Scarification, an ancient practice based on decorating the skin with artistic scars, is being revived in advanced societies. It is an extreme fashion, of minority interest, for which legislation is lacking depite the adverse affects on health. What is it? How does it affect the skin? Is it more harmful than a tattoo or piercing? How far can humans get to express their emotions?
Tattoos, perforations, deformations – since ancient times, humans have modified the body to express individual, cultural and social aspects of their identity, often with the result that they convert their bodies into artistic creations. In contemporary societies, body art includes everything from widespread practices such as body painting, tattoos and piercings, to more extreme and less popular fashions, such as scarification, or decorative scarring.
Medical professionals, however, warn that some of these trends, which are gaining popularity, most especially among the young, may have important health implications. Scarification damages the skin and prevents its proper functioning as a vital organ. This reality is aggravated by the lack of specific studies and regulations governing the practice.
The revival of an ancient practice
Scarification, considered one of the oldest tattoo techniques, has been practised down the centuries and millennia. Anthropologists and sociologists have described how, in ancient cultures of America (the Maya, for example), Africa (the Yoruba and others) and Oceania (the Maori), people used, and in some cases still use, scarification for religious rituals or to enhance their attractiveness or declare rank or membership in a social group.
Scarification has been revived in advanced societies, among a minority, as an extreme – that is, painful and dangerous – form of modifying and beautifying the body using scars. Geometric patterns, drawings and letters, that is shapes and designs, are no longer the ancestral ones but are personally chosen by the people who decide to modify their skin with this aggressive practice.
The fashion apparently emerged in San Francisco (USA) in the mid-1980s among gay and lesbian subcultures, then spread, from around 1990, to “neoprimitive” movements of people interested in reviving ancestral tribal techniques with a view to living a more authentic or more mystical experience of their bodies. Fortunately, this trend has not achieved the popularity of tattoos or piercings anywhere in the world.
Very aggressive techniques
The most common scarification techniques are cutting, based on making cuts using sharp instruments that penetrate to the middle layer of the skin (the dermis), and branding, in which hot metal is used to cause burns. Greater detail can be had from online blogs that explain scarification methods and procedures in terms of the required aesthetic effect.
Scarification as a technicque is imprecise, as many variables make the outcome unpredictable in terms of both risks and aesthetics, e.g., skin type, depth of the cut, temperature and duration of the burn, area of the body, subsequent treatment of the wound, etc. Moreover, as scars tend to spread over time, the designs need ideally to be both simple and large.
Scars: traumatized skin
To be able to “sport” a scar you need to first cause sufficiently deep wounds, and this is where skin health problems may start.
The skin, the largest organ in the body, has many vital functions, including the touch mechanism for perception and protection. Scarring is the way our skin repairs itself. But if the injuries are severe, the skin will not only remain marked, it will no longer be able to properly carry out its essential functions.
A scar is visible because the skin tissue, unlike the tissue in healthy skin, does not regenerate. The damaged skin is not replaced by healthy skin; instead a thin layer of tissue without blood vessels develops in the affected area. The result is the irreversible absence of fundamental elements in the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis), namely, nerve endings and the glands secreting the sebum and sweat that protect the skin and regulates body temperature.
Since the goal of scarification is lasting and visible scars, burns and cuts have to be deep, which also means a permanent loss of sensation in the decorated areas.
Scarification, tattooing and piercing
The fact that tattoos and piercings have become so popular has resulted in research and in technologies and regulations that minimize health risks. In contrast, scarification is a more extreme, but also less safe, form of body modification. As a relatively recent fashion of minority interest, no studies have been conducted or regulations have been developed that govern its practice. In fact, in many countries scarification is technically illegal because the use of scalpels is restricted by law to doctors and surgeons. Not to speak of branding irons!
Social and artistic criteria aside, and over and above possible complications such as infections and severe allergic reactions, from a skin health standpoint scarification is a practice to be avoided.
By Violeta Camarasa, science journalist
Source: The Healthy Skin Blog