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.