Culture is one of the representative characteristics that reflecting the norms of activities of human within a certain area, namely the society. There’s no single modified definition of culture, however, by referring to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO (2002) (1)“culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. In simple words, any activity within a society can be regarded as one of the cultural elements. Culture is important in our daily life as it can explain the rationales of the activities, and in other way, culture also has strong influences and effects over the modification on the physical changes of the human bodies. Cultures are different in times and areas. First of all, time is a prerequisite for cultural development, as time allows culture to assimilate and differentiate. Secondly, there are other factors that affect the differences in culture, for examples religion, civilization, geographical differences in landscapes…etc.
These factors are relatively stable over times, unless there is radical geographical change or political struggle. Thirdly, in modern times, cultures in the world undergoes rapid changes with newly developed ideas and the styles of lives have changed, for examples working in urban society, contact between different culture and the technological developments, these changes of culture made significant effects on the changes of human bodies physically. Each factor would be explained in the following. Time is important in changing the culture and thus owes the influences in hysical body changes. As culture reflects the modes of activities of a society, that is there’re time sense in the nature of culture itself. In a particular period of time, the mode of society is like that, and with time passes by, the mode of activities changes as the influential factors are growing stronger in modifying the culture with time, for example religion, technology level and educational level…etc. Some culture elements are eliminated and some are kept, the remaining ones gradually become parts of the tradition.
Thus, differences appear within a culture, even within the some region or place. The different duration of cultures can affect human body both individually and racially. There are plenty of evidences that showing the transient culture changed the human body physically in an unnatural way in many regions in the past centuries. In 16-18th century France, women and men wore corsets (2), which gird the torso and shape the bodies according to the fashion of the day. Most often it has been used for cinching the waist and supporting the breasts.
However, the corsets modified the human bodies in fatal ways including broken ribs, injuries of internal organs or even difficulties in breathing. Also in China, women foot- binding (3) was a prevailing trend in the early Qing Dynasty, as small foot meant wealthy, high status and elegance. Similarly, foot binding distorted and contorted the foot of the ladies and brought them continuous tortures and pains. In the Pre-WWI periods, these practices had been banned by governments because of the disastrous changes of the human bodies.
Compare to the short duration of some practices that affect only the people in particular time period, old traditions have a more significant on the physical changes of human beings. For example, the Chinese hold the value of fatness representing good fortune of the family. So most Chinese families prefer fat than thin. From Tang dynasty to the past century, this culture remained in China even in nowadays. The effect of the example is much influencing than the ones with short prevailing time. From the above, we know that “time” is important in influencing the physical changes in human bodies.
Cultures are different in different areas; the differences are determined by the society’s religion, civilization, class stratification, geographical locations etc. Each culture is special and thus the effects of culture affecting the physical body changes are in ways not the same. Culture and civilization are very closely related with each others. Different civilizations in the world practice its own cultural identity. In some less developed countries, their civilization is much different from urban areas. Also they engaged in agricultural activities as farming, hunting or fishing such kinds of primary economic activities.
In the facts that these kinds of living require great physical strengths and strong muscle, in such civilizations the bodies are human are mostly stronger and muscular in shapes. Moreover, in the “backward” civilization have some practices that shape the human bodies in unnatural ways. Foe example in Burma, the Padaungers (4) have bronze rings circling their necks and legs, as this symbols means beautiful to them. The heavy metals on their bodies made their neck much longer than normal and also add burdens to their shoulders and bring them continuous pain.
And in Burkina Fasso or Ethiopia (5), they practice facial scar, the scars are usually formed when the bearer is a child. Most importantly the facial scar is one of identity of women there. Each tribe that practices this custom has their own particular mark, making it clear which tribe the person belongs to by the markings that they bear. These scars are permanent and once again proven that cultures change the body physically. Despite the civilization, geographical differences also have great impacts in forming cultures and bring physical human body changes.
The differences in regions can lead to distinct daily practice, for examples meals and works that reshape human body, even within the same original background like the north and south in China. As geographical differences have different climate and resources. In the Northern parts in the world, like Russian and Eskimo, they usually have bigger body sizes with well-developed body structures. In contrary in the southern parts for examples Hong Kong and Thailand, races or people living in such areas are way shorter and have a smaller body size. The difference in sizing is due to the climatic characteristics in regions and works of living.
In northern areas, the climate is much cooler and more extreme in low temperatures, so people there have to store more fats and build up stronger bodies to stand for the cold temperature. Also their works of living are always hunting and herding, which requires good physical strengths. On the other hand, the southern parts are much warmer and low relief, which is favorable to agriculture and the weather is more stable than the north, so the storage of fats to keep warm is less necessary. This causes the different of size and shape of bodies in different regions.
Comparing with the changes in culture with different period of time, regional contrary, the emergence of the new city areas and urbanization seem to have a more significant change in human bodies. The new living lifestyles and the innovative ideas of aesthetes and new fashion trend change the perception of the individuals. The emergence of big financial and commercial cities, for examples New York city, Hong Kong, require fast speed and convenience, and this “fast culture” directly affect the meal and diet of these urban areas, and the “fast food culture”(6) is the by-product of the fast pace in the urban areas.
The fast food is prepared and for most of them can be take-away. With the benefits brought, however, these convenient fast foods are usually high calories, low nutrition values and contain high trans-fat. People in the cities who always take these meals are easily getting obese. Take the United States (7) as an example, the obesity rates is alarmingly high. The people who are obese usually have their fats concentrate in the middle of the body, like tummy and hips. The more serious ones would accumulate fats all around the bodies.
More importantly, this kind of obesity is very different to the natural types of obesity, as normally a human kind cannot get this “huge” fat and body size. Ironically, compare to the fast food culture and the obesity caused, starts from late 1980s to 1990s, even to nowadays, the trend of getting slim or even skinny (8) makes women keep out from normal healthy diet, but rather take in the least required energy that can keep them alive or even take medicines to restrict their absorption of fats. Many of them even get anorexia.
The women who have achieved the skinny bodies size very small, with very less fats around their bodies. This trend is severely prevailing in Europe and United States. And to trace the origins of this culture may relate to the fashion culture, as supermodels are required to be so slim to fit the designers’ garments. And via the public media this trend is becoming popular and becomes one of the urban fashion cultures. In this modern era, the changes of human bodies are accompanied by the innovation of technology. As the culture of body reshape and artificial body changes are accepted by more and more people nowadays.
People are going to take artificial body reshape by tattooing, body piercing, or even plastic surgeries (9) both on face and bodies. Although not all the plastic surgeries are for aesthetic purpose, but all of them are used for molding and shaping the body, maybe after serious accident or illnesses, the plastic surgery can shape the bodies to a “better” shape according to the contemporary aesthetic and beauty culture. For examples, in modern societies, “s” shape is the perfect body shape of women, many fashion icons also have “S” shape.
So many women trying to mode their body shapes in order to fit this culture of beauty. Moreover, the pop culture also has strong impacts on youngsters. Many of them will have body piercing and tattoo to intimidate the icons of pop culture. Other street cultures like punk culture also have similar effects on human bodies to have them tattooed and pierced, as these changes in body become the identification of them with the above cultures. All in all, human create culture but also affected by the cultural issues at the same time.
The changes in culture via time, regional differences and changes in urban living affected the shaping and changing the physical form of human beings in all positive, neutral and negative ways. And back to the history to modern times, we can observe that culture is always playing an important part in affecting the physical changes of human. In the future, we believe that culture will still play a critical role in shaping human’s outlook and the trends of unification of culture may bring new effects to the changing of human bodies in the next decades.