The last decade has seen a dramatic rise in spectacular forms of body modification, including the tattoo renaissance and the phenomena of body piercing, the emergence of neo-tribal practices like scarification and the invention of new, high-tech forms of body art like sub-dermal implants. Therefore, body modification practices have proven to be an interesting field of study for sociologists interested in deviance, social control, and the social construction of problematic behaviour.
Much of the sociological research and literature into these practices fits within the symbolic interaction tradition, focusing specifically on the ways that people define body modification, and whether or not they perceive it as being scary or beautiful, dangerous or alluring, rebellious or inclusive. This essay explores the connections between body modification and deviance and seeks to identify whether physical alterations of the body are a rite of passage, a group identifier, or a mechanism of negative sanctioning and social control, believed to be key elements in the social construction of deviant self-identities.
The origins of the cultural trend of body modification, unlike those of nearly all other fads, are thousands of years old. Ever since our Neolithic ancestors invented art tens of thousands of years ago, humans have been decorating the human body, as it is the most intimate of canvas (Siebers 2000, p. 212). Most sociological theory about body modification is framed in discussions of labelling and differential association orientations which explain social definitions and the processes through which body modifiers learn how to be successful in changing the ways their bodies look to themselves, and to those with whom they come in contact.
The cause of controversy surrounding the issues of tattooing and piercings is directly rooted in the message that these forms of body modification present. The one essential feature all of these deviants share is visibility; they are all, by definition, overt deviants whose rule breaking is immediately apparent. Their deviance is rooted, not in what they have done, or even who they are, but in how they appear (Heitzeg 1996, p.358), therefore, this type of deviance is highly diverse with regard to the how and why of rule breaking.
In modern contexts, body modification practices can be seen as symbolic as they represent the death of conventional beauty standards and the rebirth of new ideals of attractiveness by challenging the classical ideal of the skin as ‘a pristine smooth closed envelope for the self’ (Pitts 2003, p.92). Hence, when a person submits the body to the modification process, it damages the skins basic structure and its integrity, which contradicts the western notion of the body as fixed and unchanging.
The fact that Western society is not overtly tribal or strictly racially segregated (Atkinson 2003, p. 99) is perhaps one of the reasons why the importance of bodily appearance in constructing social identity is regarded so suspiciously. Western civilisation has no history of group body modification (Miller 2004, p. 61), and where we have encountered it in others, it has often been regarded as evidence of primitivism and savagery, with efforts made to eradicate it as part of the ‘civilisation’ process.
In western culture, body modification practices have been shunned and outcast as the marks of Satan (Miller 2004, p.37) and traditionally, the Christian body was only marked as a sign of shame. In the last few centuries however, these fallacies have subsided to thoughts of mere loathing of any permanent defacing of a person’s body and it has been argued that body modification is ‘no more than just attention seeking self-mutilation, in which only heathens and criminals engage’ (Jones 1998, p. 89).
The debates concerning body modification and self-mutilation often suggest that individuals who choose to decorate their bodies through tattooing and piercing are driven by harmful impulses that they cannot understand and do not control. Though many view these forms of body modification as sin and are loath to initiate any permanent modifications beyond those dictated by nature and necessity, others feel that it is a historical footnote about the cultural identity of this era.
Though the desire to mark the body does emanate from the inner sense of self, it does not necessarily read as an intentional act of harm to the individual self (Miller 2004, p. 102). Body modification, despite its interest in intervening with the physical flesh and creating blood, scars, holes and scars, actually is not a violent practice. Individuals partaking in such body modifications such as piercing and tattooing can be seen to be taking a kind of libertarian attitude towards their bodies as these acts of personal choice that demonstrate social independence. Vale & Juno (1999, p.8) believe that amidst an almost universal feeling of powerlessness to ‘change the world’, individuals are changing what they do have power over, their own bodies.
Through various forms of body decoration, individuals attempt to resolve ‘ontological insecurities of modernism by deliberate self-identification’ (Pitts 2003, p.113). These are acts of personal choice that demonstrate social independence. The wilful act of modifying one’s body is not a passive, but a deliberate and successful attempt to direct the gaze of society where the individual chooses. In essence, tattooing and piercing puts control into the hands of the individual; control over their body and control over the objectified body, liberating it with alternative forms of power. Within the realms of body modification, you can take control of what you otherwise could not (Vale & Juno 1999, p. 82).
Individuals engage in body modification through piercing and tattooing to challenge personal and social invisibility while also adding cultural capital to the body’s surface (Hewitt 1997, p. 112). In part people are using their bodies to reject homogenisation of popular capitalist culture. In an era in which large multi-national corporations dominate the socio-economic landscape, tattoos and piercings cannot be mass produced. They are a personal expression of one’s self. Body modification, through ink and flesh, as well as piercing is an act of self-creation. It is a protest of transient socially constructed features of desirability, inferiority or power.
It constitutes a statement of control and ownership over the body in a cultural context characterised by accelerating social control and alienation. The human body is a canvas for the expression of cultural ideas of men and women throughout time and around the world. Therefore, arguments of the positive or negative connotations of tattooing and piercing do not often justify or debase body modifications but seemingly ‘indicate a breakdown between morality and aesthetics’ (Sanders 1989, p.35).
The demographic and imagery of tattoos has undergone profound change and reflects the economic, political and social upheaval that has taken place in the 21st century (Turner 1994, p. 70). Tattoos and other forms of body modification have become more pervasive in the last couple of decade with a rise in mainstream clientele (Jones 1998, p. 65). New techniques, artists, technical innovation, professionalism and media attention have helped catapult the frequency and acceptance of body modification in conventional society.
Whilst there is a rich history in regards to the ancient practice of permanent body art, a large majority of Western society view it as disruptive, crude, and a form of self-mutilation, seeing tattoos and piercings as marks of disgrace and social deviance (Miller 2004, p.75) whilst often showing little interest in what motivates people to decorate their body in such a way. However, Maffasoli (1995, p.51) suggests in his research that there is a strong fascination from ‘outsiders’ in regards to the art of body modification, although fear of negative sanctioning and lack of understanding regarding the process and the motivational factors of body modification mean people often shy away.
This ‘popular interest’ manifests itself in numerous articles in popular magazines, current affairs television, documentaries, music videos, advertising and film. All of these mediums help to disseminate a basic knowledge and awareness of these modification practices to a larger mainstream population. This extended knowledge and interest has seen body modification practices shifted out of the backrooms of adult bookstores and into heavily patronised, high-technology shop-front studios. With middle-class customers increasingly entering the body modification arena (Sanders 1989, p.27) these practices are becoming less taboo and are no longer just the domain of bikers, sailors and social misfits.
Tattoos and piercings not only give power and a sense of control to the individual but permits them to record one’s own history and developmental milestones on the body, therefore for some, body modification has a deeper meaning, serving the function of indelibly marking into the flesh significant events in their lives (Favazza 1996, p. 92). A twenty-eight year old woman framed her decision to have her nostril pierced as a response to her experience of becoming a mother at eighteen, ‘the experience of being a young mother is in part why I chose to get my nose pierced.
I felt trapped by others’ expectations, the piercing was a way of pushing through my own desires to deal with in myself the power of the systems that be, and my desire to refuse to conform’ (Holtham 1997). Others imbue private acts of body modification with symbolic power, capable of reclaiming previous experiences of powerlessness or an unpleasant event (Douglas 1970, p. 45). Another young woman shares, ‘I guess as my way of getting some pleasure out of the situation. I had a pair of stitched lips tattooed into the inside of my thigh six months after having been raped which symbolised my inability to speak about the event’ (Holtham 1997).
Another reason for becoming a fan of modification practices are to do with enjoying the process and liking the ‘look of it’. Modification recipients speak of the ‘thrill’ and ‘rush’ of the actual moment of the piercing, as well as enjoying playing with healed piercings and adorning their bodies with jewellery (Dunbar & Lahn 1998, p.12). In support of this position, Featherstone (2000, p.55) believes that some individuals simply see their tattoos and piercings as little more than fashion accessories, on par with other forms of jewellery which enhance a certain ‘look’. Certainly, vanity can play a large part in the decision to modify one’s body, for example a tattoo strip around a man’s biceps can make them appear larger just as a tattoo or piercing will call attention to various parts of the female anatomy, especially on the lower back and around the belly button.
Despite the diversified reasons for body modifications, most cultures from around the world were unified in their belief that body piercing was an art form with highly important, empowering, and positive connotations (Atkinson 2003, p.72). Whilst modern forms of body modification are seen as a self-motivated expression of personal freedom and uniqueness, ancient cultures usually marked a person to prove membership or non membership of a group, or to express religious, magical, or spiritual beliefs. These forms of body decoration have existed throughout history to mark numerous ideals
within societies such as social stratification, servitude, and religious or spiritual rites.
In modern times, if you modify your body, particularly in the methods discussed within this essay, you are inevitably changing your appearance whilst stating something about yourself, your lifestyle and social status. You are also making a statement about your income, wealth and class. However, body marks in pre-literate societies were permanent, collective and largely obligatory. Unlike today, they were set within a shared culture of collective meanings, where the significance of a tattoo or mark could be read unambiguously (Featherstone 2000, p.39) .
The growing revival of highly visible and sometimes ‘shocking’ primitive body modification practices such as tattooing, multiple piercings and scarification is a personal choice just like cosmetic surgery and body building, which are seemingly more respectful avenues of body modification. People choose to be pierced or inked for aesthetic purposes, spiritual incentives, erotic reasons, fashion trends or a variety of other personal motives. Throughout history, society has always shown a multitude of symbols through body art and decoration, even in its simplest forms. That implicit link between past and present confers not only a sense of antiquity to body modification but also sanction and validity.
Today, seeing a person with a body modification may evoke an involuntarily judgment or opinion, even though the conclusion may be wholly inaccurate and prejudicial. An altered body, as well as being a way to establish one’s own individual, unique personality, can also seen as a way to establish oneself in an alternative community (Pitts 2003, p.8). Society perhaps does not consider that the body modifiers or ‘modern primitives’ of today, just like their ancient equivalent, are not only using tribal customs to express themselves through body modification, but are also actually a form of tribe within their own social groups.
There is no doubt that body modification is an interesting topic of discussion and one that can only result in examination by society. Tattoos and piercings have been around for millennia, and for the majority of that time, they have always been accepted as a form of art, not mutilation. Body modification such as tattooing and piercing is not a bizarre form of deviance peripheral to society like many researchers signify but rather an ‘everlasting visual dialogue expressing one’s self-concept, ideas and beliefs’ (DeMello 2000, p.22). Body modification has become a vehicle for people to altar their appearance which can be of significant importance to the individual and can publicly express a rite of passage as well as break the accepted cultural code. As such these forms of body modification are primal forms of self-expression and a reflection of cultural reality.
Lack of understanding surrounding participants of body modification can cause negative sanctioning such as unemployment, social ridicule or even ostracism from family and peers and social control practices are experienced to enforce or encourage conformity and deal with behaviour which violates accepted norms. As this essay has sought to explore, modified bodies invariably provoke a strong reaction among those who are not as they elicit a primeval response which touches the core of who we are as people and a society. As a new set of cultural and social meanings are being ascribed to bodies and we experience the re-definition of beauty, it is increasingly clear that society may need to become more accepting and adjust cultural norms to accommodate the novel yet historic culture of social communication through the decorated body.
Atkinson, M., (2003). Tattooed: the Sociogenesis of a Body Art, University of Toronto Press, Canada.
DeMello, M. (2000). Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Duke University Press, London.
Douglas, M., (1970). Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, Pantheon Books, New York.
Dunbar, A., & Lahn, D., (1998). Body Piercing, Wakefield Press, NSW.
Favazza, A.R., (1996). Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry, 2nd ed., JHU Press, USA.
Featherstone, M., (2000). Body Modification, Sage Publishing, UK.
Heitzeg, N., (1996). Deviance: Rulemakers & Rulebreakers, West Publishing Company, USA.
Hewitt, K., (1997). Mutilating the Body: Identifying in Blood and Ink, Bowling Green State University Press, USA.
Holtham, S., (1997). Body Piercing in the West: a Sociological Inquiry, http://www.bmezine.com/pierce/bodypier.html, retrieved 27/4/09.
Jones, A., (1998). Body Art: Performing the Subject, University of Minnesota Press, USA.
Maffesoli, M., (1985). The Time of the Tribes: the Decline of Individualism in Mass Society, Sage Publishing, London.
Miller, J.C, (2004). The Body Art Book: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and other Body Modifications, Penguin Publishing Group Inc., USA.
Pitts, V., (2003). In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification, Palgrave MacMillan, USA.
Roach Anleu, S., (2006). Deviance: Conformity and Control, 4th edn., Longman, South Melbourne.
Sanders, C., (1989). Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing, Temple University Press, USA.
Siebers, T., (2000). The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification, University of Michigan Press, USA.
Turner, B.S., (1994). Regulating Bodies, Routledge Press, UK.
Vale, V., & Juno, A., (1999). Modern Primitives: An Investigation of
Contemporary Adornment & Ritual, Research Publications, San Francisco USA.