Tit for Tat: An argument for body modification

Those youths and their inked arms and pesky lip earrings! These new fads are just crazy…

I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of this at one point or another. When I pierced my own lip in 9th grade, my mom was so upset. She didn’t understand the “why’ in what I had done.

Culturally, piercings, tattoos and other forms of body decoration have existed for thousands of years. Many forms of body modification were independently invented. This tells me I’m not weird for wanting to poke a hole through my face. It’s a natural, visual way to build on our personal, human identities.

Some of those customs may seem a bit strange to you – lip plates and teeth gems. Believe it or not, people in developed countries are displaying even stranger, more complex mods.

But is it really ‘strange’ if it is a reflection of ourselves which is partly shaped by the society we find ourselves in? I think not.

Let’s look at these customs by type.

First, we have tattoos, which most cultures developed independently. In ancient times, they were used to show religious affiliation, social status, coming-of-age rites and more.

Tattoos remain highly spiritual today. The most common tattoos include crosses, angels, angel wings, mandalas, dream catchers,  celestial objects, inspirational quotes and still Japanese Irezumi. These symbols tie our bodies with our spirits, our faith. They tell rather important parts of our identities in pictures and script.

Many people get tattoos with other people or to celebrate or commemorate people and events. This adds an even deeper dimension than the past. We are making this a social activity, and it adds important chapters of our story to the visual representation of it. We are wearing our hearts on our sleeves, literally.

It’s also common for people to get icons from pop culture tattooed, simply allowing them to express their support for a piece of art that has inspired them or shaped their worldview.

Piercings are often lumped together with tattoos, but they serve a much different function. In the past, they served to display status of nobility or military or, for women, status of marriage. These meanings have mostly detached from the art of piercing.

Today, piercings are about attitude. They are meant as a statement and demonstrate counterculture, or going against mainstream. The interesting thing about this is piercings are so common, they are hardly countering anything. They used to. It seems they were successful in pushing against the norms. Even so, they still are meant to represent a free, rebellious spirit. They signal a certain amount of risk-taking and a desire to be unique. In this way of being identity enhancers, they are similar to tattoos.

Both piercings and tattoos also have a sense of sexuality to them. Navel piercings, tongue piercings, nipple piercings – ahem, other piercings – they all send signals to potential mates about the comfortable and in-control sexual identity of the pierced. Lower back tattoos, or the patriarchal-named “tramp stamp,” have the unfortunate labeling power to single out women as “sluts.” This has made the tattoo more popular, however, as a tool to empower women against slut-shaming.

The most important function of both tattoos and piercings may be the surge of body positivity that comes with the rush of the experience. Since when we choose to modify our bodies we are choosing to display something more of ourselves, it has a positive affect on our self-esteem. It makes us more interesting, gives us something to talk about and something to look back on. Instead of thinking of them as modifications akin to breast implants, we should think of them as body additions or body art. They accentuate qualities, not change them.

For these reasons, the regulation of body art in the workplace and military is silly. If someone is good enough to work for a company with mods covered, they are good enough to work with them showing. They don’t denote disrespect or “white trash” or the state of being a “slut.”

One woman may not be able to join the Marines because of her tattoo on her neck. The kicker is, if the women’s uniform wasn’t designed to be lower cut than the men’s, Kate Pimental (the woman) would be all set because her tat would be covered.

If the military is progressive enough to let women in, maybe they should rethink these antiquated policies. After all, mighty warriors of the past were often head-to-toe in tattoos; it seems they were further along than modern America.

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The Beautiful People

“Beauty is the enemy. We try to conquer not feeling beautiful all our lives. It’s a battle that can’t be won. There’s no definition of beauty. The only way to achieve beauty is to feel it from inside without breaking down into individual physical attributes.”
-Miley Cyrus

When you imagine a beautiful woman, what do you see? According to magazines like Men’s Fitness, beautiful looks thin, usually Caucasian and wears makeup, dresses and heels.

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Melissa McCarthy released an all-size clothing line at Lane Bryant. (Original Source)

I don’t know about you, but when I look around there are a lot more faces of beauty than that description – and they aren’t all thin or white or even feminine.

America is aware of this discrepancy in its definition of beauty, it seems, and a lot is being done to redefine the idea of what beautiful is. Even Barbie is making a change to her appearance, albeit to turn body-image advocates into consumers.

But it’s just not enough. Redefining it is a great start. It will include more people – but still others will be excluded from this definition. It’s time for the media and for America to admit that everyone is beautiful.

I’m sure there will be people who hate that I just said that, even though it is absolutely the truth, and you have the right to know and feel that you are beautiful without fitting the mold.

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Let’s look at the mathematical definition of beauty. The Golden Ratio determines the symmetry and proportionality of the face. The more symmetrical, the more beautiful.

If we conform to ideas of beauty in the US, this is flawed as well. Notice the Golden Ratio fits over my face quite well, denoting mathematical beauty. However, I am overweight and have been called quite the opposite on numerous occasions.

There is also value in looking at beauty across cultures. Some things considered beautiful elsewhere may seem outlandish – ugly even – to American viewers. Down to foot size, beauty is being measured differently across the world.

Many cultures experience unrealistic expectations about beauty just like US. For a very long time in China, women were expected to bind their feet. The smallest feet were the most beautiful. I don’t think feet are a big indicator of beauty in the US, but it is more likely to be made fun of for big feet.

Women in Mauritania are taught to fatten up at a young age, as a big body is a status symbol and makes them more desirable for marriage.

Other cultures value women’s imperfections without trying to make them change. In the Karo tribe of Ethiopia, women’s stretch marks and scars are considered beautiful. In the US, corporations are marketing lotions and home remedies to get rid of “ugly scars.”

In Brazil, beauty is more about having a fun-loving spirit than about how wide your ass is.

Can you imagine seeing someone with extra weight lounging on a public beach in a bikini without getting looked at like they were doing something wrong by being comfortable in their own skin?

I can’t. It’s sad, and everyday Americans shouldn’t have to travel to South America to experience this.

But it’s no wonder, I mean, with articles like this one in Cosmopolitan, which explains how to contour your face with makeup to achieve the illusion of “ideal” bone structure. It even compares women to Kate Moss, culturally positioning their natural cheekbones as less than Moss’s.

Bone structure is a traditional characteristic in describing beauty. Women are told by magazines like this one that they need to have striking brows and high cheekbones. These are traits you have to be born with (unless you participate in the demeaning world of plastic surgery) and women shouldn’t be comparing themselves, especially based on a trait they have no control over.


If your face isn’t within the Golden Ratio or you don’t have cheekbones like Kate Moss, not to worry. To be human is to be flawed; we are all perfect humans.

Further Reading:

‘Beauty in Different Cultures,’ by Paul Ford (2009)

‘Anthropological Perspectives on Physical Appearance and Body Image’ (2012)

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