In 8th grade, approximately a million years ago, I got my nostril pierced. At the time, piercing anything other than your earlobes was taken as a defiant symbol of freakdom, and my classmates responded in kind. I, however, never understood how a little silver hoop could be seen as so extreme – I had older, freakier friends that had been jabbing safety pins, chains, and Lego heads (yes, you read that correctly…and no, I don’t recommend trying it out!) through various parts of their bodies for years. One in particular seemed to have made it his life’s goal to have every single accessible piece of skin either tattooed, pierced, or scarred, and was well on his way to attaining that goal when I got my oh-so-daring nostril piercing. He was the first person I had seen, outside of a National Geographic, that had stretched earlobes, and he had been answering the inevitable question about them the same way for half a decade: “just a little bigger”.
Those four simple words would come to represent an entire philosophy – one that drove body modification from an underground network of tattooists and piercers to a visible subculture of people treating their bodies as canvases. It is what pushed the evolution from pierced earlobe to split tongue, from flash tattoos to full-body collages of ink and scars. People were quite literally reclaiming their bodies, redesigning them at will, creating a culture that combined aesthetics, ritual, and an insatiable urge to push the envelope – to find the boundaries, and race across them. Whether we were testing the waters with a little stud in our nose or carving mosaics into our flesh, the ideal was the same: a physical, visible declaration of independence. A culture based around the idea of taking things farther, of challenging convention – it was, and is, the philosophy that, if it could be thought up, it could be done.
And, oh, the things that have been thought up. From splitting body parts in half to inserting implants under the skin, from tattoo masks to full-body scarification, there is little left that has not been tried at least once. There is, of course, considerable controversy over some of these practices – things like U.V. ink, tongue splitting, and genital modification have raised concerns from both those inside and outside the body-mod industry, and there is a sense of them still being felt out by many. Depending on one’s perspective, extreme modification either epitomises or threatens the legitimacy of the movement. While it serves to affirm the radical and innovative nature of the art form, it also challenges our notions of what is acceptable, of what we are comfortable with. It requires we take risks with both our appearance and our outlook, and perpetually update our views.
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, it’s likely that you’ve pondered these questions, if even briefly. I still on occasion run into someone that sees my million year old nose-ring and quietly asks themselves who would do such a thing, and even I have seen modifications that left my eyebrow raised and my sensibilities shaken. And that’s exactly the point, I believe. Claiming one’s body a canvas is much more than a creative or even philosophical statement. It is a challenge to our perception of autonomy – it forces us to ask if we genuinely support having full control over our bodies, or if we feel there is a point at which others should have a say. It turns the statement “just a little bigger” into the question “how big is too big, how much is too much?” – though, I wouldn’t be expecting an answer any time soon.