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The Social Psychological Perspective of Body Modification

 There are many techniques within Social Psychology that are used to dissect and explain human perspectives and the interaction of these perspectives within an individual, between individuals, or within a group. Most of the social interactions that humans have can be explained by one of the many social psychological perspectives. Last summer, I was forced to make a difficult choice because of the bias of a possible employer against the Body Modification community. She made judgments about my ability as an employee based on my visible body piercings and forced me to reevaluate my social role. Her actions can be explained through stereotyping, outgroup bias, and heuristics.

This past summer, I had an unfortunate encounter during a job interview. I was hoping to earn a position as an intern for the summer counseling program offered for troubled teenagers at Green Chimneys, a residential, non-profit treatment facility for children with emotional, behavioral, and learning challenges. My goal was not only to gain experience in the field of Psychology, but also to reach out to the troubled teenagers. My interview went well, and the manager of the facility (referred to here as Ms. A.) was impressed with my resumè. Ms. A; however, told me I would have to remove all of my piercings, except for one earring in each of my earlobes if I wanted the job.

Personally, I don't think that I have a large number of piercings nor do I think that they are visually obtrusive. My jewelry is both important to me and also cumbersome to constantly remove and put back in.  I asked Ms. A why she had instated that rule, hoping that we could come to a compromise. She replied that she did not want the teenagers, many of whom had been involved in gangs to think that I was in a gang because of my piercings. At the time, her reason didn't make sense to me, but now that I am aware of many social psychological processes, I know that there are many explanations for her perspective.

Historically, the Body Modification community has been viewed negatively. This is due to many reasons, but one is stereotypes. Armstrong et al. (2004) describe this stereotype:

"The public media tends to portray body art procurement as risqué and carefree behavior. Professional literature typifies the negative stereotyping as "socially marginal," doing poorly in school, coming from broken homes, having an unhappy childhood, rarely attending church, using poor judgment, impulsively obtaining body art while intoxicated, and pressured by their friends."

Popular films such as "The Lord of the Rings," "The Cell," and "Strangeland" portray body modification negatively, implying that those who take part in such acts are evil or perverse. (Manganello, 2005) These films, biased studies, and other media representation serve to reinforce people's negative views of body modification.

Stereotypes are beliefs about the characteristics of group membership and theories about why attributes go together (Fiske, 399). Using limited information such as appearance, people make inferences about an individual's characteristics, assigning them to a group with an established set of qualities. Most of the views held by the Body Modification community were originally expressed in the subcultures of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These cultures included hippies, punks, and sadomasochists. Piercing became common among members of the Punk movement in the 1970s in Europe. Punks created a counterculture that was suppose to shock and provoke. They employed piercing as a means to shock the mainstream and were social stigmatized as self-mutilators. Around the same time, body piercing became popular among the Queer and sadomasochistic subcultures in the USA and UK. (Stirn, 2003) Before the Body Modification community became connected through the internet boom, individuals could only express themselves through other subcultures. For this reason, the community became associated with these other groups and stereotypes held against them.

Many view body modification as a primitive act that our society has moved away from. In older human societies, individuals modified their bodies and modern societies see body modification as a connection to the primitive past. The "need for even young adolescents to improve their appearance and self-esteem with extreme and even risky measures can be viewed as evidence of a regressive trend in Western culture." (Stirn, 2003) Many members of the Body Modification community even label themselves as modern primitives. While members of the community see modification positively, society as a whole associates piercings with primitive regression. This association with regression has a logical connection to the assumed link between body modification and crime.

Many forms of body modification, especially tattoos, are associated with gangs, prisoners, and criminals. Gangs and prisoners have used tattoos as a means of identification and communication for generations. One example is the Yakuza, generally considered the Japanese version of the American mafia. Members of the Yakuza are involved in crime, gambling, loan sharking, sex clubs, bars, and even underground government business deals. On BMEzine encyclopedia#, the Yakuza's connection to tattoos is described:

"Respected members are often heavily tattooed, for a number of reasons. First, because of their bakuto origins. Second, because it is a sign of strength. Third (and this reason is the most prevalent one in modern times), because it signifies affiliation. Modern yakuza tattoos are complex traditional pieces telling stories of origin, gang affiliation, and personality. While the stereotype prevails that all yakuza are heavily tattooed and that any heavily tattooed Japanese person is yakuza, this is far from the case. Yet, even today, wearing tattoos out in public in Japan will associate you with a rough crowd, and having tattoos may deny you entry from some onsen, hotels, and bars."

Just like the Yakuza stereotype in Japanese culture, Ms. A and many other Americans have a negative mental representation of individuals with body modification in our culture. Many studies that have examined body modification show this correlation.

Carroll et al. showed that risk-taking indices were significantly higher in participants with at least one tattoo or body piercing compared with those with neither. One participant even stated gang affiliation as a reason for his tattoos. These findings support the negative stigma of body modification; however, the study conducted by Carroll et al. is biased. They did not have a random sample of individuals as the study only included individuals that were military beneficiaries aged 12 to 22 years old attending the Adolescent Clinic, Naval Medical Center, San Diego. In addition, Carroll et al. state that studies examining the connection between modified individuals and violent behavior is questionable. They state:

"Behavioral surveys have revealed mixed results. Some have suggested increases in homosexuality, sexual risk-taking, and sadomasochism associated with body piercing.Others have not found these associations.Studies of tattooing have been conducted mainly in prison populations and with patients in psychiatric facilities. These studies have demonstrated increases in violent behavior, problem behavior, and criminality. However, studies among high school students, military recruits, and professional adults have not found these associations." (Carroll et al.,2002)

Most studies focusing on narrow populations show a correlation between the body modification culture and criminal activity. This lead to the assumption that because prisoners and gang members sometimes use tattoos as a symbol of group affiliation, that others that modify their bodies must also be affiliated with criminal activity. Ms. A allowed an earring in each ear because that style of jewelry is generally accepted and fits into normal female gender fashion stereotypes. Stirn states, "Body piercing can be interpreted as a visible, self-produced violation of socially defined beauty standards and body boundaries and thus arouses social provocation." (2003) I could keep the studs which were positively stereotyped, but not the other body jewelry which was negatively stereotyped.

Humans create and use stereotypes in order to organize their social worlds. The most fundamental core social motive defined by Fiske is understanding. People need to form concrete understandings of their social world in order to function in a group, predicting actions and behaviors of other individuals. People understand each other by referencing available categories, expectation, and schemas. Social groups assign schemas and stereotypes to different types of people, especially out-groups such as the Body Modification community.  This is also an example of the representativeness heuristic. This heuristic bases decisions on stereotypes and appearances. People tend to rely on a person or a thing's resemblance to a held stereotype rather than logically assessing the possibilities of the situation. (Fiske, 137) Ms. A had a great deal of experience dealing with teenagers either in gangs or with past gang affiliation. She associated their trait of having piercings with their gang affiliation. Once this connection was mentally established for Ms. A, she used it to make future decisions. If Ms. A had logically assessed the situation she would have understood that I was not affiliated with any criminal activity and could potentially change the stereotype of piercings for both Ms. A and the teenagers. Ms. A; however, used the representativeness heuristic and existing stereotypes to make her judgments.

Unlike earlobe piercings, plastic surgery and aerobic techniques which change the shape of your body, techniques such as piercing, tattooing, and scarification do not fit in with the accepted view of what a human body should look like. Because tattooing and piercing changes the way a person looks and distinguishes them from others, having some form of body modification is a challenge to visual group structure. The Body Modification Community; therefore, is an out-group. Blake Perlingieri attributes this to body modification as a rejection of western cultural biases about ownership and the use of the body. (Perlingieri, 2003)

The most important aspect of survival in a social group is maintaining group unity and cohesion, this is important for the core social motive of belonging. More importantly, "belonging to a group helps individuals survive psychologically and physically" (Fiske, 17). The core social motive for control is also functioning here. People maintain biases toward out-groups to cement ties to in-groups. Prejudice against those with body modification reflects influences of in-group norms. (Herek, 2000) Most people analyze others to create a sense of contingency between what they do with others and what they receive from the interaction. (Fiske, 96) Out-groups threaten this sense of contingency because they are new and different. Judeo-Christian western culture surrenders the control of the body to God, the state, or a medical establishment, among others. (Perlingieri, 2003) Body modification does not concur with this norm and is not accepted by the general populace. Groups that differentiate from what is normative and accepted are not easy to understand and; therefore, do not fit neatly into the social world. Group labels and stereotypes are created to categorize and predict the different groups, making them easier to understand.

Using stereotypes to control out-groups protects the in-group's superior position. (Fiske, 404) The control motive encourages people to feel capable at navigating their social world. The in-group gains control by negatively stigmatizing the out-group and placing it in an inferior position and the out-group gains control by stereotyping their own group in order to identify and connect with them. Language used to describe body modification, such as "self-mutilation," is in itself a negative and prejudicial form of control. (Perlingieri, 2003) Ms. A saw my piercings as a marker for membership in the out-group and used the stereotype of criminal activity being associated with those who have piercings. By using this stereotype as justification, she forced me to either remove my identification with that group (my piercings) or to turn away from an amazing job opportunity. In the end, I chose not to remove my piercings, but her stereotype was effective. Either way, she would not employ a modified individual.

Negative views of minorities or out-groups serve to solidify the positive view of the in-group. This fosters a sense of belonging for the in-group by creating boundaries and definitions of what is acceptable. The out-group is seen as different and harmful. Essentially, the in-group reifies the group identity and fosters a sense of belonging by defining itself by what it is not. Conversely, my choice to keep my piercings and refuse the job increases my identification with the out-group, or the body modification community.  This speaks to an individual's need for self-verification and self-enhancement.

Self-verification is a consensus between how one feels what his/her individual self is and how others feel that person's individual self is. One's self-views are confirmed by others. Body Modification may be used as a means of self-expression and a vehicle for self-awareness. (Brooks et al., 2003) One modified girl named Tanya who has an online blog dedicated to researching identity and body modification describes her findings on self-verification and enhancement:

"With this realization came a newfound understanding of the claim that body modification aids in identity formation. I have encountered this claim many times in my modification research, and had formerly viewed it as a statement about the use of body modification to associate oneself with a particular subculture and thus achieve a feeling of belonging...I now realize that body modification can function as an aid in identity formation simply because it forces one to undergo an unexpected self-analysis. In choosing our mods, we often realize that each choice will either haunt or delight us for the rest of our lives. Making such a highly significant decision may force an individual to step back and take a look at his/her life thus far. This process allows one to determine what events or people have been meaningful enough to deserve a permanent place in one's life. (Tanya, 2006)

Body Modification forces an individual to become aware of the many details of his/her body. One needs to learns about his/her body, how the body responds to stimuli, and how the body heals. Immediately after being modified, the individual must carefully care for his/her modification and vigilantly assist the body in its healing process. Through the modification and healing process, an individual becomes closely acquainted with the physical nature of his/her body and his/her mental and emotional responses to it.

Obviously, body modification plays an important role in identity formation. When one chooses to modify themselves, they are making a physical statement, sometimes permanent. Paul Sweetman interviewed thirty-five individuals with various degrees of piercings and tattoos and found that most participants describing body piercing as a way to create something new, different, and individuals on themselves. (Stirn, 2003) Unlike clothes that can be taken off and changed easily, most modifications like tattoos cannot be removed.

Including piercings, many modifications become part of your body. Some require tools or surgery to remove them. When one modifies their body, they are changing their outward representation to the world. Not only does this change how others view an individual, but also changes how an individual views his/herself. A person's "self" or personal identity derives from his/her public and social representation of self. Who someone is, is a function of his/her social role. Individuals identify themselves by what role they play in society or the environment in which they function. The visual nature of body modification; therefore, is a conduit through which an individual constructs his/her self-view. The focus of body modification is changing and becoming more aware of one or more body parts. (Perlingieri, 2003) The most frequently stated reason for having a body piercings is that said piercings denote individuality and personality. For example, many sexually-abused individuals use genital modification as a means to reclaim their body. These types of modification allow people to reclaim parts of their body which they had been psychologically and emotional separated from because they had associated those parts of their body with incidences of abuse. (Stirn, 2003) These individuals redefine that body part as an element of the whole body again. They are making the statement that "This is my body and it is not here for anyone, but myself." Through modification, the individual is taking control of his/her body and sending a strong message of ownership and presentation to his/her social world.

I chose to get my piercings and become a member of the Body Modification community. By refusing to remove my piercings for Ms. A, I am retaining my source of identification in the Body Modification community and reifying my membership within in it. This identification is important for the core social motives of control and understanding. By confirming my self-views with Ms. A's view of me, I can have a more complete understanding of my role in my social world. Self-verification also allows a sense of control over one's social environment with the knowledge that one's self-views are perceived correctly and others are in agreement with you. Ms. A. confirmed, although negatively, that I was visually modified and associated with that community.  This negative affirmation may sometimes overpower one's need for a positive self-image. Research in social identity theory has shown that group members react to threats to their group identity by strengthening their group identification. (Jetten et al., 2001) Self-enhancement, the need to see one's self in a positive light, is qualified by understanding and self-verification. In order to see one's self positively, one must know and confirm self-views and his/her quality in the social world. A positive view of one's self facilitates social interaction and the core social motive of belonging. One needs to know that he/she is a worthy and positive member in the social group. Jetten et al. argue that the rejection of mainstream norms is one form of social creativity that disadvantaged group members employ as a means of building a positive identity. They are basing their group identity on a common dissimilarity to the mainstream. Those that identify with others that have body piercings are building their sense of belonging and individual worth within the group.  (Jetten et al., 2001) Although Ms. A strengthened my identity in a negative way, she improved my sense of understanding of self.

When Ms. A asked me to remove my piercings, she was challenging my individuality. Body Modification exposes an interesting interaction between the need for autonomy and the need for belonging. Wood and Duck describe these needs as "face needs" as suggested by Brown and Levinson. Negative face refers to the need for individuality and desire to be free from the restrictions created by other people. Ms. A. challenged my negative face by stereotyping my personality and life situation according to my body decoration choices. She attempted to take away my right to choose my own appearance and present myself the way I saw fit. In asking me to remove my piercings, she expected me to submit to her stereotype and present myself to the world and the teenagers as she saw fit. The positive face refers to the desire to belong and be liked by others. Ms A. challenged my positive face by associating me with gang members. Ms. A. not only removed my right to choose my presentation, but labeled me negatively, insulting both my negative and positive faces. (Wood and Duck, 92)

Body Modification is a canvas through which social messages are communicated. Whether introverted and private or extroverted and visible, body modification is a statement to society that changes an individual's place in his/her social world. Not only does one experience socially-influenced views of others, but he/she also experiences the interaction of those outside views with his/her own personal self-views. Self-views are constantly in a transitory state, influencing the way an individual represents him/herself in the social world. Piercings and other forms of body modification are a form of self-reflection and communication. My experience with Ms. A revealed the social and personal views that affected both my and Ms. A's interaction with each other and the surrounding social environment. The structure of our interaction points to a larger, existing societal structure that functions on and communicates through stereotypes and stigmas. Body Modification holds social messages that serve to reinforce one's individual awareness of his/her body and his/her membership in the Body Modification

community as well as his/her social role.


Armstong, Myrna L., Ed.D., Aldn E. Roberts, Ph.D., Donna C. Owen, Ph.D., and Jerome R. Koch, Ph.D. (2004) Contemporary College Students and Body Piercing. "Journal of Adolescent Health," 35, 58-61

Ashforth, Blake E. and Fred Mael. (1989). Social Identity Theory and Organization. "Academy of Management Review," 14, 20-39

Brooks, Traci L., M.D., Elizabeth R. Woods, M.D., M.P.H., John R. Knight, M.D., and Lydia A. Shrier, M.D., M.P.H. (2003). Body Modification and Substance Use in Adolescents: Is there a Link?. "Journal of Adolescent Health," 32, 44-49

Carroll, Sean T., Robert H. Riffenburgh, Timothy A. Roberts, and Elizabeth B. Myhre.(2002)Tattoos and Body Piercings as Indicators of Adolescent Risk-Taking Behaviors. "Pediatrics," 109 (6), 1021- 1027.

Fiske, S. (2004). "Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology." Hoboken (NJ): Wiley

Herek, G.M. (2000). The psychology of sexual prejudice. "Current Directions in Psychological Science," 9, 19-22

Jetten, J., N.R. Branscombe, M.T. Schmidt, and R. Spears. (2001) Rebels with a cause: Group Identification as a response to perceived discrimination from the mainstream. "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin," 27(9): 1204-1213

Manganello, Kristin. (2005, February 3). Pierced and Fierce? I don't think so. "The Daily Targum." Retrieved April 29, 2006, from http://media.www.dailytargum.com/media/storage/paper168/news/2005/02/03/Opinions/Pierced.And.Fierce.I.Dont.Think.So-850198.shtml?sourcedomain=www.dailytargum.com&MIIHost=media.collegepublisher.com

Perlingieri, Blake Andrew (2003). A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture: "Ancient Origins and Today." Eugene, Oregon: Tribalife.

Stirn, A. (2003). Body Piercing: medical consequences and psychological motivations. "Lancet," 361(9364): 1205-1215.

Tanya. (2006, April 24) I.D. Message posted to a blogspot entitled "Modified State of Mind," archived at http://modifiedstateofmind.blogspot.com/2006_01_01_modifiedstateofmind_archive.html

Wood, Julia T. and Duck, S. (2006). "Composite Relationships: Communication in Everyday Life." Belmont (CA):Thomson

Yakuza. (2006, April 29). BMEzine.com Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 29, 2006, from http://wiki.bmezine.com/index.php/Yakuza


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on: 17 May 2006
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