What defines body destruction as opposed to body modification?  
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Body modication artist at Black Rose Studio on Vancouver Island in Canada, custom industrial and flesh staple designer, safe body art advocate.


Be advised that I in no way want to seem judgmental, bias or oppressive, this article is merely a discussion on a variety of issues focusing on where the line may draw between body destruction and body modification. I am not a spiritual advisor, plastic surgeon or psychotherapist, I'm a piercer.

Everyday I'm forced to make a moral decision about the well being of an individual who has at this point decided to adorn their body with either a piercing, tattoo or scar. As a true professional, I believe in asking the client a number of questions relating to lifestyle, employment and health. This can help me decide whether or not the individual is truly interested in the modification. In most cases the client is simply experimenting with aesthetics or altering their canvas to achieve a look or sensation. However, some forms of modification performed today are incredibly extreme and profoundly dangerous, not to mention life threatening. I as someone who could perform some of these procedures, look at it like a this:

  1. Does this individual know as much or more about the procedure as I do?
  2. Could this procedure go wrong due to lack of anatomical knowledge? i.e. excessive bleeding, excessive nerve and/or tissue damage, excessive cutting, shock and/or convulsions, etc.
  3. Could this procedure be performed by a private physician who is body modification friendly? If so...if the client is that serious about undergoing an extreme modification, they should have no problem paying a licensed physician to perform the procedure in a stable and sterile environment.
  4. Could I go to jail for this and is it worth the stretch?

As you can see, I personally don't approve of body art technicians providing extreme modifications to the public. Only because it hinders the professional image the industry has been trying to achieve for years and decades. Many people have spent their lives making this industry what it is today, and it will only take a small few to have this culture under the microscope of every environmental health authority on the planet. Now let's discuss the issue, does a modification artist have the right to judge the mental and physical health of a client and if so, what can be considered criteria for a client who could undergo any extreme modification. Personally I don't think any one person can be sure that what the client is pursuing can be considered a safe modification. Ask yourself, is this person a cutter and am I assisting in assault? Could this person be considered mentally unstable? Am I capable of providing this medical type procedure? It's hard to determine the line between sane and eccentric, or simple & extreme. Who has the power to judge what we as individuals can do to our own bodies without harming other people. without laws we cross the line between acceptable and taboo, but does that mean we should? I believe that some people alive today don't feel that they are who they should be, and some people don't know who they can or could be, and only they can determine whether or not it is considered body modification or body destruction. However, the even more profound question is should we care, does it affect us, and what effect will this have on us and them after...?

Simply put, modifying the human canvas involves any non, semi and permanent alterations to the interior and/or exterior of the body. Body destruction can be considered that small or large part of you that you leave behind, could be a cartilage punch, maybe some skin removal or even the severing of a digit. What the question really addresses is what permanent mental and physical effects will be apparent due to the modification, and will it affect any personal or professional areas of the client or practitioner's lifestyle. Keeping in mind that one person's taboo is another person's religion nowadays, don't feel that I think chopping off body parts or sex changes are wrong.....let's just leave it to professionals to help them with their transformations. We can always tattoo, pierce, brand, and cut our clients, even today's transdermal implants are technically and physically the same as a piercing, and prove to heal like a typical navel piercing. Implants I won't touch base on because I know that some great technicians are making positive advances in sub-dermal implantation procedures, but we are yet to see the long term affects of these implants. Although they can be removed as easily as they are inserted, implants are in the experimental stages right now.

As I leave you to ponder the complexities of all meaning to life, I want you to ask yourself this: when a body mod makes someone a better person mentally, and physically they are a very healthy individual, but they lose their job and can't find work due to the modifications, would you consider that destructive to a person's lifestyle? And could the practitioner have better informed them of any possible adverse affects prior to the modification? If they themselves knew better.

I believe that as our culture comes more to the surface and people become more accepting of well done, aesthetically pleasing body art, we'll start to see more positive action on behalf of our government health officials with assistance in governing, regulating and licensing body art services on a more personal basis. Like they have in most of the U.K. strict infection control and procedure regulations have been established in an effort to diminish the number of high risk procedures and maintain infection control standards. Don't worry, the U.S. and Canada aren't far behind.

Again, I did not want to seem judgmental in any way, this was simply a variety of questions pertaining to what suggests body destruction as opposed to body modification. Please modify your body safely and always educate yourself on infection control. It's your body, your choice, your life!

Piercer and manager of The Edge Tattoo in Rhode Island, in the process of organizing a Boston based suspension group.

IAM Page: goddam

First I'll say I hate answering this type of question. I get asked at work, by parents fairly often, and sometimes by people who think I've gone too far with my own body to outline the difference and I hardly ever come up with anything more than "well...", mainly because I feel like I'm generalizing, and so I'd also like to say before I start that my answer is just that, my answer based on my experiences and what I've seen. I'm sure there are people and situations that contradict my opinion and I by no means am trying to project.

That said, I think the more definable difference between the two is intent. As a young teenager I both got tattoos/piercings...I also cut myself, but the two were completely mutually exclusive. I didn't get tattoos because I was depressed I got them because they were an interesting/beautiful/cool etc addition to my body and I loved the way they looked on me. I got piercings for similar reasons but I cut myself for multiple reasons known to me and probably several that still aren't. These marks were and still are hidden. They were never intended for anyone else to see and to this day if someone happens to somehow see them and comment it's a little embarrassing. I feel completely different about my tattoos and piercings, I look at them as something I worked hard for either by saving money or for the long hours of work put into them, and don't mind showing people my work. I don't necessarily go out of my way to show them off but at the same time, I'm pretty happy if I find a shirt that I like that also shows off my chest piece.

Though this line can certainly blur, it's certainly hard to judge since everyone is different and one's own true intent is hard to really understand sometimes, let alone someone else's. Mainstream body piercing and tattoos can certainly be used as a means of self destruction as can anything in the right circumstance. But for the most part where I see the line is someone actively seeking out that they know either directly or indirectly will harm them with no redeeming quality or attribute; or should there be one, it is simply not the primary goal. Simply "hurting" one's self can hardly count as being destructive, are we going to commit every women who goes in for a wax? Should those who undergo elective cosmetic surgery be considered suicidal? No. The old mutilation vs. modification debate will go on forever I suppose, with each participant adding to it what they will but as far as I've ever been able to see the difference is intent. Destructive behavior and mutilation to be what they are have to come from a want to do harm but not for a greater good. Harm pure and simple it is often uncalculated and sometimes not completely conscious. For whatever reason those things should do not carry intended aesthetic value or be connected directly to anything good. They come from a different place than making aesthetic changes to the body that will in turn be cared for. Things like cutting (and by cutting I do not mean scarification I refer more to slashing of any body part with whatever) or any form of self physical harm of this nature (cutting, burning, etc I'd also like to mention that these are only a couple of forms of mutilation/destruction that seem to me to be the most relevant to the subject) is in my eyes more often than not the physical manifestation of emotional pain and so tattooing and body piercing would be the physical manifestation of an artistic nature or appreciation?

I'm far from anyone whose opinion on this subject should count as educated. I've lived through both and can generally say that simply saying any type of self inflected pain is mutilation doesn't really sit well with me. For the most part body modification in the sense of the word used here (body piercing, tattooing, scarification, branding, suspension etc) these are in my eyes more a "rights of passage" if the person is indeed seeking out pain than mutilation. Why? Because there is some degree of art applied or at the very least the sole reason behind it is not harm/pain for harm/pain's sake. Can a very nice tattoo/piercing be extremely detrimental to ones life? Certainly but I think that happens to fall into the poorly made decision range than mutilation.

With all that in mind I think the over use of the word mutilation where it is used in regard to body modification is for the most part thrown around out of ignorance, inacceptance, and in some cases disgust. In their eyes your tattoo or body piercing may be something that they cannot see any good thing coming out of but only the negative pain or having "that thing there for the rest of your life", that for the most part is their loss and their opinion. The word mutilation is a word with a definition that has some pretty negative connotations behind it especially for someone who doesn't believe they are in fact mutilating themselves and who see great beauty or achievement in what they've done. For the sake of the whole mutilation vs. modification argument I think it's important to remember that both words have VERY flexible definitions that are applied so often misguidedly because they are used with a whole lot of opinion behind them.

former staff member of BME's QOD.

IAM Page: saram

It seems like many of the distinctions between "body modification" and "body destruction" are created by the perceptions of others. What one person sees as beautiful and healthy, another may view as disgusting and sick. Many modifications are not mainstream, so it's rather easy to see why people identify something unusual as "destructive" when they find that they cannot (or are unwilling to) relate to it.

In a way, any sort of modification is a form of destruction -- through semi-permanent or permanent changes to the body, we are "destroying" some aspect of our original forms. I will never again have an unscarred torso or an unblemished ear. I tend to view my modifications as creation, rather than destruction... but with the creation of the new comes the destruction of the old. From a societal perspective, a "factory standard" body is normal, acceptable, and mainstream. When we intentionally modify our bodies, we're also destroying this patina of normalcy.

The biggest difference between "body modification" and "body destruction" is in connotation. The word "destruction" is negative, conjuring images of danger, devastation, instability, and rage. "Modification" implies much more ambiguous change. But these are certainly not two separate things, from any vantage -- as I said, one person's "modification" is another's "destruction." A cutting may appear destructive to others, but for the scarred individual, it may provide spiritual completeness. Body modification is often associated with low self-esteem, self-image issues, and self-destructiveness. But this is an issue of perception.

It is my belief that many things that are labeled as "destructive" may simply be misunderstood. My mother views my modifications with fear, disgust, and worry; I see them as a very important and necessary aspect of myself. There are times when I see certain behaviors as "body destruction," in practices that seem to carry the intent of self-harm or death. But perhaps I am saying this because I simply cannot relate.

mod enthusiast, involved with the Om Summer Solstice Festival, director of www.calisthenics.org.

IAM Page: Flip

I'll admit that I have a bit of a closed mind when it comes to what some people would call extreme body modification, and what others might call mutilation. For me, there is a line between body art and stupidity. In some cases the line is not static; there is some flux allowed for any situation and any person, depending on a variety of factors.

In body modification I think that destructive behavior is, generally, something with a permanent effect. (This isn't to say that all permanent mods are destructive, rather that most destructive mods are permanent in nature. For example, sewing your lips shut for a day isn't really destructive while having your lips fused together permanently is.)

In general I think a reasonable place to begin to look at destructive behavior are functionally destructive modifications like amputation, especially the larger scale ones such as legs and arms. To me, these go beyond modification and in to the realm of plain stupidity. I understand that a person may have the desire for an amputation, however I think that these desires, when acted upon in this way, are unhealthy. I liken these modifications to other types of fantasies that people have.

In the sexual arena, being raped is a common fantasy. And because of this, people act out elaborate rape scenes and live their fantasies. But most people with rape fantasies don't actually want to be victimized by a rapist. To the same end, I think that people with the desire to have an amputation might be better served by similar fantasy acting. At the end of the day, if you put yourself in a wheelchair, or end up dialing the phone with a stick in your mouth because you've chopped off your hands, you've screwed yourself. These are what I'd call functionally destructive modifications, and there isn't a lot of gray area with these, in my opinion.

There are also what I guess we can call "socially destructive" modifications, that do have a gray area. An obvious example is having your entire face tattooed. If you are already heavily modded, you work in a tattoo shop, and have a network of support already established, then perhaps this isn't a terrible mistake. While you'll have to deal with the general public's ignorance, you've probably already made that decision and are prepared for the consequences. But if you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a wife and kids and no history of modification, getting your face tattooed is probably a bad idea - it's going to cost you on a personal level. You'll probably lose your job, your friends, and who knows what else.

In the end, as with anything, I guess the mindset that accompanies the act is equally important to the act itself. For example, body building might seem like a healthy enterprise. But if the rationale behind exercising is to mold oneself into a stereotypical or unattainable ideal of health that the media has imposed upon us, there is also a destructive or unhealthy element present.

So...to all you kids out there: don't cut off your hands and feet. They don't grow back, you know.