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Body Modification:
Is it self-mutilation- even if some one else does it for you?

"Mutilation is the badge that can never be taken off, and sets us apart from all others. Pain is important to the bonding-- a physical horror that bonds us ever tighter to all those who have partaken. The intensity of the experience helps to widen the gulf between us and those who have not shared."
Pinhead in Clive Barker's PINHEAD Comic (issue 2)

Henna Hand
The question of self-mutilation is an important issue for piercers and clients alike to address for many reasons including being aware of the symptoms and treatment for body flashbacks. By no means do we wish to imply that all piercers or piercees have been victims of abuse. There are many reasons to get pierced, tattooed, or otherwise modified. The following is a collection of messages in an ongoing discussion between piercer Denise and a piercee Laura, both avid bodmodders and survivors of abuse. We've included some additional comments from some of our readers as well.

I'd really like to encourage readers to check out our list ov mental health links at our professional resources page for body artists. There's some great information out there!

Your input is important and your comments welcome, though please specify if we may include your input in this page.

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Denise>I'd be incredibly
> interested in discussing what your stance on bodyart is:  I've been asked
> to distinguish between self-mutilation and body piercing, scarification
> and branding, and am having a hard time doing so.  If you have the time or
> desire to enter correspondance I'd be quite happy!

Laura:You've certainly hit the philosophical topic of the day!
:As both an abuse survivor *and* an avid BodModer, I've pondered
:these ponders quite a bit.

:It's been my experience that many people into BodMod have
:come out of abusive childhoods.  I guess, for myself, I
:think of my piercings and tattoo as a way of reclaiming (or
:marking) my body for *myself*!  This is, of course, beyond
:the real-live erotic benefits to my genital piercings :-)

:In the literal sense, all BodMod could be seen as self-
:mutilation and, in some cases, it probably is!  However, I
:don't believe this is the case for most people.

:It could be that people who come out of intense, abuseive
:backgrounds are just less intimidated about pain. I know
:for myself I find the image of shiny metal
:imbedded in defenseless genitalia to be very erotic.  Part
:of what makes BodMod so interesting to me is the
:intensity of it, even though I've been pierced in spite
:of the pain, not because of it.....

> The main background I have of abuse is
> from a nasty relationship I was in for a year and a half from age 17 to
> almost 20.  Twas mostly mental and emotional since I got out shortly after
> it becoming physical.  Anyhoo, my main attraction to body modification was
> initially the control aspect- exerting control over my body and making my
> physical body fit the mental and spiritual vision I have of it.
> Unfortunately, the whole aspect of using bodmod as a way of expressing
> control smacks incredibly of self-mutilation.
> When I'm asked to differentiate, all I can say is, "Its not self-mutilation
> if someone does it for you!"

:Here's how I think about it:  in my work with abuse survivors I've
:encountered my share of folks who self-abuse in one form or another,
:all the way up to women who cut themselves.  In all of these cases,
:the mutilation was almost at the addiction level:  the woman would
:be in psychic pain, feel the need to relieve it or distract from
:it, and then be unable to stop the cutting.  This kind of self-
:mutilation was a continual dance of pain that arose from the
:unconscious, seemingly out of the victim's control.

:BodMod, on the other hand, is usually done with complete consciousness,
:and often in a celebratory state of mind.  Pierces and other
:body art are usually considered for some length of time before
:the work is actually done--the art carefully chosen, the proper
:pierce contemplated, supportive witnesses called, even full-
:blown rituals written up!  This is a completely different mind
:set than the average self-mutilator.

:So, perhaps to put it another way:  I see self-mutilation as
:marking the body in a way to numb/distract from psychic pain,
:whereas I see BodMod as a way to celebrate one's body and claim
:it as one's own, even if it *does* involve some pain.

:Do the MDs who stick us with hypos practice mutilation?  When
:an organ must be removed due to cancer, is this mutilation?
:Our society believes that certain kinds of pain are acceptable
:within certain formats.  That piercing/tattooing is not
:an "acceptable" format does not inherently make it mutilation.

> I get pierced for the metal, and tattooed for the ink, definitely not for
> the sensation.  I've played rather heavily in SM, and have acknowledged that
> there is definitely an attraction to consensual pain...  I also find myself
> taking strength from my piercing and tattooed experience:  when I was having
> my second daughter I did so at home (with midwives) and was never really
> afraid of the pain.  I was able to handle it better, knowing that I'd
> survived a scalp tattoo, or two ten-gauge labial piercings...  That it was
> possible to live through the experience and that there really was more to
> life than pain.

:I've felt the same thing!  I've never had children, but I do
:believe that the fear of potential pain kept me from many
:experiences when I was growing up (like gymnastics, for ex.).
:In a way, when I realized that I could actually survive a
:pierce, and come out the other side of it with an incredibally
:erotic toy, it was a *big* healing experience for me.  It
:helped me un-demonize pain in my life....

> As a professional piercer, I come across many reasons to be pierced.  I
> would like to think that done properly a piercing could be beneficial to
> some, but might it not be repeating the pattern of abuse in some way?

:I don't really think so.  I'm sure there are all sorts of folks
:out there who are seeking BodMod for the "wrong" reasons: the
:latest fad, the soriority demands it, to piss off the parents.....
:Sometimes when I encounter something *really* intense, like
:subincized cocks for example, I wonder about the self-mutilation
:issue.  But, these kinds of BodMod are pretty rare.  It seems
:that most folks use BodMod to get back in touch with the parts
:of themselves that were hurt or misused by others.

> I wonder- the first professional piercing I ever performed was on a lady
> whose first sexual experience had been a rape from which she had gotten
> pregnant.  When I pierced her labia, she cried- not due to the physical pain
> so much as letting out the emotional pain pent up for three years.  It was
> only after all was done, and I held her and talked with her, and shared some
> tea that the story came out.  Since then she has returned to me to get her
> tongue pierced (the genital piercings were for her past and helping her feel
> comfortable with herself, the tongue piercing was purely selfish, she said).

:Wow.  I'm not surprised by your story at all, though.  I'll
:bet this kind of cellular-level healing happens a lot in
:piercing/tattooing shops.  How wonderful that she had you
:as a piercer; she must have felt safe enough to let that bit
:of pain up--congrats to you!

> I must say that my navel piercing I got just after my first daughter
> was born, as was my hood piercing.  They were a bit of a reclamation of
> my body, particularly saying that I was a woman before I was a womb...
> Facial piercings were more of a fashion statement...  My tongue piercings
> I enjoy with both fashion and function, and my other labial piercings
> seem to be for stimulation and play...  I always get a kick out of
> walking down the hallway hearing the "jingle" of my rings...
> Anyhow, I guess thats enough theorizing for now...  It feels as though I
> haven't said what needs to be said, but can't think of anything else to say,
> you know?  I hope you've been able to glean somethang from this...

:You're very welcome, Denise.  It's funny, *I've* certainly
:wondered about the issues you've brought up, but you're the
:first person who's ever asked to disuss them!  I spent months
:before my first labia piercing wondering whether there was
:something seriously wrong with me for wanting to get this done--
:whether I was simply abusing the part that had already gone
:through so much--but in the end I decided that that's not
:what it was about.

:You know, I never liked to look at my puss until I got my
:rings.  I have well-developed inner labia that always show,
:and I was always envious of those women who seemed to have
:nice neat little pussies with everything tucked inside.  My
:puss looked like an ol' whore's cunt to me!  So, one reason
:I *know* I wasn't mutilating myself when I got my privates
:pierced was how much I loved to look at myself after the
:work was done.  You might actually say I'm *glad* my labia
:are the way they are now!  This is a big healing for me!
:So, I frankly don't believe that a self-abuseive act would
:have such a positive (and seemingly permanent) benefit if
:it was truely mutilation...

Date: Sat, 24 Feb 1996 22:38:38 -0800

Hi. I am glad that you are sharing this with every one. If you wish
this may be posted.
Body piercing and Tattooing are sacred rituals. Through these
mediums we can costumize our bodies and proclaim publicly that we
are in control of our destinies. Any spiritual quest demands
sacrifice if it is to have meaning. The pain of a peircing or a
tatoo is the path for transformation. If it didn't hurt and wasn't
difficult it wouldn't mean anything. To me a tattoo is my embodiment
of my spirit and soul, as well as an important step on my spiritual
quest. The only thing that I beleive may have a connection to the
past abuse is the persons need to reclaim his/her body for
themselves, and in that tattooing can also me a theriputic and
transformitive step.
Date: Sun, 02 Jun 1996 03:59:54 +0100
From: Alasdair Semple 

I currently have two piercings and am wanting to get more, but I also
self-harm through cutting. I've thought about the relationships
between the two and I have come up with the idea of positive and
negative body modification; positive being piercing and things like
plastic surgery if done with the motive to enhance your self, not just
to conform to other peoples' ideas, and negative being that which you
feel you have to do regardless of what you might think of it.

The trouble with this distinction is that I can't help grouping my
cutting in with the positive body modification, which feels very
strange and frankly wrong. Both are about my own control over my body,
Cutting is not something I do to please other people, it's something
that makes me feel better... maybe the distinction is that it's not the
*effect* that I feel better about but the *action* (the after-effects
feel entirely negative) whereas I feel piercing is about both the action
and the (semi-)permanent effect, for me the effect far more than the

I don't agree that my cutting is an unconscious action, in fact it is
very conscious but I suppose it may result from unconscious drives. I
am quite capable of being very careful about the process of cutting and
it is not by any means a sort of mad slash with whatever is lying
about. I can't entirely explain why I do it - but can anyone entirely
explain why they choose any sort of *cosmetic* modification or, for that
matter, fashion choice? Having said that I feel that there is an
intrinsic difference between the two; maybe even if I can't say why I
cut myself I can detect that the motive is fundamentally different.

I would be very interested to see things from anyone else reading this
page who is in the same sort of situation. I'm not an abuse survivor but
both piercing and cutting seemed to somehow come naturally to me, both
of them "just feeling right".
[since this gentleman is a minor, I've withheld his email address. DR]
      Feel free to add this to the page if you wish.
      I am glad that you two posted this discussion because it answered a
couple of questions that I have had.  I am 14 and I really want to get my
toung, nose, and penis peirced. My mother is totaly against it. I am not
sure why I even want to be peirced, I want the toeng for looks but I
don't really know about the other two.  In the past I have found that by
enflicting pain on myself I could release alot of anger and emotion
without hurting anyone else.  For about 4 months I would say that I was
adicted to pain, I would slash my arms with a razor or a nife every time
I became angry.  Now my arms are all scared up. I have not done it in a
while but lately I have had the urges to hurt myself more often.
Sometimes I wounder if I'm screwed up in the head for thinking of stuff
like that. I have not been abused sexualy or physicaly but my father used
to be verry mean to me and put me down alot. I just wrote this to
hopefuly get some advise on how to control the urges to hurt myself and
whether I should get the peircings. Thanks, Bye.

                   Tommy S.

From: "R. Gaenssmantel" 
Date: Sat, 31 Aug 1996 20:12:09 +0100

just a bit of feedback on your mutilation thingy. Firstly I was not abused -
ever. And I can't quite understand the 'claiming back' business - but then we'd
already enter the 'why do you bodmod' thread.

I agree that body modification and mutilation is not necessarily easy to tell
apart, but I think there are two indicator which give quite a good way of
distinuishing the two:
* Is the modification/mutillation against your will?
     If yes => mutillation
   * If no: Why do you do/did you do it (have it done)?
        If for mere destruction => mutillation
        If for aesthetic/sexual/... reasons => modification
        If for punishment/claiming back your body => borderline

The latter sounds a bit strange let me explain. Punishment means you don't
really want it for yourself, but because of others (and if you've got to use
Sartres explaination of guilt that you only feel it when you feel someone is
actually observing/watching you). Reclaiming you body could be either 'it's
mine and I'll decorate it' (modification) or 'it's mine and I'll do something
to it which ... (fill in the blanks) would not like'; that would make it self
mutilation (for a certain purpose though, but nevertheless).

From: eric 
Date: Sun, 26 Oct 1997 12:23:09 -0500

Print this if you wish
mutilation is about change-about consuming what is-something different
you lose an arm, this is mutilation
you scar something horribly, this is mutilation
mutilation is ugly, contains nothing of the soul
body art, piercing, scarification, and tattooing are all about
enhancement if practiced in the right context
some asshole sticking out their tongue all the time to show off their
piercing is the wrong context
greater stimulus-this is the right context
anything done to say "hey look at me" is ugly, is mutilation
the things I have done mark significant things in my life, significant
things about me and they are not there to share, they remind me, they
enable me to wear the soul on the skin and the soul is something
Date: Sat, 7 Feb 1998 10:46:00 EST

 tattoos and peircings are by no means mutilation. they are only things that
help us express our true individuality. to most normal people it is discusting
and strange, but i totally disagree. if we did not do such things as the act
of body art we would be affraid to express our selves in other ways and if
that were not the case than we wouldnt know where to start.
Date: Sun, 08 Feb 1998 03:04:56 -0800
From: sine nomine 
Subject: self-mutilation vs body modification

(feel free to use this)

first, i think reading the fakir musafar's epilogue to favazza's _bodie
under siege: self-mutilation and body modification in culture and
society_ can help sort this out.

favazza separates body mod into two sorts: ritual/practice and
pathological. rituals are done because they have great underlying
meaning for the person doing them and are generally taken very seriously
as a spiritual act. i think the people who call themselves modern
primitives would fall into the ritual category. practices are thigns
done for ornamentation, for social reasons, etc.

pathological self-mutilation is about using pain or damage to yourself
to change the way you feel in the moment. it's possible to use piercing,
branding, or scarification to achieve this end, but that doesn't mean
that those things are automatically self-injury. more important than the
actual act is why it is being done. another important consideration is
frequency -- people whose self-injury is pathological tend to do it over
and over again almost compulsively. it's not a planned thing most of the
time; they feel an unbearable psychological tension that is relieved by
inflicting physical harm on themselves.

deb martinson
list owner, bodies-under-siege self-injury support list

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