Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Body Modification

If I remember correctly, the first big fight I had with my (soon to be) ex-wife was over a tattoo. This was probably 17 years ago, while we were dating and still in college. The tattoo was innocent enough, but the problem was more about her not having a say in me getting it than the tattoo itself. We ended up working through it, and eventually I got more and more tattoos with no issue, as did she. At the end of the day, we agreed our bodies are our own, and we can do to them as we want. That doesn't mean we won't be judged for our modifications, however...

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:
  1. 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.
  2. My sons' names in script on my right forearm.
  3. My daughter and ex-wife's names in script on my left forearm.
  4. A Buddhist endless knot on my left calf.
  5. A vine wristband around my right wrist.
  6. A large crow carrying a Native American medicine bag with an infinity symbol on my chest.
  7. A tribal-like arm band with a guitar in the center around my left bicep.
  8. 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. ;)
I already have my next tattoo in mind after the skeleton is shaded/darkened/styled, which will probably take quite a long time. The thing about tattoos is that once you get your first (once the ink is "in your blood"), you will start craving your next, then next, then next. After that, I am seriously considering starting to get some branding done. No specific designs yet, however.

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.


  1. I enjoyed reading this, Dave. I learned a lot about tatoos from my daughter who abhors tatoos that are "stickers". For her they are an very spiritual activity.

  2. Thanks, Clare! And yes, I can relate to the spiritual significance.

  3. Yeah, I don't think I ever heard about the significance (to you) of the crow with the medicine bag. I'd like to hear about it sometime, either here or elsewhere. That one and the endless knot are my favorites.

  4. Tattoo update: I've had a couple of shading sessions on my skeleton done. Work has been done on my head, back, arms and hands. It's coming along nicely!

    Piercing update: I got my left ear double-pierced with a long industrial barbell, my right hear single-pierced with a short barbell, and my septum pierced, also with a barbell. I then replaced my existing four ear lobe piercings (two in each) with matching hoop barbells. Everything silver, of course. Work impressively done by Jason Morninstar of Primitive Impressions: http://www.primitiveimpressions.com

  5. Tattoo update: Skeleton tattoo almost done. Just one, maybe two sessions left to go.

    Piercing update: A new, matching nose-bridge piercing.

    Branding update: Putting a design together...