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What a good idea for a book, one feels, perusing Australian anthropologist Robert Brain's survey of what people have done to their bodies for the sake of sex, caste, class, age, magic, religion, emotion, fashion. This is the body language of cosmetics and paint, tattoo and mutilation, head moldings and body shapings, ornaments and decoration--all splendidly illustrated with color and black-and-white plates. The text is old-fashioned descriptive anthropology with explanations of what is done to whom and how. One learns, for example, that the Japanese male must maintain tumescence for long periods while undergoing painful tattooing of the penis. The Japanese and Polynesians, it emerges, raised tattoo to a high art, with elegant whole body designs, and, in the case of the Japanese, elaborate inlaying of delicate colors. As to the why, Brain is eclectic rather than didactic, reporting what the natives say, and noting that there are usually many levels of meaning attached to body decor. The need to alter the natural body is universal, he maintains--and, in particular, he sees some universality in the use of red, black, and white. Red is commonly associated with blood, and hence life and vigor; black with death, danger, shame, defecation, but also intimidation; white with spirituality, purity, ghosts. (The Chinese use of white for mourning is not exceptional, he feds; the color may signify hope, or ancestors, or spirits.) While he properly points out that Westerners are hardly exempt from cosmetic rites and rituals--and indeed are obsessed with beauty culture--he pontificates here, exaggerating the use of plastic surgery, for example, or making facile remarks about conditions like anorexia nervosa. The book's chapter divisions--The Painted Body, The Tattooed Body, The Social Body, The Religious Body--give the text a somewhat confusing catalogue quality, and there are frequent jumps from one culture to another. This is nonetheless a fascinating contribution to cultural anthropology, at once fresh and timely.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Harper & Row