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?
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).
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.
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?
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?
Karen — September 22, 2011
While body modification for women may reject the broader culture's beauty norms, it allows women to gain subcultural capital, especially in subcultures in which male participation is valued over female participation. Or, if you think her tattoos are ugly, she wouldn't be interested in you anyway.
On the question of Western appropriation, I suspect that adoption of the signs and symbols of the Other are an attempt to "decorate" the blank identity of whiteness with more "authentic" or "natural" cultural tropes. In this schema, whiteness is still the default blank canvas of Western identity, while the Other lends its mystique to the tattooed subject.
Dave Paul Strohecker — September 22, 2011
Yes! Great points Karen! These are related issues that I am glad you brought up. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Beth L Dougherty — September 24, 2011
Pitt's claim of identity tourism overlooks, to some degree, what may be an underlying understanding for women who opt for 'tribal' or 'primitive' tattoos. In the interviews referenced, as well as conversations I have seen elsewhere (BME, etc), especially for women, the question of symbolic association is important. Are these other-cultured marks really about appropriating someone else's symbolic schema, or are they about using what may be for them, aesthetically pleasing blank symbols on which they can inscribe their own meaning? I might suggest that the lack of cultural sript regarding the ink may play a role in overcoming trauma or symbolizing transformation for the recipients.
While tattoo articles and studies involving gender may focus on white women's bodies as sites of ink, especially that which utilizes other cultures images, it is not limited to a practice of whiteness. On the other hand, there is something to the fact that there appears to be more sub-cultural capital involved in 'tribal' styles of tattoo ink on white women than there does the 'picture book' style in some groups.
Just a thought.
Aya — September 24, 2011
It must be remembered that not everyone has a visual cultural identity as such. As the child of an immigrant family I am aware that my countries culture is not my culture or the culture of my ancestors. But I also feel no ties to the country where my parents used to live. My culture is queer and feminist and gothic and that is all I have to lay claim to. There is no strong visual language associated with any of those that is not also borrowed from some other time or culture. When you get right down to it there are very few designs that a middle class western person can choose or create that do not reference some other culture or movement in time. Those of us who do not live in a culture with a strong design presence have to make do with what we have, and if you're not into pop culture tattoos then borrowing is what you have. It doesn't have to have meaning. You just have to like it.
Meagan — September 25, 2011
I would argue, Aya, that middle-class Western culture does have a strong design presence, insofar as all visual cultures are design-heavy and ours is a decidedly visual culture. The reason it may appear as though there is not a strong design presence in the middle-class West is because those designs are normalized, neutralized, and thereby rendered 'invisible' or unseen because they are so ubiquitous. My grandmother's wallpaper is designed, for example, but I barely notice because it seems so middle class and Western and "normal" (the implication there being that the Western middle-class is a normal socio-geographical location, which is not true; it's simply a privileged one). So when you insinuate that other cultures are more design-heavy than ours, I think you might unwittingly contribute to that process of normalization, which buffets privilege by casting everything that deviates as Other.
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Daisha — October 6, 2012
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Michelina Gerard — October 9, 2014
Body Modification is a way for peoole to express themselves. The rules for body modification for men and women are different if you see a man covered in tatoos you wouldn't say anything, but when you see a women covered in tatoos many comments are made about it. It's a negative thing when you get covered in tatoos you will regret it becausenyouncan get ink poising and you cant get them off unless you get them removed with a laser.