pieces of art, beautiful and often meaningful pieces to decorate one’s body with. Modern day tattoo artists “characterize tattooing as a middle-class art form distinct from the stereotypical tattoos of sailors and gang members of an earlier era” (Adams 2009). This shows a movement away from the traditional use of tattoos and begins to remove connotations linked with body modifications such as antisocial and dangerous behaviour.

Connection of body modification and sexual selection

One of the major things that makes people with body modifications specifically adhere to the model of sexual selection is that they stand out. In the way a bird may have brightly coloured feathers to attract mates, tattoos and body piercing act the same. Tattoos are often brightly coloured, and piercings stand out against the skin of an individual. Potential partners may appreciate the aesthetic of the body modification and find it makes an individual more attractive. “Men and women alike report using various techniques of appearance enhancement for attracting and/or retaining mates” (Buss & Shackelford 1997 via Gangestad & Scheyd 2005). Another way in which forms of body modification act in sexual selection, they may symbolise that two people are of the same group for mating or relationship purposes. This can be simply the group of people who have body modifications or identifying and gauging the authenticity of another ‘punk’. Culturally necessary body modifications from tribal initiations and other rituals, play a role in detecting another member of a tribe, their position, significance and marital, as well as mating potential. Tattoos also still have the connotation danger and strength, whilst this fact may deter some from a relationship, it may attract others. It may also attract one criminal or gang member to another having the same tattoos from the same criminal group or jail.


In conclusion body modifications can be linked to sexual selection through the process of sexual attraction. They cause an individual to stand out and be noticed heightening their chances of attracting a mate. However, in modern western society, it differs greatly, as human’s sole purpose isn’t to attract mates with their body modifications, but rather enjoy them for themselves, and appreciate what most body modification enthusiasts consider works of art. Humans are also incredibly varied in what they are attracted to. For some cultures body modifications may be a necessary feature of a potential partner or mate, while in other cultures it may not.


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ATKINSON, M. (2004). Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-control. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie, 41(2), pp.125-146. (2019). Bradley University: Body Modification & Body Image. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Oct. 2019].
Dukes, R. and Stein, J. (2011). Ink and Holes. Youth & Society, 43(4), pp.1547-1569.
Gangestad, S. and Scheyd, G. (2005). The Evolution of Human Physical Attractiveness. The Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, pp.523-548.
Kozieł, S. and Sitek, A. (2013). Self-assessment of attractiveness of persons with body decoration. Journal of Comparative Human Biology, 64(4), pp.317-325.
Krutak, L. (2013). MAKING BOYS INTO MEN: KANINGARA SKIN-CUTTING RITUAL | | LARS KRUTAK. [online] Lars Krutak | Tattoo Anthropologist. Available at: [Accessed 5 Oct. 2019].
Lane, D. (2017). Understanding body modification: A process-based framework. Sociology Compass, 11(7).
Modern Primitives: The Recurrent Ritual of Adornment. (2000). Monograph Series, 47.

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