Today I became aware of a new trend in body modification, the creation of pointed ears reminiscent of those on Elves from Lord of the Rings, Avatar's Na'vi, and Star Trek's Vulcans. There is a lot of discussion and examples of it on the Internet, but an ABC News/Health online video provides an interesting, and largely unreflexive take on the subject. The article accompanying the video is titled "Elf Ears Are the Rage for Quirky Young Adults," while the title that introduces the video is "Body Morphing: Spock Ears for Kids." The correspondent that introduces the segment does not waste any time in sharing her distaste for the process and suggests that people not consider such procedures while asking why we can't just accept ourselves as we are. I find this reaction interesting for several reasons.
First, human beings have been engaged in body modification for thousands of years across diverse cultures. In fact, very few cultures have not engaged in body modification, whether tattooing or piercing.
Second, we live in a culture where many forms of cosmetic body modification are practiced routinely and are commonly accepted, from Botox injections to breast enlargements to permanent makeup application. It is telling that the correspondent in the ABC News piece found ear modification distasteful, and yet would probably not think twice about the appropriateness of any number of forms of cosmetic surgery.
Third, some have argued that our current fascination with more routine forms of body modification may be construed as a form of religion, or at least a practice strongly related to it. In a Religion Dispatches piece by Jeremy Biles titled "I Want a Perfect Body: Is Plastic Surgery a Rite of Passage?", the author writes:
"Though it may be a global phenomenon, the roots of this fixation on the body may lie partly in American religion. We need only think of America's many corporeal obsessions, from dieting, to fitness crazes, to cosmetic surgery, to begin to suspect that beliefs and commitments at the very heart of American culture are at work here. Harvard's R. Marie Griffith argues that religion, specifically Protestant forms of Christianity, has been a key influence on the conception and creation of American bodies. Protestant ascetic expressions of Christianity, Griffith argues, promote what she calls 'corporeal acts of devotion.' Griffith traces shifting Christian conceptions of embodiment from these early modern Protestant roots through Christian Scientism and the New Thought Movement. The emphasis on manifesting the inner, spiritual self through disciplines shaping the outer, physical self has thrust the body to the forefront of the American imagination."
Moving from the influence of religion toward the shaping of attitudes related to the body and its modification to consideration of other influences of religion and the sacred, it is worth noting that various expressions of fantastic fiction are being drawn upon in this instance as inspiration for shaping our form. Given that concepts of the sacred have now moved beyond more traditional expressions of religion to incorporate any number of sources once considered more mundane than sacred, pointed ears in science fiction and fantasy may be an example of "manifesting the inner, spiritual self through disciplines shaping the outer, physical self" as a form of "corporeal acts of devotion."
Going under the knife to create elf ears may not be everyone's preferred form of body modification, but it is not as extreme as some may think upon further analysis. Surely the health considerations must be taking into consideration, but to frown on the legitimacy of the procedure without the other considerations I have mentioned above indicates blind spots that must be acknowledged. I have come to the place where I don't expect much by way of media reporting, but perhaps in the future the folks at ABC News can engage in a little more reflexivity before reporting.