Disclaimer: The following entry concerns my individual experiences and the personal opinions I have formed as a result–it is not an accurate reflection of the personal histories, insights, or opinions of other people who are involved in body modification and ritual body play.
Defining body modification and ritual body play is not as simple as saying “Well one is permanent and one isn’t.” I tend to look at the various reportive definitions people offer, recognizing how they are often simultaneously too broad and too narrow, and turn my thoughts to how the American Psychiatric Association has written the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual. I do this, not to medicalize and diagnose those who engage in these practices (myself included), but rather to advance a criterion-based definition model. Another example would be the taxonomy system in biological sciences.
My instinct is to leap directly into why a reportive definition doesn’t work for an entire spectrum of activities as broad as body modification and ritual body play. However, this is because I’m familiar with the subject, as a person who has been running a body modification discussion board for about three years (it was attended by just a few hundred people at first, and now boasts a membership nearing 5,000 people with an enormous diversity of interests and backgrounds). Most people who are unfamiliar with body modification have no problem thinking of piercings and tattoos, but many people either don’t know what ritual body play means or don’t possess a great deal of knowledge on the topic. I am going to do my best to share my insights and experiences about both in this entry.
A brief but incomplete list of activities (in a somewhat randomized order) that are included in working towards a criterion-based definition of body modification is as follows:
Permanent piercing, microdermal anchors (i.e., single-point piercings), permanent tattooing, scarification, branding, permanent hair removal, subdermal implants (i.e., silicone, metal, or magnetic implants fully encased in the skin), elective amputation (i.e., not as a result of an accident), eyeball implants and tattooing (i.e., under the bulbar conjunctiva), transdermal implants (i.e., metal subdermal implants with a single exposed post), ear-pointing, and genital splitting or nullification (e.g., partial or full splitting of the penis, scrotum, or clitoral prepuce; or elective removal of parts of the genitals such as the clitoral/penile prepuce).
A brief but incomplete list of activities (again in a somewhat randomized order) that are included in working towards a criterion-based definition of ritual body play is as follows:
Cheek and tongue spears (i.e., large gauge temporary piercings), hook pulls and tug-o-wars (i.e., temporary piercings of the skin with large gauge hooks, attached to another person or a stationary object such as a wall, which a subject pulls against without leaving the ground), hook suspensions (i.e., temporary large gauge piercings of the skin which facilitate temporarily lifting a subject completely off the ground), corset piercings (i.e., temporary piercings arranged, often with ribbons, to appear as a laced corset), temporary piercing play, ball dances (i.e., weights attached to multiple temporary piercings on a dancing subject’s body), and kavadi (i.e., ritualized walk, during which up to 50 long spears pierce the skin of a subject, above whom a decorated canopy carries an altar for the Hindu God Murugan).
What bothers me about the impulse to jump on permanence as a distinguishing characteristic of body modification is how instantly this perspective invalidates ritual body play. I consider someone who suspends from or pulls on hooks in their flesh to be engaging in a practice that requires the same or similar motivations of them, as someone who gets a an elective dermal punch in their nose, or commits to an enormous tattoo. Ritual body play is, by its very nature, a temporary experience, yet not a reasonable exclusion from the subject of body modification. It often takes more strength to engage in ritual body play because of the physical pain involved (which is really, a defining characteristic of ritual body play), than it does to endure a small tattoo or a few permanent piercings. In my experience, the emotional impact from my first hook pull is arguably permanent, even if the only remaining trace months after the fact is a couple of slightly pink scars in the middle of my chest. I spent ten years working up the nerve to do it, and I can say with confidence that I will never see myself the same way again.
That body modification is defined by permanence is too narrow a definition. Along the same line of reasoning, it’s impossible to talk about permanent piercings without ever talking about piercings that have been rejected by the body or retired by the subject. Even tattoos aren’t permanent, as they can be rejected by the body during the healing process, removed with laser treatments, or concealed with scarification or another tattoo. But defining body modification as a permanent elective change to the body is also too broad–suddenly organ transplants, oral contraceptive, and hesitation marks from suicidal ideation or gesture are body modifications. But we wouldn’t put these activities in the same logical category as sitting in a chair for six and a half hours to be tattooed, because the motivations for doing so are dramatically different. And I have to emphasize elective changes, or being horribly disfigured in a car accident becomes included despite how obviously absurd this is.
Of course, the next logical assumption is that the intent of the act is for a permanent change in the body. But again, this is invalidating ritual body play (i.e., the definition is too narrow), and including things that do not logically belong in this category of things that people do (i.e., the definition is too broad), such as organ transplants and medical treatments for cancer or endocrinological problems. This also sets the stage for the problem of ableism in this dialogue, as raised already in Part I. If intent for a permanent change in the body is the defining quality of body modification, then body dysmorphia ultimately becomes a part of that conversation, and all tattoo collectors are suddenly being diagnosed by Internet Armchair Psychologists everywhere as suffering a mental illness. I’m not even going to dignify that with further analysis at this point.
Instead, I’d like to assert that the human body isn’t permanent, and wastes away significantly faster than the waters of the ocean wear away entire mountains. Perhaps a better approach to this struggle for where to begin defining body modification and ritual body play is undergoing an elective procedure to change the structures and/or appearances of one’s skin. But, seeing as how that is just one approach, and dismisses things like oral piercings and elective amputations, it still needs some work. And since someone who has their tongue pierced may have no motivations in common with someone who has an entire hand removed, any more than either would have in common with me personally, it seems that the very concrete terms are more helpful than the abstract.
It seems to me that the next logical criterion is the manipulation or removal of non-vital structures of the body, as in those structures that are neither necessary nor relevant to sustaining one’s life. I feel this allows a distinction between someone who struggles with gender dysphoria and seeks partial or full gender reassignment surgery, as compared to someone who is asexual and neutrois or agender and seeks to nullify or change either the function or presence of their genitals. As more members join my growing forum, I have observed a noticeable increase in this topic–people who want their genitals completely nullified; or who have successfully manipulated their genital anatomy with someone else’s help, so that their vital functions are intact while their sexual functions are limited, irreversibly changed, or permanently nullified.
I also feel that the suggested criterion respects the agency of those individuals who have electively removed an otherwise normatively functioning hand, foot, or foreskin. We have not just created a discursive climate in which such an individual’s mental health status, capacity to effectively deliberate, or cognitive ability is automatically called into question; and we have not just turned the focus of such a conversation to whether or not it is ever reasonable, moral, or ethical to support a person’s choice to remove or manipulate a part of the body that is neither defective nor dysfunctional. In the same gesture, we’ve also shown enormous respect to the entire collective of persons who seek body piercings or tattoos that are commodified in some parts of the world while still being stigmatized in others, and to all individuals across the world regardless of cultural background, who participate in ritual body play.
I can only think to add at this point, that the choice to modify is not taken up because of a mental health condition requiring psychiatric or psychological intervention or treatment–or because of a physiological health problem requiring medical or surgical intervention or treatment. These conditions would restrict the agency of the subject, and thus, it would no longer be a live choice. If I am to defend a view of body modification and ritual body play that opposes the medicalization of these practices, I cannot remain logically consistent without stipulating why it is a live choice to engage in them.
I will also stress that because body modification and ritual body play are a collective of practices that range across the world, through time, and occurring within a diverse array of cultures, that it is not my place to define at what age a person is capable of making this decision for themselves. In my own country, I was considered legally capable of consenting to part my legs for penile-vaginal sex at 14, but I was not considered legally capable of consenting to have my ears pierced without the approval and presence of at least one of my parents until I was 16. Further to that, I was also not considered legally capable of consenting to have my genitals pierced until a few months after I had it done for the first time; yet the World Health Organization defines the act of female genital mutilation so broadly, that it is truly remarkable I even have that choice at all–especially considering that similar practices have literally been criminalized in the Republic of Kenya and other countries in Africa and the Middle East.
As a result of this exercise in writing, I have concluded on a criterion-based definition of body modification and ritual body play.
Body modification and ritual body play are a collective of practices that involve either criterion #1 or 2, but can incorporate both, and require fulfilment of criterion #3, as follows:
- undergoing an elective procedure to change the structures and/or appearances of one’s skin, and/or
- the elective manipulation or removal of non-vital structures of the body, and
- the choice is not influenced either by disordered patterns of thought or physiological ill health.