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Modification or mutilation

Modification or Mutilation?


People always say, "never judge a book by its cover," but a first impression is a different story. When meeting a person for the first time image is everything, almost as if the person is a product. Although one cannot tell a book by its cover, we often look to physical appearance to give us clues about a person’s sanity, morality, intelligence, and abilities. Because appearance can be a fairly reliable indicator of one’s behavior, it is no surprise that in society physical image is very important. Today people can change any aspect of themselves; their clothing, hair, teeth, face, and body. Most of these changes are met with a level of tolerance, some more socially expectable than others. Taking action to change one’s appearance is often approved or at least accepted as a way of retaining youth, keeping current with the times, or boosting of one’s self-esteem. However, when a person chooses to make a radical change that may be quite original and or go against society’s!

standards, there is usually some sort of backlash. This is seen currently with the trend of body piercing, tattoos, branding, and other forms of body adornment. These forms of body adornment are seen by the larger part of Western society as mutilation to ones’ self. More conservative people feel that the set rends are new and have never seen things such as these before. Therefore, assuming that these altercations to ones shell is wrong, immoral, and just plain destructive. However, such trends are not new, they are in fact a timely tradition commonly used throughout the ages. Body piercing, tattoos, and other forms of body ornamentation have been used for years among indigenous people globally. Inquiring the answers of why individuals in many societies may choose, for various reasons, to alter their appearance in specific ways and to suffer physical pain or social disapproval for doing produces many answers.

In contemporary Western society, people who alter their appearance in socially provocative ways are typically youths, and because youths are essentially the future of society it is potentially revelatory to examine why so many deliberately choose to separate themselves from the population at large. Does norm-defying ornamentation fulfill some psychological need unmet by contemporary society? Are certain forms of body ornamentation indicative of unhealthy, antisocial, or even evil influences as some

detractors contend? If these fears or opinions have any basis in reality, should society as

a whole fear the future?

Addressing such questions, first and for most the myths must be extinguished. One should first realize that tattoos are not new, nor are they necessarily a frivolous practice. People today take part in body piercing, tattoos, and other forms of ornamentation seeking a new aesthetic for personal expression. Society’s standard what for is beautiful is not attainable for most human beings. Body ornamentation provides an attainable alternative to that standard. It can easily be argued that body ornamentation and manipulation are ancient practices among indigenous people internationally and that the resurgence of these practices in modern industrial culture reflects the same psychological purposes, which involve the pursuit of self-esteem, social identity, and spirituality. Other opinions may reflect differently however. Some believe these "new wave" rituals are a reflection of rebellion in the angry youth of America. This paper will discuss examples of tattooing, branding, scarification, body piercing, and other forms of body ornamentation and manipulation; while portraying a dual sided argument.


Body modification has been around since the dawn of man, and has played a major part of Eastern culture and many others, yet it is looked down upon and even considered a form of mutilation by Western civilization. Everyone has seen pictures of different tribal people with stretched earlobes, and it is done the same in South America; the Aztecs and Mayans were into it, and you can see sculptures and paintings of Tibetan Buddhists with stretched earlobes (Evenson). Not only were earlobes stretching common, more extreme things were performed. Just a few examples are; the process of sloping foreheads, the stretching of the upper and lower lips, and even the most excruciating genitalia mutilation! These traditions, though some have disappeared through time, are cross-cultural and very universally consistent across the world.

The history of body modification dates back to when man first started forming tribes. Cultures that practice piercing, scarring, tattooing and other radical body manipulations believe that a person is not fully human and can not exercise the innate abilities that distinguish humans from other animals if the body is not properly adorned or altered. Landow notes that: "scarification and other forms of body decoration were traditionally considered marks of civilization." Tribes such as the Baifi of the Cameroons say, "A man who is not scarred looks like a pig or a chimpanzee" as well as the Cadureo Indians that say "An unpainted body is a stupid body" (The’voz, 1984, p. 50). From these statements one can see that body modification has more of a purpose then just appearance, but it is symbol of civilization. With all this said, peoples till have mixed reviews on the subject. Some still call it nothing more then a form of rebellion, and a trend that will die out soon. While more and more others embrace it for the beauty and history it possesses, which is apparently helping the growth of this new/old phenomenon in the western societies.

When tattooing came to America in the late1800s, it was the elite that brought it over here from France, and England and from Japan (Willis). Some commoners adored these new markings only worn by the exotic and rich; while other thought it was only the devil work at hand. Sooner than later, these thoughts and the practice of body modification fell out of popularity. Up until the late twentieth century body modifications were mainly seen as unclean, anti-religious, meant for the drunken sailor and the dirty biker gangs (Catalano). Another main reason for the hatred aimed toward body modifications, especially tattooing, is the connection to crime. Gangs have tattoos, and tattoos are associated with crime and jails, everything scary to the common housewife or middle American. So it is an easy thing to see why the idea of body modifications is so appalling to the average person.

Western Culture

In terms of the world Western society is a conservative one, especially America.

Nudity, sexual freedom, and yes even body alterations are highly conservative issues in America. In the nineteen fifties a girl having each ear pierced was okay, but not at a young age. In those times it was unheard of for a young man to have any type of ear piercing. Society has once again proved the times do change and so do the standards of society. Most Western cultures have looked down upon some sort of body modification and the people who support it throughout time. Sometimes the persecutions of these people who love their modifications have disturbed their lives in many ways. More often then not a person with piercing, ears excluded, or a visible tattoo are often shunned from jobs or in some cases social events (Beaker). In an interview with a manager of radio shack he stated that "It’s not that I mind it at all, but there are a lot of my customers who have somewhat biased opinions about people who have body art"(Body Art). How do the pierced and tattooed find e!

mployment with this kind of prejudice running rampant among employers. Crystal Beitman, a student at PVCC, says "Ever since I got my septum pierced I have had more then a hard time finding work. Despite the fact I have experience, most of them don't even seem to look at my applications." One may even be brought to the conclusion that sacrificing their love for body art is the only way to be "accepted" in Corporate America(Body Art). Others just limit their love, by taking precautions for the chance to succeed in the corporate world. This is often done by only modifying areas of the body easily covered. Anne Harris a student with five tattoos has them all hidden when wearing a simple T-shirt. She states, " I love my tattoos, and I wish I could get more, but I have to look responsible for my job and everyday life." And in some cases a person may just be too afraid of the consequences, whether from family or public, to even experience body modification.

Choosing the Pain or Not

Whether to stand out in a crowd or to accentuate ones favorite asset body art is always backed by a "justifiable" reason to the new owner of the art. Body modification for the most part is used to express ones self and to enhance ones own appearance. When people with modifications where asked why, the answers vary from it just cool to a spiritual feeling. Yet, when a person who disagrees with piercing is asked why do you think, the answer rarely changed. The answer given was somewhere along the lines of, to be different. Yes, in some case the reason of a modification is the appeal of standing out in a crown, but in research found more people seem to have a reason than no reason at all (Catalano). Some of the most dye hard fans claim they love the pain and the rush it gives them. Others say it started off small, then grew into an "addiction" that has even grown larger into a lifestyle. People mainly fond of tattooing or scarification see themselves as large canvases waited to be painted (Flash that’s). Sometimes it is forgotten that plastic surgery is just as much of body modification as having a pierced nose. People who undergo the knife to be beautiful also have their reasons, whether it be to look younger or to remove a little of unwanted this and a little unwanted that. Yet plastic surgery is the most accepted out of all other forms.

Though some plastic surgery procedures are detectable to the eye, most are not, so it is easy to see why they are accepted more so than other body modifications. Yet, even with the standard reasons for plastic surgery being excepted, most other body modifiers cannot understand the reason. They see it as all the same; someone wants breast implants, and someone wants an industrial in their ear, why should either one be grounds for discrepancies in someone’s personality? Employers can see this very differently though. If a store is owned and your cliental consists of senior citizens it would be unwise to hire a young person with something sticking out of their face. This is a strong example of a generation gap, elderly people were rarely exposed to such things; therefore could be easily intimidated by it. While plastic surgery would rarely come into play regarding employment. Also some people may see a showing tattoo or an exposed body piercing a gross, unsanitary, and e!

ven ill moral.

As stated in earlier paragraph body modification is being done by youths to help differentiate themselves from the norm and to be disobedient to there parents. Well there is also one more very distance reason body modification has become so popular among

teens and young adults. It has become to and extent a rite of passage, very similar to the ceremonies used by tribes (The’voz). When a adolescent can not tell if they are coming or going, and the only thing they do know is that they want to be separated from there parents.

"People are searching for something spiritual. They feel the need to explore the whole primitive experience. They're getting tattoos of symbols and spiritual icons as a way to express who they are. They want to reach a graphic state, a connection with their personal totems (Flash that‘s)."

There is not a pacific time in every persons life that they become an adult and are separated from there parents. With the way society is run now a days a person may not be like an adult till they are thirty years of age. There has never truly been a rite of passage used in western civilization (Catalano). For student in particular body art is a way of creating a rite of passage so to speak, something that is missing in our society. That right is given to us at the age of adult hood; eighteen is the legal age in most states to properly go and get a piercing and a tattoo.

Religion plays a large role in body modification, well not so much in the United States, but in just about every other country it dose. With the United States barring a mostly Christianity based population there is no surprise body modification has such a difficult time being accepted. Many Western religions see body modification as destruction of the temple or ones body, this in fact being a sin. What can one really expect when the Bible preaching lines such as Leviticus chapter 19, verse 28, which says: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD". However, this is also the same chapter that stats we can not eat "meet with blood still in it" or where clothes made of "mixed linen and wool (Body Piercing)." How can any rule in this chapter hold up with societies standards today. For some reason or another people seem to look passed the rules they do not like and dwell on the rules they do. This resorts in a major bias for the odd creations of body modification. Which in large creates the question that only an individual can decide; whether to under go a modification or not. So if one chooses to there are place they can work , live, and be accepted.

The Church

Where do young adults find acceptance in this day and age, after they have been shunned by society as well as by their parents. The Church of Body Modification is an open door to those who have experienced the difficulties of prejudice in society. The Church of Body Modification is a Phoenix based organization that’s soul purpose is to increase awareness, public understanding and acceptance of those who practice body modification (Hibberd). The Church welcomes anybody with piercing , branding, and implants; for a small donation of course. The Church is run by Beki Buelow, a fetish clothing model, the fiancee of Steve Haworth. Steven Haworth is the goru of body modification, labeled "Most Successful Body Piercer" by the Guinness World Records (Hibberd). Yet, this is no ordinary church, there will be no hymns sung here, not even praise to a God. The church is a place were Haworth has taken body modification to new levels and is always surpassing himself as far as extreme body modification goes. The church is run in a small office building in downtown Phoenix and is financed strictly on donations. Anybody with a love for body modification, and a few extra donation dollars, is greeted with open arms.

Haworth has taken his obscene flesh artistry to disturbing new extremes, creating human modification so radical that critics accuse him of "unethical home surgery" (Hibberd). In 1995, Haworth successfully transplanted threaded implants through the scalp of Joe Aylward, a resident in Phoenix. The threads allowed Joe to screw spikes into is head creating the first metal mohawk. Recently a Church member had a doughnut like hole cut into his scrotum because "I wanted to be able to stick my finger through it (Hibberd)." Haworth also hosts suspensions in his own backyard patio for the members of the church. Suspension is where a person had eight to twelve hooks placed in there body, so they can then be lifted off the ground by the hooks, hence the name suspension. "I am proud that these people come to me and ask me to guide their journey," Haworth says. "It‘s not a sadistic kind of thing." Some would appose this statement saying what journey; it seems to be self mutilation at th!

e highest degree, and not even for beauty, but for mutilation purposes.

Despite how many followers Haworth may have there is still a few that disagree with how he publicizes body modification. Frakir Musafar, publisher of Body Play magazine, says negative consequences should be expected from the way the Church of Body Modification conducts its suspension (Hibberd). Musafar says:

"I feel strongly that one must honor the tradition, spirituality and purposes of the ritual in the cultures from which they were taken, not cheaply exploited them for exhibitionism. Suspension and similar body rituals are not art. this is magic... You don’t do this to show other people how brave you are. An out-of-body experience takes ten to twelve hours, not thirty to sixty minutes (Hibberd)."

Though some still believe Haworth over Musafar, most people are horrified by the idea of suspension at all. The pain of hanging by hooks sends chills down the "normal" persons back. These rituals are socially also considered insane. In the movie The Cell a psychopathic serial killer used the method of suspension as a sexual fetish. This is another example of society creating a myth out of a longstanding rite of passage. Haworth’s ideas of modification are disturbing not only those with weak stomachs. The Health Care world is disturbed by the not so "surgical" procedures. Many people are complaining these procedures are surgical, consisting of implants under the skin to splicing of the genitalia.

Safety and Laws

Piercing and tattoos come in all shapes and sizes and can be placed just about anywhere on the body. There is only one thing that is for sure, your parents will hate it. This may very well be the most common reasoning behind body modification in youths, but by the far not the only reason. Parents often look at it as a form of rebellion much like there parents looked at them in the 60’s and70’s. When a parent’s sixteen year old son/daughter walks in the door with a nose ring for the first time, there action of the parent is often "what did you do" and followed up with "who did that to you". With the complaints from worried parents, many new laws have come into play. Now in over 50% of the states it is now a requirement to have ones parent with them to receive any form of body modification if the subject is under the age of eighteen (Bod Mod Laws). The adult supervision helps parents keep a limit to the amount of piercing or other visual art done to their child. Some states have even made the required age twenty-one (Bod Mod Laws). No matter how much parents dislike body modification and no matter how many laws they may enforce against it, one thing is for sure it has become a part of this generation’s culture. This is the way the new generation has chosen to express themselves as unique individuals.

The cultural status of tattooing and other forms of body modification has steadily evolved from that of and anti-social activity in the 1960’sto becoming a trendy fashion statement in the 1990’s to post modern trends now. Body modification today is the sixth fastest growing retail business in the United States. Although body modification is just know gradually becoming accepted among society there are still those who appose it for its over the edge look and its unarguable way’s that it goes against the so called "norms" of society. States are being forced to alter their attitudes and laws in response to changing cultural status and popularity of visual body art. Without these law changes and expectations, there would be a lot of illegal piercing done to under aged kids. These are the problems that are society has among the visual art. Society has not yet looked at the cultural back ground that visual art displays. This is art that has historic significance and symbolic symbols.

When one treats there body as a Canvas safety must always be taken into account. As with any form of body modification there will always be some chance of heath risk. Heath risks are more likely to accrue with piercing then tattooing, but both carry risk of infection (CNN). Most infections are usually caused by person being pierced not the person doing the piercing. If one fails to follow the aftercare rules it is there own fault if it becomes infected. Where one chooses to go to become modified is just as important as the aftercare. When looking for a tattoo or piercing studio one can never be too careful.

A studios reputation as well as the materials they use should all be taken into account when searching for a location (CNN).

The growing population of piercing studios has helped bring the use of surgical needles instead of the inhuman ear piercing guns. Ear piercing guns are the leading cause of infection and scarring of the body part being pierced. Though, even with the use of a needle there is always some amount of scaring. The Association of Professional Piercers says:

"The jewelry used in these guns (ear-piercing guns) are usually steel, plated with gold, and frequently under-plated with nickel or copper. This can result in a metal reaction and infection for the piercee when the thin plating chips off. Furthermore, rather than being pierced with a surgically sharp needle, the tissue is brutally torn by the blunt backing of the stud. This is not an easier way to be pierced. The style of jewelry is less than ideal for even earlobes, but on other body parts, it can be dangerous, debilitating and permanently scarring. It is not unlikely that the body part pierced with an ear stud may lose all nerve sensitivity. For all these reasons, the APP is strictly opposed to the use of ear piercing guns (Germanaro)."

Going to a professional piercer may cost more but as far as safety and sterilization is concerned it is well worth it. A note to remember nothing is perfectly safe, and if body modifications were any different, than there would be no restriction on donating blood after under going a modification process. Other health issues may occur of course, but it is to be expected when something of the sort is introduced to the sensitive tissues of the body. Reasoned facts show that there are even more risks involved with plastic surgery then with any other form of body modification.


Body modification has been around since the dawn of man, and has played a major part of Eastern culture, yet it is looked down upon and even considered a form of mutilation by Western civilization. The trend of body modification among members of western societies may be relatively new but the art of body modification is still one of the oldest forms of art known to man. Body modification may still be far from mainstream and is still anything but accepted by our culture. With body modification becoming so popular with anybody from teenagers to grandparents, it is just a matter of time before it goes mainstream and is accepted just as a normal piece of clothing. Although not every person with a tattoo or piercing may know or even care about the origin of its beginning or symbolism; that doesn’t make the art any less valuable tot he person it belongs to. Whether people know it or not these practices have historic value as well as psychological and cultural meanings that are significant and worthy of attention. Just like the wave of the clothing trends that sweep by us and are accepted sooner or later so will the visual art of body modifications. Sooner or later, at this growing rate, even the most extreme alteration will just seem like a girl with pierced ears. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and beauty is constantly changing.


Beaker. "Body Mod, Meritocracy, and selling out.",pob, date, 11/7/2001,

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