Hair, teeth and ashes: keeping hold of body parts and body prostheses
On a recent visit to my parents’ house, one of my children discovered a small heart-shaped pot that I have had since I was a teenager. Recalling that this is where I used to put jewellery when I was a sixth former and at university, I was interested to see what was in it. I had rarely, if ever, opened it in the last 13 years. Used as a storage space frequently between the ages of 16 and 22, the box is like a time capsule, providing vivid reminders of becoming an adult and experimenting with dressing up. The items in there are not, in themselves, cherished; they include earrings (often only 1 of a pair), necklaces I would never wear again, and amongst this a few (used) fake nails. If I wasn’t doing this research project, I would probably have binned the false stick-on nails instantly. As it is, I have kept them in there; they are part of that time of my life, and evoke bodily experiences that would otherwise be lost.
These false nails in my own possessions are examples of an important category of objects within the wider dormant things project: things that fall at the boundaries of bodies. These include former body parts such as hair (such as an old plait as a reminder of a former self), children’s hair from a first hair cut, children’s milk teeth, participants’ own milk teeth generously (!) given by their parents, and the ashes of the deceased. Even more people kept hold of things that were body prostheses such as crutches, a wig for a period of hair loss and old glasses. So why do we keep these things? Many people seem to be ‘freaked out by’ or repulsed by these things (such as teeth!) even when they continue to keep hold of them. We may feel unable to get rid of something that was once part of our body, or as these things capture a moment that is lost, and a body that has changed. In the case of glasses, we perhaps feel unable to get rid of something that has been so central to our bodies, as part of the aesthetics of our appearance, and mediating our vision from when we wake up to when we go to bed. These types of objects all change our bodies, by helping us to see, extending our fingers, how we walk or use our bodies. As part of the body, or extensions of it, they may also powerfully evoke the bodies of others.
One of the arguments of material culture studies is that there is no impermeable boundary between things and people, as our sense of self, our bodies are partly constituted by things such as clothing and glasses. Things become part of our extended bodily self. When teeth fall out, or hair is cut off, the opposite happens – body parts become things. They still powerfully evoke those bodies. Objects that were once part of our/someone else’s body open up the ways in which dormant things sitting in a drawer, box or attic are still vibrant and alive. The hair will not carry on growing but these things are still vital and alive.
(*I am currently working these ideas into a journal article. In the meantime any ideas used must be referenced back to this webpage. I am still looking for more body parts stories so please submit your story!*)