The Body Modified

Tattoo artists Deafy and Stella Grassman, early 1930s

I am a woman with tattooed arms and a face full of piercings. My ‘body modifications’ receive many compliments, but they also attract criticism. Most often, this criticism takes the form of unsolicited ‘advice’ from men, who tell me how attractive I would look if only I had fewer body modifications. Once, whilst I was at work, a man even asked me why I had ‘ruined a pretty face’ with piercings.

My experiences are anecdotal, but the opinions of the men I encounter are not dissimilar to those found in many academic works on body modification. In dress histories, tattoos, piercings, and associated body modifications are frequently described as forms of ‘mutilation’ – that is, the infliction of a violent and disfiguring injury. This definition has filtered into common parlance, with legal and social consequences. For instance, a number of practitioners of more extreme body modifications – such as tongue splitting – have recently faced charges of grievous bodily harm, despite the consent of their clients. Tattoos and piercings might not be deemed harmful in quite the same way, but they are often viewed as indistinct from more extreme procedures because Westerners have been taught to consider all modifications as (‘primitive’ and lower class) mutilations. Consequently, the perception that they ‘ruin’ one’s appearance is pervasive.

Medical studies which question whether there is a connection between body modification and mental illness have also had an insidious effect on public opinion, especially in regards to female body modification. Perhaps arising from the historical association of women with both adornment and hysteria, there now exists a stereotype of the modified woman as mentally unstable. If not certifiable, she is at least aberrant in some way (although the extent to which modified women with an appearance such as mine – white, skinny, and blonde – can actually be considered aberrant is debatable).

As such, I often feel frustrated when people ask, ‘But what do your tattoos mean?’ This question might seem innocuous, but it is effectively asking one to justify their modifications. In other words, ‘Why do that to your body?’ Taken to its extreme, this line of questioning then leads to the kind of intrusive, gendered comments that I have experienced. In turn, the notion that body modifications must be meaningful to be acceptable results in the bourgeois dismissal of any modification which does not have some significance to render it ‘refined’.

Such negative perceptions of body modifications have contributed to the argument that modified people should not be surprised if employers refuse to hire them based on appearance, especially since modifications are a choice. Yet, most forms of bodily adornment are a choice. In this way, getting a tattoo or a piercing is really not so different to, say, dyeing one’s hair, putting on deodorant, or using shape wear. That is to say, as dressed bodies, every alteration or addition to our anatomies is a body modification in one way or another.