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When animals undergo metamorphosis, there is no doubt about their transformation. A pollywog that turns into a frog will never be mistaken for a little minnow again.  For human beings, processes of transformation are often not so clear. Our identities are defined by our elaborate social relationships and by our complex psychological makeup as much as by our physical appearances.  So, a person could undergo a revolutionary shift in identity without any change in the way they look.  Certainly, our bodies respond only in subtle ways to our social and psychological transformations.

Ambiguities of status are threatening to the social order. So, people have devised a remarkable number of ways in which to create visual signals of status. These signals are delivered as initiates prepare to leave the ritual threshold, and are awarded only after tests of worthiness.

These marks of passage may be presented as trophies, but they may also take the form of clothing or objects that are required to fulfill the duties of the new identity adopted after ritual. Such things may be given under the pretext of functional value, but they also operate as cues of status.

maori tattooSometimes, though the human body rarely changes its appearance in response to shifts of status, rituals involve the purposeful alteration of the body to represent the inner change. Traditionally, people have undergone piercing, tattooing, scarification, and even the removal of small body parts as a part of such ritual marking.

These marks exist are for others to see, but also serve as reminders to the self. The threshold experience of ritual stands apart from other reality, and so could be easily forgotten. Even when ritual successfully alters a person’s identity, regression can take place. Especially during the stage when the initiated integrate the behaviors associated with their new, post-ritual identities, markers help prevent this kind of backsliding from taking place. They help the initiated feel the part, until the new role comes naturally to them, through practice.

Justine Musk explains how the use of these ritual-associated objects can support a fledgling identity, writing, “When you stock your context with the proper cues, you don’t have to consciously decide how to react; your subconscious will take care of that for you.” Musk explores the way that the clothes we wear support the identities we seek to embody.  It’s a concept called enclothed cognition, and it’s just one more example of the way that our thoughts are modeled from the outside-in as much as from the inside-out. Someties, we become what we at first only appear to be.

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