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Body modification as self-mutilation by proxy

By Sheila Jeffreys - posted Monday, 10 April 2006


The cutting up that girls do secretly in their bedrooms, the nipple piercing that is performed in high street studios, breast implant surgery, sex reassignment surgery, are connected. They are all forms of self-mutilation, and increasingly the cutting is carried out by proxies for a profit. They are responses to low social status, sexual and physical abuse or severe emotional distress created by a male dominant society which does not accept women’s varied body shapes or condemns homosexuality.

Self-mutilation is overwhelmingly the behaviour of girls and young women. It’s most common form is cutting of the forearm with razors, or other sharp implements, though other areas of the body can be injured. It is a common behaviour. An estimated two million young women in the US regularly self-mutilate. Girls and women who have no outlet for the rage and pain they experience from male violence and abuse and from the other injuries of a male dominant culture, attack their own bodies.

Often they are emotionally disassociated from their bodies, having learnt this technique to survive abuse. Self-mutilation breaches the barriers they have created and allows them to “feel”. The frequency of self-mutilation by young women fits into a context of increasing mental and physical health problems in teenage girls.

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I call the practices in which women, and some men, request others to cut up their bodies - as in cosmetic surgery, transsexual surgery, amputee identity disorder (pursuit of limb amputation) and other forms of sadomasochism - self-mutilation by proxy. The proxy, such as the surgeon, the piercer in a piercing studio, the sadist, takes the role that in self-mutilation is more normally taken by the mutilator themselves, and in private. The proxy gains financial benefit, sexual excitement, or both, from carrying out the mutilation.

In the 1990s self-injury perpetrated by proxies became fashionable through the piercing, cutting and tattooing industry. The private self-mutilation born of despair and self-directed rage at abuse and oppression was exploited by piercing entrepreneurs. Piercing studios were set up in cities throughout the western world offering various forms of self-injury to make a profit for the perpetrators.

The forms of injury provided by these studios and independent operators ranged from bellybutton piercings to the extremes of spearing straight through the torso as carried out by the Californian ex-advertising executive Fakir Musafar. The practices stemmed from two main sources, punk fashion and gay male sadomasochism.

Gay male fashion designers placed pierced models on their catwalks, and helped to inscribe a practice that had symbolised gayness, onto the bodies of conventional young women and some young men. The practices were enveloped in new age philosophy, said to be “tribal” in their reflection of the practices of African and other non-western peoples, and carried out by “modern primitives”.

The majority of those acquiring piercings and tattooings were simply being fashionable rather than deliberately pursuing pain and the mortification of the flesh. Cutting, piercing and tattooing have quickly become commonplace and socially acceptable among constituencies of young women and gay men, even though they are recent additions to the repertoire of beauty practices. But some young people who are already self-mutilating in private are attracted to more than just multiple piercings. They graduate to the extreme forms of what are now called “body modification”.

Internet websites encourage practices such as tongue splitting, suspension from hooks in shoulder muscles, and castration. They show photos with fresh blood and are creating self-harming networks. Male pornophiles can pay to access the photos for the satisfaction of seeing girls being cut up.

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One extreme product of this movement is the development of “body integrity identity disorder” (BIID) (previously called amputee identity disorder). Some of the psychiatrists and surgeons who have been involved in the creation of an industry of sex reassignment surgery are now working together to get BIID recognised in the US diagnostic and statistical manual. If they achieve this then in the future they may legally cut off the limbs of those who say that they have always felt uncomfortable with their body shape.

A Scottish surgeon has already cut legs off two healthy men. The Internet is enabling those experimenting with amputating parts of their bodies, such as fingers, and seeking to lose one or more limbs to grow in numbers and support each other’s self-harming behaviour.

All of the practices of piercing, tattooing and cutting can cause severe physical harm and even medical emergencies. About 10-15 per cent of piercings get infected. The majority of problems are caused by staphylococcus aureus and streptococcus. Infection with pseudomonas can be dangerous because it can liquify ear cartilage.

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About the Author

Sheila Jeffreys, associate professor of political science at the University of Melbourne, is author of Unpacking Queer Politics (Polity 2003). Her most recent book addresses these themes in detail: Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (Routledge, 2005).

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