The term "body modification" can encompass pretty much any type of physical alteration you can imagine, a large subset of which can also be called "body art". When most people think of body modification, they think of tattoos and piercings, however I tend to think more inclusively. Very common modifications, in my opinion, include makeup (temporary body art) and circumcision. I would also put breast implants and bodybuilding in the same bucket. In popular Western culture, modifications considered more "extreme" might be micro-dermal, trans-dermal and genital implants, non-ear piercings, tongue or genital splitting or cutting, binding, stretching, branding, scarring, tooth filing, ear shaping, nullification (body part removal), etc. The list goes on and on.
I recently watched the 2005 movie "Modify", and was duly impressed. It featured extremely candid footage, interviews and discussions on the topic and it's history. In my opinion, the underlying theme had as much to do with people's acceptance level and perception of body modification as it did with people's reasons for modifying themselves. I would highly recommend this movie if you are curious, although I should warn you that there are some very graphic scenes (like liposuction surgery and penis splitting). The message conveyed is that everyone has a different mental/emotional/cultural/spiritual line distinguishing what is normal or acceptable, and what is extreme or wrong - or even classified as mutilation. What is attractive to me might be considered disgusting to you. Certainly there were things in the movie which I would never consider doing to myself, but far be it for me to stop them from doing it to themselves.
My perception is that my modifications are quite tame. So far, they only include 4 ear piercings (2 on each lobe) and 8 tattoos. All my tattoos are personal to me, which I think is the best kind. I didn't go pick "tattoo #57" off a wall in a tattoo shop, and I wasn't drunk when I got them. And yes, they hurt a little, and I'm glad they did. A "rite of passage" of sorts. You have to earn your ink! My tattoos include, in reverse-chronological order:
- The back of a skeleton, life size matching my shape on my entire back side (head to heals and head to finger tips). So far just the outline is completed.
- My sons' names in script on my right forearm.
- My daughter and ex-wife's names in script on my left forearm.
- A Buddhist endless knot on my left calf.
- A vine wristband around my right wrist.
- A large crow carrying a Native American medicine bag with an infinity symbol on my chest.
- A tribal-like arm band with a guitar in the center around my left bicep.
- An accidental right thumb-stab by an India ink pen in high school art class. Yes, it's permanent, and yes, I consider it my first tattoo. ;)
The only moral rule I have regarding body modification is that it is safely performed and ONLY at the informed choice of the person being modified. This is why I abhor things like breast ironing and female circumcision in cultures where young girls are being put through such torture. Similarly, although I am a circumcised male, my boys' mother and I chose not to circumcise them when they were born. We felt that if someday - if they choose it for themselves - they can have it done under their own free will. (We feel the same way about not forcing any particular religion on our sons and daughter. It has to be a personal choice of theirs which we will respect.)
Forced modifications aside, why do people choose to modify their bodies? For some, the response might be related to self-image or peer acceptance, for others, affiliation or identification with a group or philosophy, others, remembrance of an important person or event, still others, they find it artistically or aesthetically pleasing, and so on. But there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and I truly believe that to know for sure you're gonna have to ask the people themselves. In most cases, they will be more than happy to talk to you about it.