Cultural anthropologists commonly understand the human body to be “pre-cultural” in that an individual has a physical body before s/he has culture. Despite this, the way in which people discuss or, as will be the focus of this paper, adorn the body is very much a product of culture. Consider the wedding ring. It represents that an individual is in a committed relationship with another individual. This understanding appears to be fairly consistent across the cultures that participate in the wedding ring tradition. While the meaning behind the ring might be consistent, how the ring is worn is not as universal. In India married women often choose to wear their wedding band on their toes rather than on their “ring” fingers like women in the United States. It is also not common to see a man wearing a wedding band in the majority of the world. With this in mind let us consider that men in the United States join their wives in wearing wedding rings.
A cultural evolutionist, assuming they are from the United Sates, would likely argue the United States to be culturally superior to other cultures in which men do not participate in wearing a wedding band. From his armchair he might suggest that the wearing of a ring by both the man and the woman shows a level of equality between the two sexes not present in the other cultures. This is particularly important to him because sex/gender equality is a measurement of civilization in the United States. He might even go as far as to suggest, by using his culture as the standard for all, that women in the other cultures are seen as property to their husbands and that the ring is a symbol of ownership.
A Boasian cultural anthropologist on the other hand would consider the historical particularism of the development of American culture compared to that of the other wedding ring wearing cultures in which only the woman wears a ring. Franz Boas would likely explain the United States to be a progressively equal society: women participate in male activities and men participate in female activities. A man is free to wear jewelry, at the very least a wedding ring, in American culture without having his heterosexuality questioned. He would also examine when and how men in the United States began to wear wedding bans. He would find that during WWII many men took the rings of their wives with them when deployed as a reminder of home. After WWII jewelry companies began advertising matching ring sets – one for the man and one for the woman (Howard 2003). The concept took off and the double ring ceremony in which both the woman and man wear a wedding band became common culture. This did not happen in other countries and is thus unique to American culture.
Men in the United States adorn their bodies with wedding rings when married unlike other cultures. These two anthropological perspectives attempt to explain why this might be.
Howard, Vicki (2003). “A ‘Real Man’s Ring’: Gender and the Invention of Tradition”. Journal of Social History 36 (4): 837–856.