• 177,189 / 1,383,795
  • 96 / 10,290
  • 875 / 54,915

Body Adornment

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 ability of material objects has a limited range of expression.    Facing a wide age difference between popular piercers and the influential members of society, there is a low degree of mutual understanding.  While the youth wear piercings as a way to not fit in, older, established members of society look upon popular piercings as unclean and unsightly.  The message the piercing conveys is lost in the translation between age-groups and socioeconomic classes.  Instead of presenting an image calling for social change, the interpretation states alternate views; that of disgust and contempt for cultural ideals.  This miscommunication creates tension between age and social groups, and has lead to a common perception of youths as being unclean and unfit to inherit our society.
This circumstance is only slightly mitigated by the increasing media exposure of pierced celebrities.  Steve Tyler, aging front man for the rock group Aerosmith, presents himself as a 'Bad Boy' of rock, sporting a large silver ring through his nose while he stomps about on-stage singing songs about transvestites, "easy" women and alcohol.  Such a stage persona is not improving the social acceptability of body piercing.  Madonna, pop superstar, wore a nose ring a few years ago, adding a glamorous aspect to body modification, with pubescent boys and girls wanting to imitate a pop icon. Quentin Tarantiono's cult film Pulp Fiction had a female character with a pierced tongue, who, when asked why her tongue was pierced, replied coyly "Oral sex."  These, and other such images in popular media, maintain the stereotype of piercing devotes as a part of the Other.
A portion of the desirability of popular piercing may lie in the mixed messages the piercing conveys.  The message intended by the subject is not going to be the same as that of the observer.  The reaction of the observer may act as a stimulant for the subject, altering the meaning based on observation.  This reaction relies on the perception of piercings as a cultural anomaly, at least in the context of contemporary society.  The reaction of the observer is a positive feedback to the subject, regardless of the degree of disapproval from the former.  This is a time-limited phenomenon, based on the perceived unconventionality and a distrust of the unknown.  As piercing becomes more commonplace and accepted in society, these effects are going to fade.  
Popular piercing is a commodity, consumed to re-create self and define the individual.  It is a communicative device that is intentionally incomprehensible to those outside the age and status strata.  The misrepresentation of meaning in turn increases significance for the subject.  As, well, the piercing represents membership in disenfranchised section of our culture, the youth who perceive social mobility as unobtainable.

Ritual piercing is different from popular modifications in that it reflects personal beliefs and validates the individual; it is not additive as is popular piercing.  That is, it reaffirms belief in the individual, yet does not create new aspect of self.    Rather than proclaiming the material aspect of humanness, ritual piercers can either wallow in the pleasures of flesh, or move beyond the physical and embraces the spiritual self.  
The Christian crucifixion myth supplies a historical reference for ritual bloodshed.  When Christ died on the cross, his blood spoiled the dirt beneath him.  Through his sacrifice, others would survive, and the forces against will be appeased.
From the beginnings of the second millennia, self-flagellation was an increasingly common practice.  This involved zealous Christians whipping their own flesh into a bloody canvas, in an attempt to restrain their sexual desires, and as a parallel for the suffering of Jesus.  Self-flagellation functioned as repentance for personal transgressions against God, as well as the "general perfidy of the human world; it was a sacrifice offered in hoped of appeasing an angry God, or... an act of self-purification... [in preparation for] the coming rapture" (Kingwell, 1996:37).  The modern equivalent, body modification, also implies self-sacrifice; though not a sacrifice suitable for mass consumption.

One hurdle to overcome in constructing this argument is an evaluation of pleasure in the context of piercing.  Can having a  surgical lance thrust through living tissue be pleasurable?  Since it is trauma, there is of course pain. It is very hard to define both pleasure and pain in easily understood concepts.  For the sake of this argument, it must be understood that pain can be either pleasurable or can induce a pleasurable state.
Pain is the cohesive agent that unifies the body and the mind.  "[N]o pain, no spiritual gain" (Kingwell, 1996:184).  Pain is an essential step in the process of piercing, and is the effort needed to experience pleasure.  Kathy Acker, in an interview, described her own experience with piercing:  "Ground yourself and do really deep breathing.  And if you do it right, the kundalini will come.  The energy will go right to the top of your brain and shoot out.  And it did!"  (Rucker).

Regarding piercing, only through pain can one experience either the pleasure or the insight piercing offers.  This implies two separate aspects to ritual piercing.  One aspect is piercing and the pain as being pleasurable;  the other as piercing, and the pain incurred, as being a catalyst for spiritual awareness and growth.  Piercings with the goal of immediate pleasure will be referred to as pleasurable piercing, while piercings incurred for spiritual reasons will henceforth be termed catalytic piercings.
Pleasurable piercings are based on the fact that human physiology reacts in a known and predictable  manner to negative stimuli such as pain.
With pleasurable piercing, the subject would shed blood and experience pain for the benefit of the self.  The act can be interpreted as an attempt to reclaim the self.  This views piercing is as an attempt to reclaim the body, downtrodden by the combined efforts of Christianity and capitalism.  Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization, argues that sexual liberation is a challenge to capitalism:  His states that capitalism achieves social control through sexual repression (Marcuse, 1966)..
As well, Christian dogma reiterates that the flesh is the source of all evil.  This view gained strength through time, and the body has been acknowledged as the source of desire, emotion and sexuality.  Even with today's increasingly secular world view, the historical effects of Christianity are still apparent.
The repressive powers of social institutions against pleasures of the flesh have created the need for an outlet.  Today, with an ever-increasing awareness and fear of AIDS, sexual liberation has stymied developmentally since the 1960s.  Something is needed to allow the population a release:  Piercing is such a release.  Piercing is now an alternative pleasure of the flesh, today's safe escape, which is still a threat to the ascetic ideals of the population, as was the sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties  (Turner et al, 1991).

Being pierced does release endorphins and adrenaline, which produces a physiological high; the pleasure .  Our society has erected barriers to preserve the integrity of the body, and there are cultural prohibitions against altering the flesh.  Nonetheless, there are those who seek pain as a means to pleasure.  Since pain is the result of physical trauma, the only way to experience physical pain requires injury.  
Pleasurable piercing is rooted in the acceptance of pain.  In piercing, and as in other experiences open to consumption, pain is a tool.  Pain acts as a unifier between body and mind.  When pain is experienced, the usual reaction is to focus on the pain, a natural reaction based on the biological imperative to maintain homeostasis.  The normative physiological reaction is to engage response mechanisms to remove or reduce the pain.  While undergoing a piercing, this is not always possible; a typical body piercing can take from ten seconds to several minutes to complete.  The alternative, is to retain control of thought while the pain stimulus exists.
This process involves accepting the pain, and use it an as agent to ground oneself.  The theory is based on the belief that the mind and body are not a unified whole, and that only through experiencing extremes can the mid and body be one.
The basis for this belief lies in the assumption that the mind and the body are separate.  The self is to be understood as the junction of the body and mind for the remained of this discussion.  Pleasurable piercing acts as a way of accessing the self.  
Though the initial understanding of pleasurable piercing is an extension of sadomasochism, this only reveals the superficial level of body modifications.  Even though pleasurable piercing superficially resembling sadomasochism, the act of inflicting or receiving pain is not the sole basis for piercings of this nature.
Being able to accept and even welcome the pain, in essence controlling pain, is the basis and the drive behind pleasurable piercing.  Pleasurable piercing is based on the  sensations only flesh can provide.  Much as autoeroticism provides stimuli through masturbation or asphyxia-induced orgasm, pleasurable piercing's draw rests in the unknowable aspects of pain, and the physiological response to pain.  
Pleasurable piercing needs pain, and unpredictable pain, as an obstacle that must be overcome to expand the self.  The human body is limited in that there are thresholds of pain, which, when exceeded, causes an involuntary loss of consciousness.  This is not the desired effect.  Instead, the pain is used as a test for the strength of will, and to test the limits of being.  So, for pleasurable piercing, pain is not the end to the means, but a means to the end:  Pain is used a test of the ability of the self to control the conflicting imperative of the mind and body.  The pleasure aspect is a consequence of having defeated pain, both with the physiological high and the heightened awareness of being resultant from the experience.

Catalytic piercing, previously mentioned as the term that will be used for piercings used for spiritual purposes, will be the focus of the following section.  Catalytic piercing expands upon the premise of pleasurable piercing; it is not a whole unto itself.  Catalytic piercing is just what the name implies.  It is a catalyst for expanding the self.  As in pleasurable piercing, pain is an important element of this facet of body modification.  Instead of seeking pain, pain is a challenge to the discovery of self.
Only through adversity does one gain strength of spirit.  Catalytic piercing is used as a tool to define the individual in certain and specific ways:  Foucault defined such routes to self improvement as an account of the self in relation to the truth we believe we know and understand (Hoy, 1986).  This implies a subjective account of truth, which is correct:  Ideas of the self are constructs we impose upon ourselves in order to make sense of our perceptions of the world.
Catalytic piercing is a way of discovering the true self:  The piercing represents an alteration on the personal view of the body.  Our culture has erected strong taboos against altering the flesh.  The taboos are of paramount importance when examining catalytic piercing.  The act of catalytic piercing is a conscience move away from the cultural norm, an intentional disregard for cultural taboos concerning the body. 
The effects of these piercings are profound upon the self:  It is a way of expressing individuality by moving beyond the construct of the body.  Though the flesh/mind interaction acts as a motivating factor, the mind gains while the flesh loses.  The mind gains knowledge of the self simply by knowing limits.  Unlike pleasurable piercing, where the goal is to avoid the limits of the flesh, the goal of catalytic piercing is to find the limitations imposed on the flesh.
Belief in the self is increased by knowledge of the self, thus brings the individual closer to the truth of self.  Enlightenment is not a guarantee:  The challenge of the pierce may not be enough to offer insight into the self.  This is because of other factors that have already formed concepts of self may not be served through modification.  Put another way, the stress induced on the body by piercing may not attain the level needed to develop the individual further.  This is because previous experiences may have already attained this plateau, and the new experience is unable to induce the necessary physiological response needed for spiritual enlightenment.
Catalytic piercing affects the mind in a manner to which the  literature does not allude.  Catalytic piercing offer a base from which to compare and contrast the 'Other.'  In this instance, the others are those who do not take part in body piercing.  Personal experience dictates what one considers the 'normal.'  For the piercer, normative self-expression includes piercing.  In addition, piercings in this context could be used to differentiate status, at least among those who partake.  This is an extension similar to male bravado, but not limited by biological sex.  It is rated by degree of extremism; those who regularly engage in piercing know the amount of pain and discomfort associated with specific piercings.  Those who possess difficult piercings are garnered a higher status, since the piercing is evidence of the experience.  Examples of this would include Madison piercings  (between the clavicles) compared to navel, or ampallangs (lateral piercing across the glans penis) against Prince Alberts.
    In both instances, the former is more extreme than the latter, thus of higher risk and status.  In reality, this is meaningless.  It is an attempt to quantify personal experience, thus eliminating the personal growth aspect of the experience, and is an attempt to commodify an experience that is not consumable beyond the level of the individual.
It does have benefits as well.  It acts as a social mechanism, as sharing of experience requires social interaction.  In addition, it allows people with similar interests to discuss a topic many segments of the population would find unpleasant.  Finally, it allows people who sit outside the normal range of cultural variation to associate with people who are truly peers, and creates a common perception of belonging.

There are individuals who take part in body piercing who do not fit within the frameworks described above.  It is impossible to include all cultural variations and incentives that involve piercing, but one aspect is in need of mentioning:  Self-piercers.
Self-piercers are anomalous in that instead of allowing someone else to perform the piercing and focus on the sensation, they pierce themselves.  There are several reasons as to why some pierce themselves.  One reason is the unwillingness to allow others to alter their flesh:  Some feel as though the flesh is too private to allow others to willingly damage their body.  A second reason is there is a shortage of competent piercers in some regions, primarily rural and small urban centres.  Related to the availability of piercers, is the fact not all piercers are willing to attempt some piercings.  For instance, there are many male piercers who will not pierce mail genitalia, or perform some of the riskier piercing, such as ampallangs, uvulas or deep piercings, such as thumb webbings.
Motivation for self-piercing can not be classified into qualitative groups, unless the groups all consist of one person.  People pierce themselves for a variety of reasons.  Financial reasons are an important aspect:  Piercing can be expensive when performed professionally.  The jewelry alone can cost up to over one hundred dollars, for a large-gauge barbell or custom pieces.  Actual enjoyment of pain is another consideration:  Masochistic tendencies often underlie the reason for self-piercing.  Another consideration is peer support (or lack thereof).  There are still people refuse to view piercing as anything more than a trend, and express belligerent negativity on the topic.  This factor is most often found among younger individuals' parents and social relations. 

A final topic I would briefly like to touch upon is genital piercings.  The effects of piercing appear to be more pronounce in individuals with genital piercings, and will aid in summarizing key points. 
Humans are sexual beings.   North American society is based on sex, and it infiltrates most all aspects of our culture.  We even define kin based on sexual relations (Scneider, 1980).  So it must come as no surprise that piercing, too, has a sexual component.
Genital piercing can enhance sexual stimulation and pleasure.  As well, genital piercing tend to be viewed as rather extreme, especially among males.  Society has taught men to be very protective of their genitals, yet there are other accepted events that also involve genital mutilation.  Male circumcision, until very recently, has been the rule for newborn males, while uncircumcised men are comparatively uncommon.  Even pornography enforces this, as almost all males in the industry are circumcised.  Never popular in Euro-North American culture is female circumcision, a very bloody and painful process usually performed at menarche or marriage.  It is still widely practiced in some African nations (Calder et al, 1993).
Genital piercings are the most selfish of piercings; not for the increased sensation during sex, but as an announcement of accepting one's own sexuality, and more importantly, accepting oneself as an individual.  Genital piercings are the definitive catalytic piercing, and may soon be a popular piercing, as knowledge of the stimulating factors increase.
  Holtham, in her interviews with pierced women, noted a few comments along these lines:    "(It's been) done at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself.  Also, my clitoral hood pierce has meant that my vagina is no longer a taboo area for me" (Holtham, 1997); this demonstrates how a genital piercing has fulfilled both the  prerequisites for catalytic piercing as well as achieving the desired effect.  Also, it illustrates the change in attitude as result of a genital piercing.  This next quotation emphasizes the effects of catalytic piercings, and demonstrates the profound change in outlook as a result:  "I do not have a spectacular body...  I think that my (nipple and clitoral hood) rings add to my being a woman" (Holtham, 1997).
Genital piercing differ from all other piercing is a singular and remarkable way:  They almost always have a profound effect on the self.  The only explanation I can offer for this is to refer back to the cultural taboo against harming the flesh.  The genital regions have been referred to as flesh and member, among other terms.  These terms are also used for the body as a whole, or other non-sexual regions.  It may be a move away from Christian beliefs about the body, and may represent a new tribalism.

In summary, body modifications through piercing can be divided along two lines:  Popular piercing and ritual piercing.  It is not a framework that can be used to classify individuals.  Instead, it is only a method employable to analyze some modifications we make to our bodies.
Popular piercing are piercings that are used primarily as a statement, and one requirement of popular piercing is that it be visible.  Popular piercings are usually confined to the face.  Popular piercings, as Grant McCracken suggests for material culture, are communicative.  They represent a communication that is intentionally obtuse and difficult to interpret, especially for those outside the age and social strata.
In contrast to popular piercings, ritual piercings are not as easily demarcated.  Ritual piercing fall into one of two categories:  Pleasurable piercing and catalytic piercings.  Pleasurable piercings are those piercings whose design is on experiencing piercings for the sake of pain.  The pain can be an end in itself, or expand and enter the sphere of catalytic piercings.  Catalytic piercings rely on alteration of the self through the experience of piercing.  The change catalytic piercings induce tend to be associated with constructs of self, and self-awareness:  Awareness as a sexual being, and awareness as an individual.  Catalytic piercings need not be visible under normal circumstances, as the primary reason behind catalytic piercings is not to provoke reaction.
It is apparent that piercing is not just a commodity, an aspect of popular culture ready for consumption.  Though stigmatized by the general population, it is gaining in both acceptance and popularity.  Piercing fills a vital role for some individual.  It presents faith; something in which to believe.  Piercing can be an affirmation of self.  Such affirmations are essentially acts of faith:  Instead of belief in a god-creature, these affirmations create a concept of self as a near-divine being, or at least different from all others.  
The anthropological literature contains little information and research on piercing and other forms of expression through modifying the body in contemporary Euro-North American culture.  I feel it a topic worth further investigation, due to the fact that it is an observable trend in contemporary society.  Body modification may also represent an evolution in how culture constructs the body, and it most definitely is a shift in the view of man's place in society.

References Cited

Berch, Micheal C. Body Piercing. http://www.postmodern.com/~mcb/piercing.html, November 20, 1997.

Calder, Barrbara L. et al. Female Circumcision/Genital Mutilation: Culturally Sensitive Care. http://www.anaserve.com/~mbali/calder.htm, November 23, 1997.

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York, Y: Pantheon Books, 1970.

Holtham, Susan. Body Piercing in the West: a Sociological Inquiry. http://www.bmezine.com/pierce/bodypier.html. November 23, 1997.

Hoy, David C. Foucault: A Critical Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1986.

Kingwell, Mark. Dreams of Millenium: Report from a Cultue on the Brink. Toronto ON: Viking Penguin, 1996.

McCabe, Mike. The Shifting Urban Body: In the Culture of Recognition. http://www.bmezine.com/culture/metlect.html. November 21, 1997.

McCracken, Grant. Culture and Consumption. Bloomfield, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Beacon Press: Boston, MA, 1966 .

Rucker, Rudy. Kathy Acker Interview. http://www.altx.com/io/acker.html. November 21, 1997.

Schneider, David M. American Kinship: A Cultural Account, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Turner, Bryan S. et al. The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. Sage London, GBR: Sage Publications, 1991.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 07 Dec. 1997
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