I have to admit, a lot of these things are pretty cool. I think some tattoo sleeves on guys look badass, and certain piercings on chicks are hot (you know which ones). However, I find it difficult to fully grasp why so many people, especially Millennials like myself are undergoing body modifications considered deviant by society.
Of course, young people have always rebelled against their parents and society by going against societal norms. Yet, this trend differs from past ones like bellbottom jeans and leather jackets. Unlike hippies of the 60’s who could ditch their ragged clothing for white-collared shirts a few years later, many Millennials have made permanent alterations to their bodies; this is where the trend needs to be observed more closely.
Before we get into it, I want to make note that I am not accusing everyone who has a small piercing or bleaches their hair of having major issues, but many younger people these days do, and we should figure out what they are and what’s causing it.
To start, we must define what this trend consists of. From what I can see, there are three major categories of body modification that today’s teens and twentysomethings are partaking in: Tattoos, piercings, and hair alterations (Hair dye, as well as short hair). We must ask: why?
Does it make them more attractive? For the most part, no.
Does it give them higher social status? No, in fact in the eyes of many it lowers their status.
So two of the main reasons primitive cultures underwent body modification can be ruled out.
One main reason people take part in the growing trend is that because it is human nature to desire to conform and be a part of something greater than ourselves. Those with multiple body modifications usually socialize with one another and partake in that subculture. These modifications serve as a means of an individual saying, “Hey! I’m one of you.”
While body modification is still considered deviant behavior, it has become much more mainstream. The trendsetters who decades ago were getting tatted up, have now paved the way for those who want to “rebel” against the society that has suppressed them so severely with their internet, fast food, and air conditioning.
What Happened To Real Art?
With body modification, namely tattoos, the body serves as the canvas and the tattoo as the art. Both the tattoo artist and the customer have collaborated to come up with the artwork, and their body will serve as the canvas. While this is an interesting way of presenting art to the world, to me it is more troubling than creative.
Most people’s tattoos are supposed to have meaning, so by getting something inscribed in one’s body it negates their ability to effectively communicate that meaning to the world, and instead they let the tattoo speak for itself. Take the death of a loved one, a popular tattoo to get. Instead of being able to tell the world how the loss of this person felt and still feels, they have forgone traditional mourning in favor of a permanent body modification. To me, this screams emotional repression and ineffective communication.
Also, instead of putting artwork on a real canvas and framing it in one’s home or a museum, one permanently etches it on the body. Does this imply that the great artists in history have been erroneous in their masterpieces? Should Michelangelo have tattooed his masterpiece of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on the Pope’s back? Of course not, and this brings up an important point. Centuries ago, even decades ago, artists devoted their work to God, loved ones, their country or anyone who could appreciate art whereas now artwork is devoted to the individual.
This epitomizes the growing trend of narcissism and the self-absorbed nature of today’s youth which can also be seen with developments like the creation of the selfie stick and sex selfies. Is it a coincidence both of those trends have “selfies” in their name? No. Tattoos, piercings and hair dye are forms of selfies too. Perhaps people will start calling them “art selfies.” While narcissism has its place for a select few, according to psychoanalyst Erich Fromm:
“…it seems that [while narcissists] are very much in love with themselves… they actually are not fond of themselves, and their narcissism—like selfishness—is an overcompensation for the basic lack of self-love.”
While the people who undergo body modifications would be the first to preach love, they are the ones who lack it most. Many of them lack self-esteem, so they undergo body modifications in hope that these exogenous altercations will compensate for the self-love they are bereft of.
Often these people also lack accomplishments to take pride in. Most people with tattoos haven’t started their own business or created a ground breaking medical technique, or even something as banal as having a child. For most teens and young adults, getting a tattoo or piercing for them is a milestone, because most don’t have any other milestones in their life to take pride in.
They’re Not Special
So they get a tattoo, or a piercing, or dye their hair blue.
Now they are “unique.”
Now they are “special.”
Now they have something in life that brings them excitement and change.
Another aspect of body modification that can’t be ignored is the self-destructive behavior. At first, even I found it hard to consider getting a piercing or tattoo to be self-destructive behavior, but if we look at the definition of it we can see that it does fit the bill:
“Any behaviors that negatively impact our mind or body by the life choices we make. Most people are unaware of their self-destructive habits. Usually there is some problem with handling or expressing feelings. Self harm/mutilation is a pattern of intentional self injury not death. (http://www.state.sc.us/dmh/telepsychiatry/selfdestructive.pdf)
Not all body modification is considered self-destructive behavior, but getting multiple piercings and tattoos are classified as forms of this type of behavior. To quote Mr. Fromm again on what causes this behavior:
“…the drive for life and the drive for destruction are not mutually independent factors but are in a reversed interdependence. The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of an unlived life.”
A Solution To The Trend
I don’t write this article to lambaste or poke fun at those who hold this topic dear. No, I write this article so that those with multiple body modifications, those considering them, or those with family or friends considering them ask: Why? If that question can’t be answered effectively, then one needs to attack the root of the problem and find an alternative way to fill that void that a body modification is supposed to provide.
We see that self-destructive behavior is the product of an unlived life, so to fill that void one must simply live life to the fullest. It’s easy for Millennials to confuse living life with “YOLO,” but the latter is actually not about living life, but rather pursuing selfish, hedonistic endeavors to fill a temporary void of boredom and unhappiness.
Decades ago people expressed their desire to be unique by cultivating artistic talents, or taking up intellectual or entrepreneurial pursuits. In the age of the smartphone, despite technology being at its current apex somehow all these things have tragically been pushed aside. It would behoove anyone considering a body modification to take up one of these constructive pursuits before making a lifelong commitment to deviance and mediocrity.