A Fine Line Between Self-Expression and Oppression: Reflecting on the Significance of Body Modification

Compared to even just a few decades ago, body modification practices are now enjoying vastly increased popularity, not only in terms of their prevalence but also in terms of general acceptance. It is estimated that around one in three young adults today have a tattoo and, with pop culture and social media being at the forefront of establishing and popularising new trends, a compelling question emerges: can body modification be considered emancipatory and integral to an individual’s need to express themselves, or is it restricted and moulded by public perception and structural inequality?

The normalisation of cosmetic surgery has, for all intents and purposes, pushed the manifesto that if one is unhappy with their physicality, one is merely an appointment and some shallow debt away from being able to embrace their supposed ‘true self’. I disagree with this sentiment; as it currently stands, the main purveyors of this ideal are also deeply ingrained in a web of hypocrisy. Take, for example, Kylie Jenner: whilst her getting lip fillers is a completely legitimate personal choice, building a lipstick brand which advertises to customers that they too will be able to achieve her surgically-obtained look by simply buying her products misleads hundreds of thousands of her fans to hold a false sense of expectation and warped sense of reality. If the shift in attitude towards cosmetic procedures is very liberating in its enabling individuals to embrace their right to freely control their own physical presentation, we ought to realise such relaxation may also breed a reckless attitude towards risky procedures, in which the possibility of having to deal with inherently serious consequences is overlooked. Whilst Jenner and fellow influencers have access to world specialists and are able to shoulder the financial costs of their touch-ups, the vast majority do not have the same opportunities. As a consequence, they may be pushed to travel to other countries where surgery procedures are less stringent or, even more commonly, to undergo surgeries performed by dodgy professionals with substitute chemicals. What should theoretically be a self-expressive, empowering decision, unfortunately seems to financially oppress the lower-middle classes of society who, due to financial limitations, are unable to keep up with a world where surgery is perceived as a quick, easy fix.

The art of body modification is a predominant feature of many ancient cultures: the Mursi people are known for their coming of age tradition whereby the upper lip of the young woman is pierced and allowed to heal before a plug is inserted and then stretched; another example is that of the Maori people of New Zealand, where tattoos are called ta moko and are specifically designed to be representative of aspects of the wearer’s life. Whilst the method of body modification may be vastly different, the common ground amongst those different instances appears to lie in the fact that altering one’s appearance as a means of self-expression affects individuals not only in a cultural and historical sense, but also in their direct social reality. To an extent, it could be argued that it isn’t the actual modification itself that is problematic, but the context in which it is shrouded: during the Holocaust, inner arm tattoos were notoriously utilised as a method of identification within concentration camps, and painful, size-restricting practices such as foot binding were a common practice among young women in Asia, especially in China. These forms of body modification are explicitly oppressive, but might not one also argue that, more insidiously perhaps, though less severely, contemporary societal pressure for conformity follows a similar line by exerting popularised beliefs upon people which may lead them to undergo procedures they don’t truly want?

Reflecting on my own experiences, as a child I seemed to have a narrow perception of what was an acceptable form of body modification; whilst I thought of ear piercings as cute and feminine, tattoos still had a semi-hedonistic undertone, and hair colours beyond the natural shades received a similar reaction. I think dyeing my hair marked a liberating shift in the history of my relationship with body modification: because of its unnatural shade, there was the chance that someone I encountered would have a critical opinion; however, the fact they could not act on their upset whatsoever given that the decision was my own was greatly empowering. With respect to tattoos, I never really thought of myself as the kind of person to get them, but I was never closed off to the possibility either. A lot of people, mainly my mother, would use their permanence as a scaremongering tactic to put me off. However, considering I once went for a piercing and ended up with a tattoo, that was a commendable failure. In hindsight, my perception on tattoos has shifted because the significance of them being permanent diminished as I increasingly liked the idea of showcasing some of my favourite drawings on skin and turning into something like a walking art gallery.

Excluding the occasional odd stare and the people who feel the need to remind me that the tattoos will still be there when I am sixty, my experiences with body modification have been mostly positive. Still, my overall stance is that the effect body modification can have is greatly circumstantial; whilst the freedom to alter your appearance can be a greatly liberating experience, getting something done due to its popularity is somewhat oppressive in the sense that it is a choice that was partially dictated by society’s ideas of what it is that makes someone more fashionable or ‘aesthetic’ at a particular point in time. Ultimately, engaging with body modification on any scale is completely ok, as long as it makes you feel good about yourself and it does find its roots in you.

[Amara Coelho – she/her – @mar_lune]


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