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Self-Inflicted Pain or Individuality Gain?:

1999

In todayís society it has become harder and harder to stand out in a crowd. Body piercing and tattoos have filtered their way into mainstream culture. In the evolving world we live in, society calls for individuality, but to what extreme should one go to attain that individuality? Is decorating oneís own body a form of individual expression or an act of self- degradation? There is no standard explanation for the mass popularity of body piercings and tattoos but several people provide insight into the matter.

Exactly why is it that I have eight holes in my body that God canít account for? What about my butterfly tattoo on my stomach, not to mention the two I inflicted on myself that mom had removed? I have never felt a great need to explain this to anyone else. It is just something I did for myself, but it does not hurt that they receive a lot of attention. My mother had a strange reaction to my sudden metamorphosis, as I choose to call my drastic change in appearance. In a letter she sent me after she received the news that I had my tongue and eyebrow pierced, she wrote:

I donít really want to hear what new body parts you have pierced. I think it is crazy for you to spend all that money and time in school when no one will hire you because your appearance is not what they are looking for! ... To be honest I am afraid to see what you look like... for the life of me I canít understand why someone as pretty as you would want to look like a freak.
People who did not know me prior to my metamorphosis occasionally acknowledge my adornments but do not make a big issue about them. Most of my friends think they are cool. Even mom accepts them even though she can not understand their purpose; she just refuses to hear any more details.

The piercings actually hold no specific symbolism, just my anguish and angst in general. The piercings were provoked by my curiosity and fury. I was curious as to why I feared it so much, and captivated by the awesome power this fear held over me. The fury that I was feeling was against everyone who defined normality. By societyís standards I was not normal on the inside, so I might as well have reflected it on the outside also.

I look to others to perhaps provide a broader perspective. Stephanie Wilbur, who maintains a web page describing her piercings, recounts having her tongue pierced as follows:

I think tongue piercings are very sexy and itís always been my favorite piercing on someone else. So, I thought it would suit me well. On top of this, the thought of having my tongue pierced has always been the scariest of all piercings to me. Therefore, what better to have done. I also needed to get pierced again, since my last piercing was quite painful and I felt I needed to prove to myself that piercing was an experience I enjoyed.
My experience was similar to hers, in that I too was afraid to have the only pierceable muscle in my body skewed.

There are many interpretations of the word "art." Many people include body modifications as such. Michael Churton, a reporter for the University of Missouri newspaper, The Maneater, explains this in an interview with artist Tim Kern.

Although the word "art" might conjure up images of paintings and statues in many people's minds, artists like Tim Kern have found a different canvas. ... Kern, a tattoo artist and body piercer at ..., graduated from MU with a bachelor's degree in fine arts.... He has been drawing all his life and used to draw the "Donít Try This At Home" comic strip for The Maneater.
In the article, Kern explains, "Most people fear tattooing themselves because they are a permanent mark on the body". But ĎOne of the nice things about them is that they are permanent....í" (Churton).

I carved my first tattoos into my legs as a symbol of my supposed oppression. I felt that I was scorned by my mother as a result of my choice to take her religion as my own. I thought that in taking Catholicism as my own religion, I would earn my motherís respect. In actuality, all I received was disdain because my mother had never told me before that she did not believe in God. The symbol that represents this inadequacy I felt is the pentacle (a pagan symbol for the five elements) that I carved on my leg.

My other "masterpiece" was a heart. This carried meaning also. At the time, an older man was pressuring me to have sex with him. This was a man I did not know personally; I just had to pass by him every day when I walked home from school. I had little or no knowledge of how to handle sexual advances at the time, especially undesired ones. I felt tormented inside because I wanted to do the right thing, but the feeling that somebody was attracted to me seemed to need to be rewarded. Rather than reward this advance, I told my mother and she took care of it. To symbolize my frustration and agony for my ignorance, I carved the heart in my leg.

The one tattoo that I do have remaining is a very special one. This tattoo is that of a butterfly. I had just begun my metamorphosis. I had finally found a religion that truly suited my outlook and I began to socialize (previously I lived a very sheltered, lonely life). The butterfly in itself symbolized my change from a nobody caterpillar to a social butterfly. Even the removed tattoos still faintly show and serve as reminders. Consequently, they are permanent marks on my body as well as on my soul.

For me, my many tattoos provide a release. The piercings were just plain fun. It is an awesome rush, full of adrenaline as a result of not being able to see what is being done to me. (I always keep my eyes closed for fear of the sight of blood.) Stephanie Wilbur recounts her experience of having her tongue pierced as:

I saw him pick up some metal out of the corner of my eye. I remember taking one slow, deep breath. I remember him saying, "This will probably be the easiest of all your piercings". Just as I finished letting out the breath, I heard him say, "ok, now, take another deeep(sic) breath" and I knew that meant it was coming. Then, *wham*, I felt it. The needle was passing into and through my tongue. I felt it very distinctly enter and pass through. Then, I heard him say, "That's it. The piercing is done. I just need to screw on the other ball." (Wilbur)
I distinctly remember the needle passing through my tongue, but I felt no pain even though the piercer struggled to force the needle all the way through my tongue, stopping in the middle. Before he completed the procedure, I violently jerked my tongue back into its rightful home with the needle still sticking out, but I had no injuries other than the intended one. I would have to say the tongue was the least painful of all my piercings. The experience that follows getting your tongue impaled is quite unique. I though I would be tasting metal, but that was not the case. At first, I had trouble speaking and I slurred my words a lot. Eating also posed new difficulties. I went to Baskin Robbins to have ice cream immediately after; I ordered a sundae, and I forgot to tell them not to include nuts. While I was trying to process the nuts, I accidentally chomped on the barbell on more than one occasion. Fortunately I did not chip any teeth. Needless to say, two months later I am fine and fully adjusted. However, I do still get noodles wrapped around the barbell whenever I eat spaghetti. I would say the whole experience was pleasurable, and it has helped elements surface that were once hidden in my identity.

The rationale for self-modification is as individual as the people possessing these decorations. For some, it is an individual expression, a way to lash out at conventional society or to rebel. For others such as myself, it holds deeper meaning. When I am prompted with the question "Why would you want to destroy your body like that?" I cannot explain through mere words. Words themselves only carry the meaning the person receiving the message places on them. Oftentimes, the people asking these questions are already biased, so my words carry a set implication to them. My tattoos and body piercings are not open for individual interpretation. They are my personal representations of mental anguish reflected through bodily pain.