I have a number of piercings and tattoos, although nothing very wild, and I also self harm. I have heard others ask, fairly frequently, whether the piercings and tattoos are other forms of self injury for me, and whether they are for others. Obviously I can only really speak for myself, but I believe that, generally, I hold a fairly normal position on this.
For me, whether something is self injury or not lies not in the appearance of the act but in its intent. By that I mean that if I were to get a design scarified into my skin, and the next day cut my skin with a blade, the two things would not be the same thing, i.e. self injury. When I get a piercing, or a tattoo, my intent is to bring beauty to my body and the pain is something I simply have to put up with in order to get the thing that I want. When I self injure I am looking for the pain, the blood, I am not concerned with how it will appear once healed. That simply isn’t in my mind. I am also not doing the body modification to myself, but someone else is doing it for me. This is quite a big deal for me – there is absolutely no way I, no matter how much I was wanting to self harm, would let anyone else do the deed for me. My self injury is private and personal – to be done by myself, sitting by myself, without anyone else there. Whereas, I would not get a tattoo or piercing done by anyone other than an experienced practitioner, in a clean and hygienic area.
I recognise that some people are a bit different. I know of people who self harm in front of others, some in groups. I also know of people who will get themselves into fights in order to get hurt, and obviously that hurt is done by someone else. Most people who self injure, as far as I know, go for the private and personal route.
It is also possible to use body modification as a route for self harm. When I was ill, some years ago, I went and, on impulse, got a load of tattoos done, and some piercings. Before then I had one piercing and one tattoo, and I suddenly got quite a few. The reason for that was partly a sort of devil-may-care attitude, because I was suicidal at the time and so nothing mattered, and partly, I admit, for the pain. At the time I wanted as much pain as possible, whether from me or anyone else – I didn’t cut, that time. It is possible for body modification to be used as a sort of “respectable” self harm.
I think it is important to note that, while some self injurers may at times use body modification as a form of self injury, the majority of those who have body modifications are not doing it as a form of self injury.
The majority, I would say, of self injurers who get piercings, tattoos etc. do so as a form of reclamation. I have the word “resurgam” tattooed on my left wrist. My left arm is where I have harmed the most, and that phrase “I will rise again” means, for me, that I will get better, that this will pass. It is also a word often written on Christian headstones and refers to the final judgement. It has meaning to me, and I got that one as a sort of counterpoint to my self harm scars.
The issue of body modification and self injury is not as simple as I have seen it written. It is possible for someone to get a tattoo or whatnot because they want to hurt themselves. Most people get things done because they like the look of them. It depends on the intent behind it – certainly I would be concerned if someone got several modifications done on impulse, who didn’t mention they were getting them, and if they also seemed depressed or angry most of the time. It is too easy to generalise and say “body modification and self harm are totally different” – though I understand the reasons why, no one wants to be accused of self injuring when they are, in fact, just making themselves beautiful.
I think it is important to note that for the majority, body modifications are not a form of self injury. Be concerned only when they seem to be done on impulse (for instance, walking into a tattoo shop and getting flash done rather than designing and planning a piece), done often, and if the person concerned appears to be in the frame of mind where they might self injure. I would be particularly concerned about a person who has self harmed in the past, but isn’t doing so now, who gets work done, because they may be using it as an acceptable form of self injury.
- This Church Takes Piercings to a Higher Plane (bellasugar.com)
- Bodies under Siege: Self-mutilation, Nonsuicidal Self-injury, and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry Reviews (untreatableonline.com)
- Et Tu, Tattoo? (barefootchristianfaith.wordpress.com)