Recently I stumbled across this interview with Jacqui Moore, a rather well-known and visible member of the body modification community for her extensive black and grey full body suit. Bearing the rather exploitative tagline (which states “A respectable mother celebrated her divorce by asking her new boyfriend to cover her entire body – with a single TATTOO”), which makes her sound not only impulsive but pathological, what does this case reveal about contemporary body modification practices? What is the relationship between gender, patriarchy, and body modification? And what are the costs of using indigenous iconography and rituals in one’s body modification practices?

Jacqui Moore with husband Curly

Much has been written about body modification as a form of self empowerment for women (Atkinson 2004; Braunberger 2001; Pitts 1999; 2003). For instance, Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (1997) argues that women’s role in the tattooing coincides directly with the three waves of feminism. She draws parallels between the First Wave and tattooed women of the carnival circuit, the Second Wave and female tattoo artists of the Tattoo Renaissance (60s and 70s),  and the Third Wave and the contemporary proliferation of tattooed female bodies (many with widely different political agendas).

Because they violate gender norms, body modifications like tattoos and piercings serve as a declaration of autonomy and a means of resistance to traditional notions of femininity.

In a similar vein, Michael Atkinson (2004) argues that tattooing allows individuals to express emotions that would normally be displaced, subverted, and pushed away from public view. In this way, individuals can confront their fears, their worries, their hopes, and their dreams. The result is that they can avoid the potentially negative psychological costs of keeping these sorts of stressors inside them. Atkinson argues that by publicly confronting especially negative emotions, tattooing acts as a cathartic valve that prevents more self-destructive or harmful behaviors.

So whereas one might interpret Jacqui Moore’s dramatic post-divorce body modification as a sign of mental pathology or instability, we might also interpret her behavior as a rational attempt at self-empowerment, self-actualization, and change. She states, “I went to get a new tattoo to symbolise [sic] my freedom and the new chapter in my life.” And later, “I love seeing my body change every time Curly tattoos me…It’s an incredible journey of self-discovery.”

Victoria Pitts (2003) has also argued that body modification serves as a means of stress management for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the subordinated. Her interviews with members of the LGBT community, working class tattoo enthusiasts, female tattoo collectors, and “modern primitives” reveal that each of these groups uses body modification as a means of coping with stress resulting from various forms of oppression (gender, sexuality, race, class, etc). Whether it’s a desire for self-affirmation, the need to overcome personal tragedy, battling with poverty, or finding voice in a hostile society, these individuals all find solace in the act of modifying their bodies.

A gay pride tattoo

For instance, many of Pitts’ interviewees were women who had been sexually abused at one point in their lives. The tattooing ritual helped them to overcome these traumatic experiences and locate their bodies once again.

“I can’t believe it, even now when I’m sitting here talking to you [about being raped]. I was out of my body for almost two years. I can’t really find any other way of explaining this to you than by saying I felt numb. I tried not to think about my body because I felt dirty, ashamed, and like, you know, I wanted to crawl out of myself… I thought a tattoo might help me re-claim my body, bring it back to my control, you know. I lost my body, I was a stranger in my own skin. I cried the whole time I was being tattooed, all the fear, and hate, and sorrow came to the surface, and every time the needles struck me I relived the pain of the rape. I don’t think any amount of talk, with whoever, could have forced me to get in back in touch with my body like that… I consider that day my second birthday, the day I really started to move on with my life.” (Jenny, 24)

Moore’s extensive black and grey tattoos borrow heavily from the iconography of non-Western cultures. Therefore, it becomes necessary to analyze the relationships of power that undergird these liberatory body modification practices of affluent, white westerners. For instance, what does it mean for a middle-class white woman to appropriate the symbols of ancient Tibetan monks? Does the self-empowerment that body modification provides come at the cost of indigenous cultural forms?

This man uses African iconography in his "tribal" backpiece.

Pitts (2003) advocates for a body politics informed by history and critical of power. As such, she sees the rise of tattooing and body modification amongst white westerners as “identity tourism,” where Cyberpunks, neo-tribalists, Goths, and others appropriate the cultural practices and corporeal rituals of non-western Others (Pitts 2003). Although these individuals may be well intentioned in their desire to frame “traitorous identities” in solidarity with non-western cultures, they nonetheless reify the very modern-primitive divide they seek to displace. Rather than an act of subversion, the tattooed body (and other modifications like stretched lobes, scarifications, brandings, etc.) represents the privilege of white westerners to name and claim the cultural Other as their own.

What do you all think?