Body adornment and decoration is a cultural universal. All cultures everywhere have attempted to change their body in an attempt to fulfill their cultural construct of beauty, religious and or social obligations. There are many other reasons, too numerous to list. Body adornment and modification is a very broad subject, ranging from ceremonial body paint to surgical breast implants.
The focus of this discussion will be body piercing, and special attention will be paid to the cultural effects and affects of piercing. Though now body piercing and other modifications are widely accepted and regarded as a fad, I believe there must be a component of body piercing that is not derived from our overwhelming exposure to mass media and popular entertainment.
The basis of my argument is based on the hypothesis that body piercing is not only a trend, but also has deeper significance, and variable meanings, which are dependent upon the individual. One interpretation is that body piercing is a statement, and that the act of displaying the adornment furthers the significance. The alternative proposes that the piercing is of little relevance, and of little import when compared to the act of piercing, which I hope to demonstrate acts as a quasi-religious experience, which enhances and reaffirms belief in the self. A general overview of piercing is needed to ensure a common base from which to work. Body piercing, for the purpose of this discussion will be limited by the following factors. A piercing will be defined as any object, intentionally left in the body, for which there is no physiologically functional purpose, and must have be placed in an event which took a conscious decision. Earlobe piercing will not be discussed, since pierced earlobes are considered 'normal' in our culture for women, and is an unquestioned addition to many mens' wardrobes. The terms modification and body modification will be used interchangeably with piercing. There will be no discussion regarding actual piercing, with the exception of piercings made to the genital regions. Historically, piercing has had a long history in Europe, with references dating back to the Roman Empire. Soldiers in Caesar's army pierced their nipples, while male members of the Victorian Court wore Prince Albert piercings as a 'dressing ring,' and was used to secure the penis to either leg with a string or thong, to suit the fashion at the time: Pants cut very closely at the crotch, making male genitalia very pronounced (Kingwell, 1996). Mary Douglas, in her book Natural Symbols, explains the interaction of the self-expression through the physical and social bodies. According to her, the social body limits the range of expression possible through the physical body. The separation of the physical body and the social body is an aspect of culture some piercings attempt to circumvent. Since body modifications result in the altered perceptions of self, people have imposed rules onto the human form in their search of self discovery. The act of modifying the self is an attempt to attain 'completeness' as an individual. This emphasis on the individual is in conflict with human origins. Until Victorian England and the onset of industrialization, the primary concern was the group or extended kin network, not the self. In developing urban areas, the cultural back drop of the 19th century was transformed into a new set of ideals as industrialization spread. The factors of increased population and the advent of social welfare added to an ever-expanding notion of self. People in this new modern society were free to digest a new assortment of options as they experimented with recreating themselves, provided they had access to the mechanisms of change, usually money and privilege. These early explorations of individuality began the present-day desire to find the ultimate truth of self. Modern concepts of piercing have broken away from the historical innovations, to some degree: Piercing now fills two distinct and separate roles in our culture. The first is that piercing has become a token commodity, a trend based in the desire to stand out, a badge of nonconformity. Henceforth, this will be referred to as popular piercing. The second is piercing as a tool to assist in the development of the ideal self; in the process, filling the void left by an absent god. This will be referred to as ritual piercing.
The first area of inquiry will focus on this first aspect of body modification, body piercing as a trend. Kingwell states that the subjects in reference tend to be young, and to wear body adornment acts as a symbol of indifference and apathy to a world where the future is uncertain and seldom promising. Instead, the wearer is mimicking the apocalyptic future created by popular images of movies, such as the wastelands of Mad Max or Blade Runner, a celluloid-based "dystopian chic" (Kingwell, 1996). The argument Kingwell uses to support his hypothesis based in popular media: "Corporeal mutilation and decay, seems to strike a deeper note of unease" within our culture, and "an increasingly desperate sense that the body is under attack, threatened by the... machines that surround it" (Kingwell, 1986: 182). This implies that our increasing technological knowledge is diminishing the concept of man, the animal. According to Kingwell, the act of piercing is an act of defiance, an attempt to reclaim the physical organism from the computers that record the measures of modern man. Disassociated from the organic entity, and the image, of being human, leaves the individual striving to regain a suppressed portion of the self. This involves the conscious thought of what constitutes an individual, and the primary image of what an individual is. Kingwell states that "[t]he pierced... body takes us away from the cyber and back to simply material: the flesh as site of pleasure and pain, pleasure and pain as means to truth. And that truth is simple: I am material" (p. 183). The truth may not be so simple: What may have once been considered extreme alterations to the body is now commonplace. Urban landscapes are littered with youths sporting nose rings, pierced eyebrows, labrettes and pierced tongues. The significance of this is becomes apparent when analyzed under the framework tabled by McCracken. He suggests that clothing, and other aspects of material culture are communicative by nature (McCracken, 1988). Material culture, with its flexible meaning, relies on the interpretation of the observer to assign meaning, while the subject assigns meaning based on entirely different criteria. As well, the communicative ability imparted on material culture is inconspicuous: They "carry meaning that could not be put more explicitly without the danger of controversy, protest or refusal" (McCracken, 1988:69). The communicative ability of popular piercings is limited to negative affirmations: I am different from you. The other 'I' is not a marginalized foreign other, but a transgression against Euro-North American cultural ideals, held safely away in our dim recollections of 'Tradition' (McCracken, 1988). When viewed as a material aspect of our culture, popular piercing is an attempt to create an alien other: Something to shock and disconcert: An attempt to break out of the biological and cultural confines that limit the range of personal self-expression (Kingwell, 1996). Unfortunately, the communicative