Reclamation, Enhancement, and Self-Expression
Jason C. Hillman
In America the practice of body piercing is everywhere, especially among young people. who are getting several parts of their bodies pierced either as an affirmation of their personal individuality, as a means of sexual gratification or stimulation, a reclamation of their bodies from physical or emotional trauma, or for as a means of adornment. Whateverthe reason, it's widespread. Body piercing is the piercing of the ears, nose, septum, cheeks, lip, tongue, nipples, navel, clitoris, labia, penis, and scrotum. Says California State University anthropologist James Myers, Ph.D. body piercing is "possibly as old as genus Homo." (Todd, Richard, p.1) Body piercing studios are popping up all over the country in a response to the growing demand for having a needle poked through your skin. Contrary to popular belief, body piercing is not being performed by freakish subculture deviants. In order to be a reputable piercer one has to take a rigorous course of education in the principals and methods of body piercing. This is a step toward the acceptance of body piercing in mainstream America, where it is still viewed with mistrust by many. Body piercing allows a person to express their individuality in a new way: by putting a needle through yourself, you mark your body as your own (Delaney, Jim, p.3). By exploring some of the motivations behind body piercing, onediscovers that it's not an unhealthy practice (unless performed in an unsterile environment or the piercing is not adequately cared for by the piercee- both of which are heavily discouraged by piercing advocates). Indeed, body piercing is a healthy way to express your individuality or improve your self image.
In the nineties, more and more young people are sporting rings through various parts of their bodies. This is known as body piercing, and it has made a considerable imprint on young people. Body piercing is the practice of piercing the ears, eyebrows, tongue, nose, septum, lip, cheek, nipples, navel or genitals for varied reasons. It's becoming more and more common: Body piercing shops are cropping up all over the country and business is booming. Says piercer Kent Fazekas, who owns Indianapolis-based Body Accents Inc, " ...I think it's here to stay." (Eckert, Toby, 1) The practice of body piercing among young Americans is part of a quest for individuality. Brooklyn body piercing studio Modern American Bodyarts owner Keith Alexander says piercing is "...experimentation with the one thing you truly own: your body." (Keith, Alexander, p.1) Body piercing is their way of saying that they do not want to be like everybody else on the planet. Of course, the reason for body piercing also carries other connotations such as rites of passage and sexual gratification. Still, the body piercing movement is gaining momentum throughout America. It's not at all uncommon to see pierced navels and noses anymore, even in largely conservative regions like Indiana. And young people are feeling the need to be individuality-minded in the fast paced nineties. It's a conscious effort to repudiate the conservative mindset of their parent's generation by differing from that which is said to be normal in our society. This is where piercing comes in. When the piercing movement first started to gain momentum in the eighties it was frowned upon as a method of body ornamentation practiced only by "deviants". This is partially due to the popularity of piercing in gay and Sado-Masochist circles (Leo, John p.2). But now piercing is done for different reasons. Many teenagers get pierced during their college years, mainly because they are away from their homes and therefore don't have to worry about parental reaction. Indeed, some piercers say that piercing is becoming part of the college experience (Howard, Dylan, p.1). Many young people enjoy piercings in body parts other than their ears, especially in the nose and navel, and increasingly, the lips or tongue. Body piercing, when done correctly, is also a very safe means of ornamentation. Most accomplished piercers stress the importance of stringent cleanliness in the piercing environment. All piercing needles are used once and thrown away, usually into biohazard buckets, which are then removed by companies experienced in the disposal of medical waste. Materials which must be reused are autoclaved between each use (an autoclave is a device used to sterilize medical equipment) andthe autoclaves themselves are evaluated quarterly for efficiency (Alexander, p.2). There is also the organization known as the Association of Professional Piercers (A.P.P.), which helps keep the practice of body piercing safe.
For many, the motivation behind body piercing is highly sexual. Says one piercer with the A.P.P., "the act of piercing carries in and of itself a heady sexual component". (Alexander, p.1) This is one primary reason behind nipple and genital piercings. When the nipples or genitals are pierced the entire are becomes more sensitive. This is a delight for some piercees. Indeed, genital piercing in America was incubated in gay Sado-Masochistic circles. a 1985 survey of Piercing Fans International Quarterly (a popular piercing magazine published by the Gauntlet, America's first major body piercing studio) subscribers stated that 57 percent of its subscribers engaged in dominant-submissive play, which is itself the signature practice of Sado-Masochism (Wattenberg, Daniel, p.1). Interestingly enough, a third of the people surveyed also reported having undertaken post-graduate study (Wattenberg, p.1). Of course, genital piercing is not limited to gay Sado-Masochists. Many young people pierce their genitals (and nipples) to heighten sexual pleasure. Many women have reported greater sexual satisfaction with pierced clitorises or clitoral hoods. Men pierce their genitals for the same reason. There are four primary piercings which men have done to their genitals. A Prince Albert goes through the urethra and come out through a hole in the underside of the penis; a frenum piercing is performed about 1/4 inch from the glans; an ampallang is a piercing which runs through the glans horizontally, and an apadravya is a piercing that runs through the glans vertically, often as a continuation of a Prince Albert. Many men have reported an increase in sexual stimulation after a piercing. "It's like having a hand inside my lover playing with me at the same time as I move in and out", says one piercee (Alexander, 1). The Prince Albert has been around since the Victorian age, when it was called a "dressing ring" and was used to secure the penis to one leg in order to conceal it in the tight pants in style at the time (Trebay, Guy, p.2).
Body piercing for some is a conscious act of reclamation of the body and taking it into possession as their own. The entire piercing experience is transformed into a highly spiritual event. Pain is an intrinsic part of the ritual- and indeed is sometimes the entire reason for getting pierced. Body piercing is seen by many to be a pain inducing ritual which can be used to attain elevated states of consciousness. Genital piercings are often done as a sexual reclamation ritual; that is, it's done as a means of reclaiming the body as you own to signify a recovery from sexual abuse. By piercing the genitals, you're imprinting a part of your psyche on that part of your body, marking it as exclusively yours. Reclamation is not always just sexual -- some pierce their bodies in order to demonstrate their bodies exclusively theirs instead of an image painted and manipulated by society. In essence, it improves body image for many young people, especially women. Says one female college student of her navel piercing, "it's very exotic. It makes me feel very well dressed and elegant" (Howard, p.2). Another young lady had a piercing done for "psychic protection" (Delaney, Jim p.1). Body piercing is a highly meaningful rite of passage for many young people. The idea of voluntary pain induction as a spiritual ritual is highly cathartic and often symbolizes the death of an unpleasant memory or part of one's life. In this context it is easy to see the popularity of body piercing -- it is a means of spiritual, mental, and emotional cleansing. This was the attitude of pre-industrial indigenous societies such as the Native Americans. There is a Native American ritual known as the O-Kee-Pa or Sundance which consists of making a deep piercing behind each nipple and then inserting hooks intothe piercings. Ropes were attached to the hooks and the initiate was spun around in circles until he lost consciousness. This ritual is culture specific to the Plains Indians and involves an entire year of preparation. It is still performed every summer by the Cheyenne and allows a renewal and revitalization of their culture.
There are a great amount of young people who are piercing their bodies simply for adornment. The exotic aspect of having a ring through their lip appeals to them (Howard, p.2). The appearance of body piercings on models such as Elle MacPherson have had a profound effect on piercing. A female college student at Yale, when asked about her piercings, said, "I just liked the way it looked."(Howard, p.2) This seems to be the reason many young people are getting pierced. Another reason for piercing for adornment is the role of muticulturism in America. Many people get pierced in emulation of African, Indian or Polynesian body adornments (Delaney, p.1). Body piercing is seen as a way to enhance one's physical beauty (Todd, p.1). This enhancement is really positive because it is allowing young people to be at ease with their bodies, which is emotionally healthy. It helps when body piercing is seen as a means of decoration instead of self-flagellation and deviant behavior. Body piercing is a means by which one can enhance their physical beauty by ornamenting the body. It's seen as ornamentation in African tribes such as the Masai and the Padaung of Malaysia.The same is rapidly becoming the case in America.
In examining body piercing in America, one must look past the fact that it had it's start in Sado-Masochism circles. People who engage in Sado-Masochism are seen as deviants (which is not really the case; they're just different from most people) and therefore body piercing is seen as a deviant act which makes any bearer of a piercing a deviant. This is a vicious circle and a flawed sense of reason and rationale which we must, as a culture, get over if we are to further the cause of understanding between different people. Body piercing is a healthy activity. It is an act of defiance, of self expression. it has helped many people recover from sexual abuse by reclaiming their bodies through piercing. It is a means of elevating one's sexual stimulation. It is the act of adorning and beautifying the body, which heightens one's self image. Unfortunately, body piercing is viewed by many as a self- destructive activity. This is because some body piercings are not taken care of properly by the piercee. All body piercing studios provide detailed instructions for the care of fresh piercings. Body piercing holds deep meaning for many. One college student had his tongue pierced to satisfy his oral fixations and ended up almost entirely quitting smoking (Howard, p.2). Body piercing is not going to go away. It's popularity may wane a bit, but that will make it all the more special for those who do choose to have some part of their anatomy pierced. It is important to remember that people with body piercing are generally not deviant or psychologically ill. Instead, they have a view of beauty which differs from that of the mainstream. This is simply an expression of individuality, a harmless and benign statement of who these people are and what they believe in. All too often it is ignorance that leads people to spurn body piercing. By educating yourself on the subject it becomes plain to see that body piercing is a powerful tool for self-expression and emotional security. By going through the pain of the piercing, the emotionally insecure regains a feeling of control.
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The Village Voice July 7, 1995: p.18
2. Eckert, Toby. "Body Accents Pierces Traditional Business Image with Wares to Wear"
Indianapolis Business Journal March 3, 1997: p.45
3. Leo, Jon. "The Modern Primitives"
US. News and World Report July 31, 1995: p.16
4. Wattenberg, Daniel. "A Parents' Guide to Body Piercing"
Forbes September 23, 1996: pp. 166-173
5. Howard, Dylan. "Holier than Thou"
The Yale Daily News November 10, 1995: p.3
6. Todd, Richard. "Look What They've Done to my Bod, Ma"
Psychology Today May/June 1993: p.8
7. Delaney, Jim. "Piercing for Beginners"
Prime Magazine September 26, 1995: pp. 19-23
8. Alexander, Keith. "About Body Piercing." Body Modification Ezine
3pp. World Wide Web http://www.bme.freeQ.com June 1997