We are the only species capable of consciously altering our physical appearance. We have the ability to choose what our bodies look like, and how they interact with the world around them. And we all do it, every day.
Body modification is commonly defined as, "the deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons." Anthropologist, Dianne Bell, at George Washington University appeared on National Geographic's television series Taboo, in the episode on tattoos. She said, "By putting [a tattoo] on a body, it has power, it has power for you and it has power for the viewer. Marking the body says, “I am this person, I am of this clan, or I am of this particular caste or I have a particular set of skills.” You know how you should greet that person and you know how you should behave. So in that sense it’s kind of an early warning system.” Professor Wande Abimbola, Awise Awo Agbaye (World Spokesperson for Ifa) and Special Adviser to the President of Nigeria on Cultural Affairs and Traditional Matters said, "We live in that age where things are always unstable, and people would like to ensure that you are grounded in the values and way of life of your own people,” and tattoos are one way in which people achieve that stability in values. He also commented on the process and experience of getting body modifications as an important aspect of the practice, "Art no longer becomes something you hang on your wall, it becomes something that you participate in." Body modification is a manifestation of a person’s creativity and allows for an outlet for that expressionism to be experienced and shared.
However, because humans have this ability to consciously modify the physical appearance of the body, we also have the ability to mutilate the body. There is a thin line between the two that lies in the perspectives of every individual. Mutilation is generally defined as “an act or physical injury that degrades the appearance or function of any living body,” but this semi-permeable membrane between modification and mutilation is defined by the intention and reason with which someone goes into getting a procedure done. If the motivation is coming from a positive place within that person and the modification will not have debilitating effects on the person, then it very well could be a positive modification. If the motivation lies in others, whether to please, or anger someone else, then the alteration will not be sustainable and could be considered mutilation of the self. If the motivation for altering the body is self-destructive, or a negative pressure, even from within yourself, then it becomes self-mutilation. Allen Falkner, founder of the first suspension group, professional body piercer, and often referred to as the Father of Modern Suspension, commented on the need to judge each physical alteration on a very personal level. Model, Masuimi Max had her forehead tattooed at a young age she claims was part of a rebellious attitude. Falkner says, “tattooing her forehead was mutilation because it’s not something she really thought through, it’s not something that she really wanted. Is facial tattooing mutilation? No, it was a specific scenario.”Erick Sprague (aka, Lizardman, who's modifications include a split tongue, stretched earlobes, sharpened teeth and full body tattoo of green scales) says that piercings and tattoos are just the middle of the spectrum of body modification.
"In my opinion, body modification includes things like clipping your nails and getting a haircut. People do unnecessary things to their bodies for reasons besides hygiene. It’s one of the few things you can say exists in every single culture and society. What I do to my body is not unlike what they do to theirs; it’s a spectrum, and we’re just on different ends. They may be styling their hair, while I’m radically altering my outward appearance."We all lie somewhere on this spectrum of modification- from dressing a certain way, cutting or coloring your hair, painting your nails and wearing make-up, or going to great lengths to "find the best cross between a human and a tiger" like Stalking Cat, a man of Lakota and Huron heritage who has modified his body to emulate and embody his totem, the tiger, as a part of his religious and spiritual heritage. He has had extensive tattooing, including facial ink, transdermal implants to create the appearance of whiskers, dental filing and capping for more feline teeth, bifurcation of his upper lip, surgical pointing and elongation of the ears and wearing colored contact lenses with split irises. Stalking Cat has said of his modifications that they are adaptations of a very old Huron tradition, and that they allow him to be a lot more comfortable with the person he is
BMEzine blogger, Rob says, "for the most part, all any of us want is to be able to express ourselves in any way we see fit. It just so happens that it involves modifying the physical body, as opposed to making a statement in a letter, or painting a picture." Steve Haworth, founder of 3D Body Art lists these reasons for modification; 1) aesthetic value, 2) sexual enhancement, 3) shock value, and 4) spirituality. A tattoo artist friend of mine, Katiana told me her theory: tattoos are birth marks under the skin, and the process of getting them is just bringing them to the surface; they become a part of us and just as we learn about ourselves, we learn about them throughout our life as well. A friend of mine, Lars Prandelli (whose body modifications include piercings of the lip, septum, nostrils, cheeks and Monroe piercings along with two genital piercings and previously stretched earlobes approximately to 3 inches in diameter) told me,
"I see my skin as a tactile tapestry on which someone can release their art upon."
Body modification, in whatever form it may manifest for you, allows a person to take ownership over their body, to make it theirs, to adorn their temple in a way that pleases their soul. It is a process of giving yourself permission to be what feels right for you, to have peace with who you are because your house feels like home. Prandelli said,
"It symbolizes a willingness and desire to avoid a stereotype or any sense of conformity to what most people perceive as 'normal.'"
Body modification, just like any form of expression, is about the individual's own experience with it. Erik Sprague said in the movie Modify, “it’s that same human drive to decorate, explore, experiment; and it’s just that some people are going further and some people are finding a comfort zone where they are.” The importance lies in finding a personal comfort zone within oneself, and respecting the choices and processes others go through to find their own personal comfort level. Joe Aylward, most well known for his metal Mohawk, said similarly, "Now it's for you to go out and experience it on your own level because you can't experience it on mine!"