Self-expression of interest: A brief look at extreme body modification

One of the more noticeable ‘extreme’ trends is that of body modification. Arguably the most common (and socially acceptable) forms of body modification are ear piercing and tattoos, followed by various other types of piercings (e.g., nipple piercings) and various types of plastic surgery (e.g., rhinoplasty [nose jobs] and breast augmentation [boob jobs]). More extreme types include foot binding, extreme corseting, branding, amputation, and genital cutting. Such types of actions are known as ‘acquired characteristics’ as they cannot be genetically passed on to the individuals’ children. As the body modification section of the Wikipedia entry on acquired characteristics notes:

“Body modification is the deliberate altering of the human body for any non-medical reason, such as aesthetics, sexual enhancement, a rite of passage, religious reasons, to display group membership or affiliation, to create body art, shock value, or self-expression. The frequency of occurrence depends on the location, extent, and number of modifications, and, perhaps most importantly, on the mind of each individual being asked to accept the modifications on another”.

In a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dr. David Veale and Dr. Joe Daniels added that:

“Body modification is a term used to describe the deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons (e.g., self-expression). It is invariably done either by the individual concerned or by a lay practitioner, usually because the individual cannot afford the fee or because it would transgress the ethical boundaries of a cosmetic surgeon. It appears to be a lifestyle choice and, in some instances, is part of a subculture of sadomasochism. It has existed in many different forms across different cultures and age”.

These definitions of body modification would also appear to include such practices as circumcision (although this may of course be done for legitimate medical reasons as well as cultural and/or religious rites of passage). Other ‘extreme’ forms of body modification include:

  • Earlobe stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the earlobe through the gradual increase in size of piercing rings. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons, self-expression and/or group membership.
  • Branding: This refers to the deliberate burning of the skin to produce an irreversible symbol, sign, ornament and/or pattern on human skin. This is typically carried out for group membership reasons (but can also be carried out for aesthetics and/or self-expression).
  • Subdermal Implants (pocketing): This refers to a type of body jewelry placed underneath the skin and often used in conjunction with other forms of body modification. The body then ‘heals’ over the implant leading to a raised (sometimes 3-D) design. This is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Extraocular implants: This refers to the placing of small pieces of jewelry in the eye by cutting the surface layer of the eye following a surgical incision. Again, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Corneal tattooing: This is the practice of injecting a colour pigment into the eye. As with the previous two examples, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Tongue splitting: This refers to the splitting of the tongue so that the tongue looks like (for instance) a serpent’s tongue.
  • Tooth filing: This refers to the practice of filing teeth (often into the shape of sharp pointed fangs). This may be done for a variety of reasons including group membership, aesthetics and/or self-expression.
  • Tightlacing (waist training, corset training): This refers to the use of incredibly tight fitting corsets (typically by women) to produce an archetypal ‘hourglass’ figure. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons.
  • Pearling (genital beading): This refers to the permanent insertion of small beads beneath the skin of the genitals (such as the labia in women or the foreskin in men). Most of those who engage in pearling do it for aesthetic and/or sexual enhancement reasons (e.g., to increase sexual stimulation during vaginal or anal intercourse).
  • Anal stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the anus with the use of specialized built for purpose ‘butt plugs’ (typically carried out for sexual enhancement and stimulation).
  • Penis splitting (penile bisection): This is the cutting and splitting of a person’s penis from the glans towards the penis base (and which I covered at length – no pun intended – in a previous blog). This is typically done for reasons of sexual stimulation and fetishistic enhancement for either the self and/or sexual partner (although it has also been done for both religious and/or aesthetic reasons).

A really great 2007 review paper by Dr. Silke Wohlrab and colleagues in the journal Body Image examined all the known motivations for body modification (including tattoos and piercings) based on scientific studies and concluded almost all motivations fell into one or more of the following ten categories:

  • Beauty, art, and fashion (i.e., body modification as a way of embellishing the body, achieving a fashion accessory and/or as a work of art).
  • Individuality (i.e., body modification as a way of being special and distinctive, and creating and maintaining self-identity).
  • Personal narratives (i.e., body modification as a form of personal catharsis, and/or self-expression. For instance, it was claimed that some abused women “create a new understanding of the injured part of the body and reclaim possession through the deliberate, painful procedure of body modification and the permanent marking”).
  • Physical endurance (i.e., body modification as a way of testing a person’s own threshold for pain endurance, overcoming personal limits, etc.).
  • Group affiliations and commitment (i.e., body modification as part of sub-cultural membership or the belonging to a certain social circle).
  • Resistance (body modification as a protest against parents or society).
  • Spirituality and cultural tradition (i.e., body modification as part of a spiritual or cultural movement).
  • Addiction (i.e., body modification as a physical and/or psychological addiction due to (i) the release of endorphins associated with the pain of undergoing the practice, and/or (ii) the association with memories, experiences, values or spirituality).
  • Sexual motivations (i.e., body modification as a way of enhancing sexual stimulation).
  • No specific reason (i.e., body modification as an impulsive act without forethought or planning).

The review paper was incredibly thorough and these ten motivations cover everything they came across in the academic study of body modification. Unsurprisingly, the most frequently mentioned motivation was the expression of individuality and the embellishment of the own body. Hopefully I’ll cover some of the more specific body modifications in future blogs.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. London: Routledge.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Rowanchilde, R. (1996). Male genital modification. Human Nature, 7, 189-215.

Veale, D. & Daniels, J. (2012). Cosmetic clitoridectomy in a 33-year-old woman. Archives of Sex Behavior, 41, 725-730.

Wikipedia (2012). Acquired characteristic. Located at:

Wikipedia (2012). Body modification. Located at:

Wikipedia (2012). Penile subincision. Located at:

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body image, 4, 87-95.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 31, 2014, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Gender differences, Obsession, Pain, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Pornography, Psychiatry, Psychology, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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