B O D Y M O D I F I C A T I O N F O R I T S O W N G O O D R E A S O N S :
A Letter to PFIQ
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1993, 2008 by William A. Henkin
[S. F. was a graduate student in social work who solicited research subjects for her doctoral dissertation by writing to the now-defunct Piercing Fans International Quarterly, the magazine published in the early 1990s by the pioneering piercing master Jim Ward of the also now-defunct Gauntlet Studios. Because the attitudes S. F. expressed in her solicitation seemed to associate piercing with bulimia and self-inflicted violence, I. K., then General Manager of Gauntlet, felt S. F. did not understand the practice of piercing the way he or other devotées of body modification did. Consequently, he wrote to several psychotherapists who were familiar with piercing, asking for our responses. He published those responses, along with S. F.’s letter and a reply by PFIQ columnist Bear, which I saw before it was printed, in PFIQ #41, 1993. This was my response.]
13 July 1993
537 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
I read S. F.’s request with interest, since I’ve had my own experiences soliciting research subjects, and I read Bear’s reply with equal interest, since she addresses so eloquently many of the common body modification practices that go unrecognized for what they are in our society simply because they’re part of our mainstream culture.
For starters I think it’s useful to acknowledge an assumption that underlies Ms. F’s query. As I learned working in an acute care mental health facility for nearly six years, there are people who injure themselves, and who intend to injure themselves, by cutting, burning, scratching, pulling out their hair, and so forth. Some people in communities where SM and body modification take place share these sorts of intentions, and it serves no one to pretend otherwise.
It is also possible that Ms. F. does not assume that everyone who cuts, pierces, tattoos, brands, or otherwise modifies her or his body intends to do self-injury. She says she is looking for people who “deliberately harm themselves” in these ways, so PFIQ readers who modify their bodies for other reasons might well be excluded from her search.
On the other hand, if Ms. F. assumes that anyone who engages in these activities has self-destructive motives, as she seems to do by referring repeatedly to the activities as “self-mutilation,” “self-injury,” and “deliberate self-harm,” then it sounds to me as if she is pathologizing behavior on its face, without examining or truly seeking to understand it.
Even people who call their cutting activities “self-inflicted violence,” and regard these activities as undesirable, do not agree on the reasons for their behavior. An editorial in the Spring, 1993 issue of The Cutting Edge, pointed out that
Often, people who do not live with self-inflicted violence presuppose our intentions and develop theories of varying complexity and believability to explain our behavior. Some people believe that we self injure to gain the negative attention of mental health professionals. Others think that we experience an endorphin high.... Often, answers remain hidden in repressed memories of abuse. It is critical that we allow ourselves the opportunity to search within to each find our own reasons. [The Cutting Edge: A Newsletter for Women Living with Self-Inflicted Violence. P. O. Box 20819, Cleveland, OH 44120.]
Among people who do not regard their body modifications in a pejorative light, as I’m sure is true for the great majority of PFIQ readers, the reasons are greatly various. As Jim Ward said in his Re/Search interview for Modern Primitives, many people get a piercing – and the same holds true for cuttings, tattoos, and brands – for the aesthetics: they like the way it looks, or they like the social statement it makes. Some people modify their bodies for spiritual reasons, in the belief that the site of the modification or the modification itself attracts, dispels, or in some other way directs energy to promote a good effect (such as healing) or to dispel a bad one (such as illness).
Aesthetics, of course, are idiosyncratic: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and a concern with all sorts of energy underlies most spiritual belief systems, including nearly all religions. Since body modification seems to have caught Ms. F.’s attention, people who are pierced, cut, etc. for mystical reasons might say they have successfully attracted her energy – for better or for worse.
I don’t know Ms. F.’s position on acupuncture, but this form of piercing is also based on moving energy. While most Western studies have not indicated that acupuncture is the cure-all it was touted to be 20 years ago, others have found it effective in relieving some kinds of distress for reasons that remain unclear to Western medicine. People experienced with acupuncture assert that when they pierce the body at specific points along energy meridians that correspond to different organs of the body and their functions, they rebalance a person’s energy centers; it is this energy rebalancing, they say, that effects relief, and some people wear tattoos, cuttings, and piercing jewelry for the same sort of reason.
The mystical belief in channeling energy underlies shamanic body modifications and the movement that favors them, which Fakir Musafar named Modern Primitive. Here, modifications are not only emblems by which members of a sub-cultural tribe can recognize one another; they also have the symbolic and energetic meanings of claiming some part or aspect of a person’s life: a tongue piercing may remind the wearer of her relationship to sustenance (eating) or to communication (talking), for instance. Some people get genital piercings or tattoos for similar reasons: to reclaim a sexuality they feel was stolen from them by molest, rape, or bashing, or simply by growing up in a society that denied their sexuality. Genital modification can be a way of saying, This part of my body is mine again. Genital piercings also appear in parts of the SM community, where some Masters and Mistresses may pierce their slaves (or have them pierced by more knowledgeable piercers) to demonstrate ownership of their property. And many people with genital, nipple, and perineal piercings claim the piercings greatly enhance their feelings of erotic stimulation.
Both shamanic and claiming or reclaiming body modifications may be highly spiritual, and may involve a process of associating with a god, goddess, or other higher power. Raelyn Gallina, a professional piercer and cutter in the San Francisco area, says most of her clients come to her for spiritual reasons, to engage in rituals of transformation as they move from one stage of their lives to another.
Certainly, as I said at the start of my letter, there are people who modify their bodies for less lofty reasons than the ones I’ve mentioned. But even the forms of piercing, cutting, and otherwise marking the body that Western psychiatry usually regards as self-mutilation may not be what they seem. Several people I knew in a psychiatric milieu, for example, told me that when they cut, burned, or pierced themselves they felt great relief from inner pressures that had built up; psychiatrists had been unable to do as much, and they were using their own methods to feel better, not to feel worse. They did not practice body modification for the usual aesthetic, shamanic, or erotic reasons, and they may well have been emotionally troubled; yet sometimes these people, too, saw that modifying their flesh could represent a rite of passage from one plateau in life to another.
As usual, there can be many reasons for one behavior, and anyone has the right to find some appealing and others appalling. But everyone who modifies her or his body has an individual reason for doing it. I take enormous pleasure in acquiring information and knowledge, and doing the research necessary for a graduate degree is a wonderful way to indulge that kind of fetish. I hope that in the course of her dissertation study Ms. F. learns something useful about body modification, and that when the time comes she will share it with the people who have a real interest in the subject.
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