Are nose rings subversive?

April 18, 1997

IS THE popularity of body piercing merely the latest fashion or does it represent, as some sociologists believe, something more sinister?

Once the preserve of pop stars and fairground workers, body piercing, or "hardcore body modification" in sociologist-speak, has influenced the work of many top fashion designers, most notably Jean-Paul Gaultier. It can be spotted on any high street and, as the human body comes under increasing scrutiny from social and cultural theorists, it has been described by some academics as "modern primitive behaviour".

The question Paul Sweetman of Southampton University address- ed in his paper, "Marked bodies oppositional identities? Tattooing, piercing and the ambiguities of resistance", at the BSA was whether body piercing and related activities like tattooing could be regarded as deviant and subversive.

"Both practices violate the integrity of the body," he said. "The tattooed or pierced body arguably stands in counter opposition to the natural, unmarked bodily ideal at the heart of consumer culture."

As a form of dissent, when compared to other forms of political activity, it is pretty mild and innocuous. Could body modifiers be self-absorbed followers of fashion rather than repressed primitives trying to subvert the state? Could tattooing and piercing be simply an extension of disciplinary activities like keep fit or dieting?

Not according to Dr Sweetman. "Dieting and keep fit arguably represent a form of self-monitoring or self-regulation intended to move the body closer to the youthful, slim, athletic appeal," he said.

Piercing and tattooing represented something deeper. "The tattooed or pierced body might be said to highlight the partially socially constructed nature of all bodies, the explicit nature of the markings worn acting as a reminder that we all bear the inscriptions of gender, race and class."

In this sense Dr Sweetman added, piercing and tattooing could resist the myth of the natural body upon which a number of fundamental dichotomies of Western thought depended. "Piercing, in its penetration of the body with inert substances which may then become part of the body, can be seen to question such distinctions as organic/inorganic, body/technology or natural and artificial."

So what did people who pierced or tattooed themselves make of their behaviour? Few of the study sample related to "modern primitivism". Those who saw the activity as subversive often tended to refer to its "inherent qualities" - pain, blood and the penetration of the skin - over and above any association with non-Western cultures.

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