Essay: Body adjustments

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This dissertation manages the topic of body adjustments, particularly body piercings and tattoos, which are nowadays the most usual and well-known modifications. The first part of the work deals with the progressions and advancement of tattoos and piercings and introduces the reader a history of these modifications. This part is completed by collecting and comparing information from several books and journals as well as other verified sources that provided examples. The first, theoretical part, is followed by a research part. This is the main and most important segment of the work as it wraps all research and comes out with interesting results. This is done by collecting information using interviews and questionnaires. The examination focuses on people who own either piercings, tattoos or both, on the reasons they had to get these and their perspectives on the rest of the people that own these modifications. This work aims to call attention to whether these body adjustments in general have a unique significance for the owner or whether they are a unusual fashion trend.

This dissertation deals with the emerging phenomenon of body modifications in today’s society. I chose the topic above all because I was interested in the fact that people can influence the minds of other people and what they think about themselves by their appearance. According to DeVito in his book The Interpersonal Communication, depending on how we dress, others can judge us. At least partly – they can tell what kind of society we are in, what we think or stand for (for example, conservative and liberal), sense of style and how creative we are. (2005, p.165)

That is why fashion trends keep emerging and most of the society often adapts so that they do not go upstream and stand out. Another case are individuals who try to do everything to distinct themselves, and body modifications often have been a means of differentiating and eliminating from the current trend of society. This question is also related to the concept of social roles used by Erving Goffman in his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. According to Goffman, information about an individual helps to characterize the situation, allows others to predict what can be expected of them and what they can expect from them. Observers who do not know the subject can gradually gather their points of view from the person’s behaviour and appearance to allow them to use previous experience with similar individuals or more importantly, apply stereotypes previously verified elsewhere. (1999, p. 10) People judge others not only in the matter of clothing but also in fashion accessories, jewellery and all visible details that complement their look. Therefore, it is only up to us how we present ourselves to others, what we show and what we conceal.

However, the question is how and whether a tattoo, which is practically irreparable and permanent, can be a fashion trend? Trends in fashion are known to be a temporary, ever-changing tendency and permanent tattoos may be in complete discrepancy with fashion trends. This work is divided into several parts. In the practical part of my dissertation I would like to find answers not only to the above mentioned question but also to why people decide to modify their bodies, whether it has a deeper meaning for it or it is only a question of perception of aesthetics and fashion and finally, what the bearers of these modifications have in common and how they differ. This part is part of a methodology that describes what kind of research method I have chosen for the collection of data and why.

1. Theoretical part

1.1. The sociology of body decorations

Body decorations can be looked at from different perspectives. For example, American scholar sociologist Erving Goffman investigated social stigmatisation. Decorating and stigmatisation were closely related in the past, few years or decades ago. The situation has nowadays changed, because for most of the modified individuals, the decoration is a matter of a trend and modernity rather than a deviation from a society that was considered negative. In addition to stigmatising, Erving Goffman also studied the social roles that can also be very closely related to the decoration. Even nowadays, we can still encounter negative responses to body decorations, for example in some types of employment. Thus, social roles can influence the decision whether a tattoo or other body modification will have a negative effect on the choice of future job opportunities, such as work with children or senior management positions where a serious and pleasant look is expected, which can appear incomprehensible with visible modifications as perceived by society.

This topic has already been dealt with in a study by Martin Rychlik, who focused on a theoretical part of this topic, rather as an encyclopaedic interpretation and history. Later on, he wrote a book from which I draw in the theoretical part of my dissertation.

Another work dealing with body modifications – piercing in particular, is by M. Hermansky about the occurrence and reasons of the popularity of piercings across youth in secondary schools. In contrast to my work, his work is only focused on one type of body modification – piercing – which is only a temporary modification (or semi-permanent, a small scar usually stays after the jewellery has been removed, which unlike other modifications is barely visible or disappears completely).

Such a fashion trend is very inconsistent in society. It gives rise to enthusiasm, but also strong resistance. We can still see it as one of the eldest body adjustment, a physical mutilation, which keeps a certain amount of mystery. It stands against the natural state of things, and that is why its monotheistic systems like Islam, Judaism and Christianity explicitly forbid, which adds the forbidden character to that magical character of tattoos.

Tattoos alter the natural form of human body; it is a form of beauty, which is also permanent, based on a painful act of performance, which individuals undertake voluntarily and in order to create a desired decoration, inner satisfaction and possible admiration of the surroundings. Tattoos are a non-verbal form of communicating feelings, capturing memories and past, retaining the character of its bearer, and to this day are a sign of somewhat unbridled rebellion.

This phenomenon has a history of thousands of years, the development of techniques and trends has undergone many and many advances, several times changed the meanings and reasons for the creation and a view of the society on its image on a human body. Completely original, let alone primitive tribal ornaments, rediscovered due to overseas voyages, tattoos became a sign of sailors, prisoners and circuses, over the years transformed into sophisticated shapes, significant decorations and signs of the highest social class. Nowadays so-called “spikes” are widely spread, they are a phenomenon that develops through all sorts of subcultures, from bikers’ gangs, to comic collectors to Straight Edge individuals. People are no longer shy about them, on the contrary, they give them a glimpse and take them as a natural part of themselves. Tattooing has broken away from its workers’ roots and has become a middle class affair. Researchers record changes in demographics and the development of tattoos themselves; from standardized, predetermined patterns created by craftsmen to individual, custom patterns tattooed by professionally trained artists (DeMello, 2012). However, although tattoos have a very important role in the decoration of the human body, they still receive too little attention from leading experts. Whether artistic critics, historians, sociologists or culture experts, it is possible to say that they have totally and implicitly forgotten about the basic aspect – the fact that tattooing is the only form of art that uses live human tissue as its material for creation.

Human body is more and more exposed, thanks to which we communicate with the outside world and present ourselves. Our own body gives us a sense of certainty and stability, we express our opinions and our personality with distinctive decoration. These changes have been described by a Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. According to him, the human body is primarily the body of consumption and its proper status is the ability to absorb and accept everything that a consumer society offers. The postmodern body is primarily a consumer of experience. It is a tool of pleasure because it uses the natural ability to respond to stimuli. (Palese, 2013)

1.2. The history of a tattoo in modern society

In the 19th century, the first tattoo studios started emerging, mainly in larger cities such as London, Marseille or Shanghai. (Rychlik, 2005) The profession of a tattoo artist gradually extended from their origin – harbours, and at that time tattoos started becoming popular across aristocracy and
bohemians as well as the peripheries and even the royal families.

“The transition of the tattoo in England from a sailor’s whimsy to an aristocratic trend came in 1862 when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had a Jerusalem cross tattooed upon him while visiting the Holy Land. Edward VII had his sons, the Duke of Clarence and Duke of York, tattooed in Japan by master tattooist Hori Chiyo as well as in Jerusalem by the same artists who had done his tattoo twenty years prior. This marking of royalty sent the British aristocracy into a frenzy and soon fashionable society was overrun by a “tattoo craze.” (Bitter, 2008)

At the end of the 19th century, there was also an enormous development in tattooing, not only because of its expansion into the inlands, but also by a man named Samuel O’Reilly who invented a tattoo machine. As a result, tattooing started becoming more of an art, and professional graphic designers and artists such as Ed Hardy – the best-known tattoo artist of that time – began to engage with them. In 1974, he opened his first tattoo studio and became a “tattoo teacher” to pass his experience on his students. (Levy, Sewell and Goldstein, 1979)

 In today’s modern society, the tattoo prejudices retreat mostly thanks to celebrities. They started getting tattooed to attract attention and highlight themselves. Because of them, the tattoo has grown as a trend in the last few years, for example, people like to look like their idols or want to adorn their body with their own special jewellery.

“Tattooing appears to be achieving social respectability, particularly among young women. Various international celebrities are publicly displaying tattoos, even Eddie Grundy has been exhibiting his new design in The Archers on national radio. The appeal of these personalities is predominantly to young adults, who have come to regard tattoos as fashionable.” (Mercer and Davies, 1991)

1.3. The history of a piercing in modern society

In modern society, the piercings appeared again first of all thanks to the hippies. However, the real boom occurred roughly in the seventies with the birth of punk, when the main part of the vision was to shock and distinguish from the rest of the society and go “upstream”. Doug Malloy is considered the father of modern piercing. Him and his colleague Jim Ward opened the first professional studio “The Gauntlet” in Los Angeles. However, piercing has gotten into the wider public primarily thanks to celebrities. For example, French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who promoted his own fashion philosophy and his collections included tattoo elements and piercing jewellery from the beginning of his work. As Gaultier began to present himself through this theme, it got him under a pressure of the media as at that time, this kind of fashion and beauty was judged or refused by the majority of the society. (Steele, 1996) Despite the fact people judged it, piercing started becoming more and more popular with the aim to shock and diverse from the majority of the society and that is why many celebrities, such as Spice Girls or Prodigy, started using them for that matter. (Soccio, 1999)

An important breakthrough was the publication of Modern Primitives in the late 1980s. The book became an important source of information for all young people who were interested in this topic and were thinking of getting pierced themselves. (Juno, 1989)

Nowadays, in the last 20 years, the interest in piercing has grown, mainly because it is no longer considered extravagant, except for extreme jewellery, but rather as a common accessory especially for young people.

2. Methodology

2.1. Aims of the research

The main objective of my research is to clarify the increasing trend of body modifications nowadays. The basic research questions that I asked myself before the research were: Does a tattoo have any deeper meaning than just decoration? Why is a tattoo, which is an irreplaceable interference to a human body, becoming a matter of fashion and modernity? Why do more and more people get tattoos, despite the fact that their bearers have recently been condemned and extruded to the edge of society? What do tattooed individuals have in common and how they differ? What is their view on this phenomenon? Why do people have piercings and other types of body modifications and how do the different types vary?

2.2. Data collection method

For my research, I chose a quantitative collection of data supplemented by a few semi-structured interviews with 11 women and 8 men I conducted in the framework of the research. In my work, however, I will only work with some of the interviews so that I do not affect the structure of the work and unnecessarily duplicate the information that was subsequently confirmed in quantitative research. I used these interviews mainly as a basis for creating a questionnaire and primary hypotheses. I chose an online questionnaire, where I mentioned the ownership of at least one body modification as a criterion for the respondents. I sent this questionnaire to my friends, who I know have tattoos or other modifications, and I have also asked other people I knew for collaboration to extend the questionnaire.

2.3. Research validity, factors influencing the distribution of the respondents

The research resulted in 153 respondents, 12 of whom do not have tattoos, but only piercings or other modifications (e.g. implants), the remaining 141 respondents own at least one tattoo and 73 of them at least one piercing as well as a tattoo. As far as the gender breakdown is concerned, women considerably predominate.

 There were 116 female respondents and only 37 male respondents. This result can be influenced by the fact that women tend to be more willing to fill out questionnaires than men. (Tarnai, Moore, 2002)

Obtaining a sample that would be representative would be difficult, given the factor that most of the modified individuals do not show whether or not they have any modifications.

The individuals who have significant modifications are an exception, for example, they have modifications on their face or lower parts of the arms where they are clearly visible. If the research was only focused on these visibly modified individuals, it would break its’ representability. Respondents were divided into five age categories, according to their age when they got their first tattoo. These were under 15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31 and over. These categories did not work out to be balanced and the highest representation was given by respondents aged 16 to 20, followed by respondents aged 21-26 years.

 This fact is probably caused by persistent prejudices from years ago, especially from older people, who have experienced the time when the tattooed people were condemned by society. This hypothesis is partly confirmed by Rychlik, who collected information from the media and tattoo studios and found that the majority of the customers are those aged between 18 and 30, with an average of 25 years. (Rychlik, 2005) Rychlik indicates a higher average than in my research, however, it has been 13 years since the publication of this book and the average age has probably decreased. This information would nowadays probably correspond to the data ​​that emerged as my research.

2.4. Hypotheses

From the interviews completed in the primary research, I created hypotheses and tried to confirm or disprove them by the research results. The first theory was that people were tattooed for three different reasons or from a combination of these.

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