by Emma Petersen and Amy Callendar-Taft
Recently, NPCC’s Phi Theta Kappa academic honor society conducted a research project on body art in society for their Honors in Action Project. This project can be done on a topic of the group’s choosing, based on themes provided by the Phi Theta Kappa national office and it must follow specific guidelines. The idea of an Honors in Action project is to take a general idea, research it and explain how it relates to society as a whole. After the general research is completed, the idea is narrowed down more locally and funneled into some sort of action performed by the group. The Alpha Beta Theta Chapter has agreed to write this article, which will be released to the student body to further inform them about body art of all kinds, styles, and cultures.
In our research we discovered that body art can consist of tattooing, piercing, body modification, henna, and painting (like that featured in the popular television show Skin Wars). Generally speaking, body art can be classified as anything you do to your own body to alter or enhance its natural form, whether it is permanent or temporary. These modifications can be for cultural, religious, social or simply personal reasons. Modernly, body modification has developed for more personal reasons, rather than for cultural conformity.
The term for tattooing originated in the 1700s to describe a Tahitian native practice of tapping ink into skin using bamboo needles. However, there is reason to believe tattooing had been practiced for a very long time before it was termed (Jestius). Another culture of tattooing is connected to the Samoans, and it is related to the transfer between boyhood to manhood. In the Samoan culture, a man without tattoos is subject to ridicule. This is not enforced today, however, but many young men are revisiting the idea of honoring their culture through tattooing as a rite of passage (Ryman). Tattooing has come a long way today from its root of ink and bamboo needles. Furthermore, the reasons for the tattoos are not as culturally rooted today as they were previously, but that cultural tendency is growing more and more within our society.
Not unlike tattooing, piercings have a rich cultural tie. Most commonly noted are African cultures and their many uses of body art throughout generations and tribes. In these cultures, it was not uncommon to see both men and women with adornments in their ears and noses. Even today we see depictions of small bones being pressed through the cartilage of a person’s nose and worn as an accessory. Often, these were rather large in size and the larger they were, the more beautiful they were considered to be. It was not uncommon for slaves that remained employed to pierce an ear to show that it was their choice to remain with their employer.
Body modifications are another form of body art with cultural ties that have become more popular in mainstream society. Historically speaking, modifications have a stronger female history. In some Thai cultures, the women would often use brass rings to elongate their necks because the men viewed longer necks as more beautiful. Also, in Victorian times, the women would wear corsets to shrink the sizes of their waists, and actually train their ribs to grow in a different direction. In the same manner, Chinese women would bind their feet to keep them small, which was a sign of beauty in their time and culture. There are still cases where these same practices are used today, and for the same reasons.
Like the other arts, body modification has evolved over the years. Body modification is widely accepted by many individuals, yet not broadly accepted within society as a whole. Body modifications such as nose jobs, botox injections, face lifts and now even sex changes are becoming more widely accepted to the point that they often go unnoticed in our society. However, modifications such as under the skin implantations (to create the illusion of horns or a design), cutting the tongue in a serpent fashion, scarification, and branding are still socially taboo. If all of it falls under the realm of body modification, what makes some forms accepted and others not? It may be related to the purpose of the body modification. Modifications that are used to push people into the accepted body image such as botox injections, breast implants, liposuction, and nose jobs are accepted because they promote an ideal image of beauty. However, modifications that are for the purpose of individuality and self-expression push away from the crowd and promote a less accepted image, which may be the goal of the person getting the modification. It was not too long ago that some of the more accepted forms, such as sex changes, were also taboo, so it will probably not be too long before all modifications are more commonly accepted.
Until this is acknowledged as a form of self-expression, for whatever reason and way they are expressing it, those who choose to alter themselves through these body art or body modifications must deal with the stigmas that come along with them. Some stigmas related to tattoos, piercings, and implants are: the lack of employment opportunities, rebellious tendencies, and being seen as a social outcast. There are many companies or career paths that still frown on or even prohibit visual body art and piercing on the job. Some of these are for safety reasons; but more often than not, it is because body art is not viewed as professional. More companies and professions are coming around to the growing trend and are allowing their employees the right to their body art with little to no limitations. Another stigma comes from the religious society. It is not unheard of to walk into a church and to see people with all forms of body art, as in the workforce. Thus, it is becoming more tolerated in the churches as well. With that said, there are still many believers feel that it is an insult to the beneficence of God. In these instances they are not so much bothered by the work that is done, but by the process in which it is done. They view they body as a divine creation and to alter it in any way is what they do not agree with. They will often be prepared to back their beliefs with scriptures, such as: 1 Corinthians 6:15, which speaks of glorifying God in body and spirit. Some people are against body art in general for no specific reason other than personal preference, and others were simply raised in an environment that did not accept these forms of self-expression. Dr. Wolar, instructor at North Platte CC, mentioned that his distaste for wearing tattoos stems from a mixture of being a product of his youthful cultural environment, which later became more entwined with a sensitivity to theological issues. Wolar later went on to ask: “If someone gets tattooed to solidify their individuality, like many others, are they not just conforming to a kind of ‘group-think’ mentality? Is this truly an expression of individuality? It is, after all, a relatively permanent form of expression.” The reality of all art is that the content is likely to determine how accepted you will be in society. However, at any given time the fashion and acceptance of body art can change. Ultimately, society’s opinions should not hinder or provoke you to express yourself through body art, because society is always changing.
There are many reasons one chooses to change their appearance and, as we have discovered, there are many ways to change a person's appearance. Some do it out of artistic expression, or simply because they feel the need to change. Oftentimes, there is no thought behind it and, yes, it is sometimes even done on a “drunken whim”. While others have chosen to do it for a different reason, a reason more personal; and, the decision to change can fill a need, calm a heart, or even change a life. A woman getting an augmentation because cancer took her breast, a person with dwarfism breaking and lengthening their legs to avoid the struggle of their short stature, a man becoming a woman or vice versa because they feel trapped in the wrong body, a mother memorializing her child, and son or daughter honoring their parent. All these are actual reasons a person may choose to practice body art in any form, and for them it has more depth than just art or expression, in these cases it is a form of healing, or replacing what was lost, memorializing a loved one or freeing themselves from the personal prison of their own body. Granted, there are valid arguments to the opposition of these changes; but, regardless of the motivation behind them, many have to do with work and religion. Whatever one’s view of body art may be, it is important to keep one’s mind open, because one never knows what a person’s story, reason - or lack thereof – may be in engaging the art form.
Jesitus, John. Body modifications pose challenges for treating skin. Dermatology Times(2013):44. eLibrary. Web.30.Oct.2015
Ryman, Anders. "Peti's Malu: Traditions of Samoan Tattooing." World & I 16(2004): 160. eLibrary.Web.30.Oct.2015