G2SI: Self Injury and Body Modification

Body Piercing

Body Piercing (Photo credit: Walt Jabsco)

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.


  1. Did you ever see the movie “Dennis the Menace”? Remember when he was looking at mr Wilson’s dentures and you could see that Dennis wanted SOO bad to touch them and then withdrew his hands? That has been my approach to your blog recently.

    I have appreciated much of what you said.

    Let me qualify this by saying I, too, suffer from BPD…along with a crazy rapid cycling bi-polar and PTSD…so i am NOT speaking out of ignorance.

    It has been recently acknowledged that, despite previous misconceptions, BPD is not exclusively female. it does, however, manifest itself differently.

    Also, just so you know, my wife suffers from BPD.

    Now, let’s be straight. I mentioned dennis the menace initially b/c that has been my approach to your recent blogs. I have hovered over COMMENT…fingers twisted to type…..only to relent…because i am TRYING to twist my mind around this.

    Again…let’s be straight. “self harm” to me is a euphemism for self mutilation.

    “OH….ignorant fool” you say. Really? I know from what I speak. It is what it is.

    Now…after silence…please let me tell you wny i am speaking now.

    What I want to SCREAM to you every day is what I cry about every day. While you are telling yourself all the reasons why “self harm” is understandable (btw, your argument about the “sinfulness” of ‘self harm” wasn’t theologically cogent)…in my opinion, there is ONE SIGNIFICANT ASPECT you fail to acknowledge. How do you heal the person who feels responsible for your scars?

    You write blog after blog of what needs to be understood. what about the person who is supposed yto sit quietly by while you “harm” yourself/lacerate yourself/cut through the epidermis and draw blood b/c pain relieves you…

    I know the continuum. I live it.

    As a Christian, I refute your assertion that Self-Mutilation is sin. The Bible says that GOD knows a person’s heart and the WHY means just as much as the WHAT. Second, even if your assertion is true, MAN came up with misdemeanors an felonies. If Self Harm is a sin, it is just as much a sin as adultery or blasphemy. Don’t minimize.

    The WORD say, “to him who know is is sin, it is sin.” You know so much to define what IS and ISN’t…then, when you do you minimize it….

    And THIS is my issue. You spend blog after blog explaining it, but tthe WORD says you are responsible for the love you show to others.

    Instead of wasting a blog telling loved ones how they need to get over it, try spending some time telling BPDs (and I know that of which i speak) to go into the back of the cave and “encourage themsleves in the LORD” BEFORE they cut. then, if they do, instead of insistence on understanding, try indulgence.

    When i see my wife’s cuts and scars every day and I see your “explanation” i want to SCREAM!



    It hurts. It burns. its not fair. I know. GOD ois not concerned with ‘fairness.’ HE is concerned w/ JUSTICE.

    Fair? Right now I want to burn to a cinder the poeple that have inflicted this on my love….and I can. I am a high-toned mf’er that can burn most anyone to the ground….but I withhold. Why/ Because my wife, despite FACTS doesn’t want me to decimate her mother.

    so please….do me a favor….

    Instead of EXPLAINING why mutiliating oneslef it acceptable and can be euphemised, especially to one who undersands it, RECOGNIZE and talk about WORKING THROUGH.

    Believer? Be a source of HOPE!

    • Hi John,
      It must be hard to love someone who is self injuring. I can see that it is hard for you.
      I do think self injury is a sin – it is not what God wants us to do. I “minimise” it, because as you say, God knows the heart, and I do not think that we who self harm out of desperation and a bad mental state are culpable, incur God’s anger in the way that a person who sets out to commit adultery does. I think compassion is better on our part, and I believe God has compassion and mercy on those who self injure. I do not think it is helpful to wax lyrical about the sinfulness of hurting oneself, simply because what good would it do? Most self injurers I know are already over-hard on themselves, why give someone another stick to beat themselves with? A concentration on love, rather than what we are doing wrong, would seem to me to help more.
      I’m sorry you don’t feel I have recognised the feelings of loved ones enough – the trouble is that I myself self harm, and have not experienced anyone close to me self harming, so I don’t really know what to say. I have tried to write a piece for loved ones, but I am aware that I lack experience in this area.
      I do try to give hope – recovery is possible, no matter what awfulness is driving us to harm it is possible to recover. I wrote about this in my “recovery” post.
      I can only try my best.

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