The body piercing project

Why some people are staking their Being on their bellybutton ring.

The opening of a tattoo and piercing section in the up-market London store Selfridges shows that body modification has lost its last trace of taboo.

‘Metal morphosis’, nestled in the thick of the ladies clothing section, is a world away from the backstreets of Soho - where the company has its other branch. Teenagers, middle-aged women, men in suits and young guys in jeans flock to peer at the rows of tastefully displayed rings and leaf through the tattoo brochures.

Tattooist Greg said that he had seen a ‘broad variety’ of people: ‘everything from the girl who turned 18 to the two Philippino cousins who just turned 40.’ The piercer, Barry, said that a number of ‘Sloanies’ come for piercings (the most expensive navel bar retails at £3000, and there is a broad selection that would set you back several hundred pounds). A handful of women have even asked to be tattooed with the label of their favourite bottle of wine (1).

This is not just affecting London high-streets. According to current estimates, between 10 and 25 percent of American adolescents have some kind of piercing or tattoo (2). And their mothers are taking it up, too - in the late 1990s, the fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoo services in America was middle-class suburban women (3).

But while tattoos have been taken up by university students and ladies who lunch, more traditional wearers of tattoos - sailors, soldiers, bikers, gangs - find themselves increasingly censured.

In June 2003, the police rejected an applicant because his tattoos were deemed to have an ‘implication of racism, sexism or religious prejudice’ (4). The US Navy has banned ‘tattoos/body art/brands that are excessive, obscene, sexually explicit or advocate or symbolise sex, gender, racial, religious, ethnic or national origin discrimination’ and ‘symbols denoting any gang affiliation, supremacist or extremist groups, or drug use’ (5).

New-style tattoos are a very different ball-game to their frowned-upon forebears. While the tattoos of football supporters, sailors and gang-members tend to be symbols of camaraderie or group affiliation, the Selfridges brigade are seeking something much more individual.

For some, tattoos and piercing are a matter of personal taste or fashion. ‘It’s purely aesthetic decoration’, said 37-year-old Sarah, waiting to get her navel pierced at Metal Morphosis. The erosion of moral censure on tattooing, and the increasing hygiene of tattoo parlours, has meant that body modification has become a fashion option for a much wider group of people.

For others, tattooing seems to go more than skin-deep. Tattoo artist Greg thinks that many of those getting tattoos today are looking for ‘self-empowerment’ - tattoos, he says, are about establishing an ‘identity for the self‘. As a permanent mark on your body that you choose for yourself, a tattoo is ‘something no one will ever be able to take away from you’, that allows you to say ‘this is mine’.

Seventeen-year-old Laura said that she got her piercings done because she ‘wanted to make a statement’. When she turned 18, she planned to have ‘XXX’ tattooed on the base of her spine, symbolising her pledge not to drink, smoke or take drugs. ‘It’s not to prove anything to anyone else’, she said: ‘it’s a pact with myself completely.’

Sue said that she had her navel pierced on her fortieth birthday to mark a turning point in her life. Another young man planned to have his girlfriend’s name, and the dates when they met, tattooed on his arm ‘to show her that I love her’ - and to remind himself of this moment. ‘The tattoo will be there forever. Whether or not I feel that in the future, I will remember that I felt it at the time, that I felt strong enough to have the tattoo.’

The tattoos of bikers, sailors and gang-members would be a kind of social symbol, that would establish them as having a particular occupation or belonging to a particular cultural subgroup. By contrast, Laura’s ‘XXX’ symbol is a sign to herself of how she has chosen to live her life; Sue pierced her navel to mark her transition to middle-age. These are not symbols that could be interpreted by anyone else. Even the man who wanted to get tattooed with his girlfriend’s name had a modern, personal twist to his tale: the tattoo was less a pact to stay with her forever, than to remind himself of his feelings at this point.

Much new-style body modification is just another way to look good. But the trend also presents a more profound, and worrying, shift: the growing crisis in personal identity.

In his book, Modernity and Self-Identity (1991), sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that it is the erosion of important sources of identity that helps to explain the growing focus on the body (6). Body modification began to really take off and move into the mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At around this time, personal and community relationships that previously helped to provide people with an enduring sense of self could no longer be depended upon. The main ideological frameworks that provided a system to understand the world and the individual’s place in it, such as class, religion, or the work ethic, began to erode.

These changes have left individuals at sea, trying to establish their own sense of who they are. In their piercing or tattooing, people are trying to construct a ‘narrative of self’ on the last thing that remains solid and tangible: their physical bodies. While much about social experience is uncertain and insecure, the body at least retains a permanence and reliability. Making marks upon their bodies is an attempt by people to build a lasting story of who they are.

Many - including, to an extent, Giddens - celebrate modification as a liberating and creative act. ‘If you want to and it makes you feel good, you should do it’, Greg tells me. Websites such as the Body Modification Ezine (BMEzine) (7) are full of readers’ stories about how their piercing has completely changed their life. One piercer said that getting a piercing ‘helped me know who I am’. Another said that they felt ‘more complete…a better, more rounded and fuller person’ (8). Others oven talk about unlocking their soul, or finally discovering that ‘I AM’.

But what these stories actually show is less the virtues of body piercing, than the desperation of individuals’ attempts to find a foothold for themselves. There is a notable contrast between the superlatives about discovering identity and Being, and the ultimately banal act of sticking a piece of metal through your flesh.

Piercings and tattoos are used to plot out significant life moments, helping to lend a sense of continuity to experience. A first date, the birth of a child, moving house: each event can be marked out on the body, like the notches of time on a stick. One woman said that her piercings helped to give her memory, to ‘stop me forgetting who I am’. They work as a ‘diary’ that ‘no one can take off you’ (9).

This springs from the fact that there is a great deal of confusion about the stages of life today. Old turning points that marked adulthood - job, marriage, house, kids - have both stopped being compulsory and lost much of their significance. It is more difficult to see life in terms of a narrative, as a plot with key moments of transition and an overall aim. Piercings and tattoos are used to highlight formative experiences and link them together.

Some also claim that body modification helps them to feel ‘comfortable in my own skin’, or proud of parts of their body of which they were previously ashamed. The whole process of piercing - which involves caring for the wound, and paying special attention to bodily processes - is given great significance. By modifying a body part, some argue that you are taking possession of it, making it truly yours. ‘The nipple piercings have really changed my relationship to my breasts’, one woman said (10).

This is trying to resolve a sense of self-estrangement - the feeling of detachment from experiences, the feeling that your life doesn’t really belong to you. One young woman says how she uses piercing: ‘[It’s been] done at time when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body - then its time.’ (11)

But piercing is trying to deal with the problem at the most primitive and brutal level - in the manner of ‘I hurt therefore I am’. The experience of pain becomes one of the few authentic experiences. It also tries to resolve the crisis in individual identity in relation to my breasts or my navel, rather than in relation to other people or anything more meaningful in the world.

Many claims are made as to the transformative and creative potential of body modification. One girl, who had just had her tongue pierced, writes: ‘I’ve always been kind of quiet in school and very predictable…. I wanted to think of myself as original and creative, so I decided I wanted something pierced…. Now people don’t think of me as shy and predictable, they respect me and the person I’ve become and call me crazily spontaneous.’ (12)

Others say they use modification to help master traumatic events. Transforming the body is seen as helping to re-establish a sense of self-control in the face of disrupting or degrading experiences. One woman carved out a Sagittarius symbol on her thigh to commemorate a lover who died. ‘It was my way of coming to terms with the grief I felt’, she said. ‘It enabled me to always have him with me and to let him go.’ (13)

Here the body being modified as a way of trying to effect change in people’s lives. It is the way to express creativity, find a challenge, or put themselves through the hoops. ‘I was ecstatic. I did it!’, writes one contributor to BMEZine. Instead of a life project, this is a ‘body project’. In the absence of obvious social outlets for creativity, the individual turns back on himself and to the transformation of his own flesh.

Body piercing expresses the crisis of social identity - but it actually also makes it worse, too. Focusing on claiming control over my body amounts to making a declaration of independence from everybody else.

People with hidden piercings comment on how pleased they were they had something private. One says: ‘I get so happy just walking along and knowing that I have a secret that no one else could ever guess!’ Another said that they now had ‘something that people could not judge me for, and something that I could hide’. Another said that her piercing made her realise that ‘what other people say or think doesn’t matter. The only thing that mattered at that moment was that I was happy with this piercing; I felt beautiful and comfortable in my own skin…. They remind me that I’m beautiful to who it matters…me.’ (14)

Body modification encourages a turn away from trying to build personal identity through relationships with others, and instead tries to resolve problems in relation to one’s own body. When things are getting rough, or when somebody wants to change their lives, the answer could be a new piercing or a new tattoo. There is even an underlying element of self-hatred here, as individuals try to deal with their problems by doing violence to themselves. As 17-year-old Laura told me: ‘You push yourself to do more and more…. You want it to hurt.’

This means that the biggest questions - of existence, self-identity, life progression, creativity - are being tackled with flimsiest of solutions. A mark on the skin or a piercing through the tongue cannot genuinely resolve grief, increase creativity, or give a solid grounding to self-identity. For this reason, body modification can become an endless, unfulfilling quest, as one piercing only fuels a desire for another. All the contributions to BMEZine start by saying how much their life has been changed - but then promptly go on to plan their next series of piercings. ‘Piercing can be addictive!’, they warn cheerily.

Body modification should be put back in the fashion box. As a way of improving personal appearance, piercing and tattooing are no better or worse that clothes, makeup or hair gel. It is when body modification is loaded with existential significance that the problems start.

(1) ‘Ladies who lunch get a tattoo for starters’, The Times, 18 June 2003

(2) ‘Body piercing, tattooing, self-esteem, and body investment in adolescent girls’, Adolescence, Fall 2002

(3) See The Changing Status of Tattoo Art, by Hoag Levins

(4) Police reject tattooed applicant, BBC News, 16 June 2003

(5) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Stars and Stripes, European edition, 29 January 2003

(6) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Anthony Giddens, Polity Press, 1991. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(7) See the Body Modification Ezine

(8) Quoted in Body Modification, (ed) Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University, 2000

(9) Quoted in Body Modification, (ed) Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University, 2000

(10) Quoted in The Body Aesthetic, (ed) Tobin A Siebers, University of Michigan Press, 2000

(11) Body Piercing in the West: a Sociological Inquiry, by Susan Holtham

(12) My Beautiful Piercing, on BMEnzine

(13) The Customised Body, by Ted Polhemus and Housk Randall, 2000

(14) All from the Body Modification Ezine

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