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Body Modifications: Reasons, Consequences, Ethical Issues


Various types of body modifications (tattooing, piercing, plastic surgery, etc.) have always caused controversy in society. Theoretically, people have the right to change their appearance; nevertheless, from an ethical point of view, a number of questions arise among those who live close to such people. One of the basic and central questions is where there is a border between the adornment of the body and the transformation into a person who has almost completely lost the original appearance. This research paper describes possible reasons why people decide to transform their bodies, the consequences of such changes, as well as underlying ethical and other issues that affect this problem.

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The possibilities of the human body, as it is known, are limitless. However, there are those people who do not agree with it, and the change of their body for them is in some way a cult, a striving for perfection. According to Pekar et al., various body modifications include not only well-known tattoos, piercings, and manicures; it is also about scarification, bone deformation, modification of the body parts with additional elements, etc. (694).

All these transformations are found in modern society quite often. Nevertheless, those people who want to have such a cardinal change in their appearance quite often become the object of mockeries and even threats from other members of society. The fact is that a person who has pronounced changes in the body rather frequently causes negative associations because of various ethical issues. In order to determine why it happens and for what reasons people decide to completely change themselves, it is possible to conduct a study and, with the help of additional sources, determine the possible causes of the desire for body transformations.

History of Body Modifications

The art of decorating the body has come to modern society from ancient times, ever since different tribes adorned themselves with specific goals. As Lim et al. note, initially, the causes of the appearance of various body modifications, namely tattooing, and piercing, occurred exclusively for religious purposes (37). Among some peoples, it was believed that certain drawings on the body could scare off evil spirits or, on the contrary, attract luck and well-being.

However, over time, this trend has been adopted by representatives of a more progressive society, who resorted to changing their bodies solely with the aim of shocking the public and achieving the effect of surprise and sometimes even fear. Perhaps, that is why Foster claims that attempts to completely change personal appearance are caused by a subconscious desire to be recognized and to gain interest among the public even in such an

unusual way (941). Undoubtedly, civilization and life forms have changed, but the reasons for the desire to differ from others have remained the same: some people want to arouse interest and gain recognition.

Modern Aims of Modifications

The history of modifications themselves is also quite unusual. Initially, it was common to draw on the body or make holes in ears and noses. Over time, these procedures have been supplemented by a rather large list of various procedures. However, the very idea and goal have certainly remained the same: some people are not ready to accept their appearance as it is, and they do all these modifications, as a rule, for several fundamental reasons.

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Psychological Aspects of Body Modifications

With the help of clothes, accessories, make-up, hairstyles, etc., the human strives to stand out from the environment, self-express, or attract attention. Tattooing, piercing, and other elements of modifications are modern ways of expressing human personality. For example, according to Dickson et al., people with big ambitions most often make tattoos (270). Perhaps, therefore, there are many creative people among the owners of all the types of body modifications. Any art affects the psychological state of a person, and such unconventional genres as tattooing, piercing, scarification, etc., are of great interest among those who want to be recognized (Caldeira et al. 626).

The human has to pass a certain barrier in order to decide to modify his or her body. Certainly, the motivation for such a step is different for everyone; nevertheless, all supporters of such changes understand their significance individually.

Indicator of Individuality

On the other hand, the human is a social being. Every representative of the society with his or her particular appearance has a certain effect on others. It is the other side of the psychological aspect of body modifications. This factor is closely related to the motive for imitation or false aesthetic motivations (Van Hoover et al. 521). In some cases, this or that change can provoke the phenomenon reflected by it. In other words, any modification is not a passive sign of individuality; it is an indicator of human nature and interests, and various types of body transformations can tell much about their owners.

Possible Consequences of Excessive Infatuation with Body Modifications

Excessive affection to body modifications is, as it is known, a strictly personal matter. Nevertheless, such a passion can sometimes bear unpleasant consequences for those who enjoy tattooing, piercing, etc. According to Dukes, a rather large percentage of adults who have external modifications in the form of tattoos regret their hobby and want to get rid of what they have on their bodies (455).

Therefore, it is essential to understand the consequences of such changes since most of the modifications are usually irreversible, and it is impossible to return the body to its original state. It is equally significant to remember how preferences can change over time. What attracts interest and enthusiasm when a person is young is likely to be perceived differently as he or she grows up (Wold and Turk 52). It, in its turn, will inevitably lead to regret about the committed deed. Therefore, it is essential to understand the consequences of such a step as the modification of the body and be responsible for any possible outcomes.

Medical Contraindications of Tattoos

It is not a secret that some procedures related to changing the structure of the body can bear some harm to the human body. For example, Dickson et al. remark that the belief that tattoos can lead to a health threat is a rather popular proposition, especially among the older generation (269). There is a certain amount of truth in these judgments since a wrong procedure can entail severe health damage.

For example, tattooing, piercing, or scarification with an unsterile tool is a threat of contamination with dangerous infectious diseases. Also, quite often, there are cases of unsuccessful plastic surgery when damaged tissues begin to become inflamed (D’Ambrosio et al. 143). In order to avoid all these unpleasant consequences, it is essential to undergo any given procedure only from competent specialists and pay attention to medical licenses and permission to perform a certain type of work. If there are no such documents, it is a rather good reason to refuse the modification.

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Possible Negative Features of Piercing

The desire to stand out from the crowd and manifest the need for self-expression is often the reason why people decide to be pierced. However, as with tattoos, it is necessary to be careful not to expose the body to risk. No one should do piercing himself or herself, and a professional master should carry out this procedure (Stirn and Zannoni 1010). Nevertheless, even some masters do not know all the nuances of this work, and they can use not entirely hygienic methods. Accordingly, there is a risk of infection with various diseases, such as hepatitis, tetanus, tuberculosis, and even AIDS, that is all that relates to the blood (Gillen and Markey 2).

The puncture of the cartilage in the nose or the ear is much more dangerous than the usual puncture of the skin. Thus, an unsuccessful piercing at the top of the auricle can cause the loss of this part of the ear in case of infection. Puncturing the nose is rather dangerous because blood vessels can be affected, and the infection will spread to the brain. In addition, the piercing can lead to the formation of scars and the manifestation of allergic reactions to jewelry. If a ring, earring, or other decoration is fixed on sensitive places of the body, it can cling to clothing and tear the skin. Certainly, such cases are unlikely but possible.

Therefore, safety rules deserve particular attention; otherwise, some negative consequences can occur and bring serious inconvenience.

The Choice to Modify the Body

People come to the awareness of the necessity to modify their bodies at different periods of their life and are stimulated by diverse reasons. Diverse changes in people’s bodies are the way to self-expression, self-identification, desire to achieve some beauty standards or a talisman against evil. In some peoples or tribes, modifications comprise a part of local culture and are the signs of beauty.

However, such body alterations as neck elongation or scarification are not widely accepted in western culture. Still, such modifications as tattoos, piercing, earlobe stretching, and different cosmetic surgery interventions are frequent. Speaking of the United States, the results of the internet-based surveys reveal the fact that such modification as a tattoo is most popular among younger Americans, and about one-third of contemporary youth have tattoos (“Tattoo Takeover”).

Thus, almost half of Millennials (47%) and over one-third of Generation X representatives (36%) claim that they have a minimum of one tattoo. At the same time, only 13% of Baby Boomers have some images on their bodies, and even less (10%) of Matures have tattoos (“Tattoo Takeover”). Moreover, young people are more likely to have multiple tattoos. At the same time, the decision to decorate one’s body does not significantly depend on the place of living. Thus, American rural and urban dwellers are almost equally likely to have tattoos (35 and 33% correspondently), while among the people living in the suburbs this probability is 25% (“Tattoo Takeover”).

How Many Tattoos do You Have?

Percentage of People with One and More Tattoos
Figure 1 – Percentage of People with One and More Tattoos (“How many tattoos do you have?”)

Among the people who have tattoos, the majority of 426 internet-survey respondents older than 18 have from one to three tattoos (30% have one and 30% have 2 or 3) while the number of extensively tattooed individuals is not big (6% have from 11 to 20 and only 2% have got more than 20 tattoos) (“How many tattoos do you have?”)

Another survey questioning about 2,700 respondents having different professions in 2013 revealed the following distribution of tattooed professionals.

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Professionals with Tattoos

Share of Americans with a Tattoo
Figure 2 – Share of Americans with a Tattoo – By Occupation 2013 (“Share of Americans with a tattoo”).

This survey disclosed the fact that, first of all, most of the respondents give their preference to small tattoos, and they are not visible when the person is dressed. Probably, it can be explained by the fact that many people still believe tattoos can interfere with their jobs. Thus, according to the survey, tattoos are most popular among people involved in agriculture and ranching (22%) and hospitality, tourism, and recreation (20%). Individuals working in art and media take the third position with 16% of them having tattoos (“Share of Americans with a tattoo”). The least tattooed people work in manufacturing, energy and utilities, engineering, information technology, and government. Moreover, in some

professional settings, appearance is significant, and tattoos are not allowed. Thus, Williams et al. investigated standards of professional appearance in social work and came to the conclusion that at present, previously accepted standards demanding to hide tattoos are not accepted now (375). People of different professions are free to express themselves unless it interferes with their ability to fulfill their professional duties.

Attitudes to Individuals with Body Modifications

At all times, people have treated individuals with body alterations differently. At present, the attitude is mostly neutral compared to previous prejudices. It should be mentioned that in the United States, parent control over young people under age is a norm. In an online survey of 2015, adult parents with kids under 18 years in the household were asked the following question: “At what age would you allow your child(ren) to get/do each of the following body modifications?” which included tattoos, pierced ears, piercing somewhere else in their face, and piercing somewhere else in their body. The results of the survey are presented in figure 3.

It was found that the majority of parents would allow their children to have ears pierced under the age of 18 while other modifications were not actively supported at this age. 41% of parents do not object to tattoos as soon as their children are 18 (“Age at which parents allow their children to get tattoos or piercings”). Despite relative tolerance to pierced ears and tattoos, half of the parents would never allow children to have to pierce somewhere else in their face or body (52% and 48% correspondently).

Age to Allow Body Modifications

Age at Which Parents Allow Their Children to Get Tattoos or Piercings 2015
Figure 3 – Age at Which Parents Allow Their Children to Get Tattoos or Piercings 2015 (“Age at Which Parents Allow Their Children to Get Tattoos or Piercings”).

It is interesting to trace the attitudes of people to other individuals who already have tattoos. An online survey on the perception of people with tattoos conducted in the United States in 2015 asked its respondents to compare people without tattoos to those that have them. It revealed that 40% of people believe that individuals with tattoos are more rebellious (“Survey on the perception of people with tattoos”). 36 and 33% of the participants correspondently claimed that tattooed people are less attractive and sexy. Still, 6% claimed they believe tattooed people are less rebellious, and 36% considered them less sexy.

However, in the majority of cases, people do not consider having a tattoo to be a characteristic of a person. Thus, from 48 to 74% of respondents saw no difference between the people with tattoos and those having nobody alterations in such aspects as attractiveness, spirituality, respectability, intelligence, and health (“Survey on the perception of people with tattoos”). It

can be probably explained by the fact that “tattoos are becoming more and more mainstream, with close to 30 percent of Americans now having one or more tattoos” (“Survey on the

perception of people with tattoos”). Moreover, it is frequently not evident if a person has a tattoo because most Americans tend to hide them under clothes in everyday life. Thus, only about 20% have visible tattoos (“Survey on the perception of people with tattoos”).

Perception of People with Tattoos

Survey on the Perception of People with Tattoos in the U.S. 2015
Figure 4 – Survey on the Perception of People with Tattoos in the U.S. 2015 (“Survey on the Perception of People with Tattoos in the U.S. 2015”).

The survey breaks one of the previously popular chauvinistic views that individuals with tattoos are more likely to act negatively or commit a crime. Thus, the survey on the probability of deviant behavior among tattooed people conducted in 2012 and involving more than two thousand respondents aged 18 years and more, showed the following results. This statistic proves that only 24% of the respondents believed that tattooed individuals were likely to demonstrate deviant behavior. The majority of the survey participants claimed that

they did not expect any difference in the probability of deviant behavior between the individuals with or without tattoos.

Probability of Deviant Behavior among Tattooed People

Survey on the Probability of Deviant Behavior among Tattooed People
Figure 5 – Survey on the Probability of Deviant Behavior among Tattooed People (“Survey on the Probability of Deviant Behavior among Tattooed People”)

Finally, it is necessary to evaluate the general attitude of people to tattooed individuals. The survey of 2015 concerning the favorable or unfavorable opinion of tattoos in America proved that one-third of the participants treat the people with tattoos neutrally (“Favorable or unfavorable opinion”). Still, very favorable or somewhat favorable attitudes (mentioned by 14 and 12% correspondently) proved to be lower than very unfavorable or somewhat unfavorable attitudes (19 and 17%) (“Favorable or unfavorable opinion”).

Attitudes Towards Tattooed Individuals

Favorable or Unfavorable Opinion of Tattoos in the U.S. 2015
Figure 6 – Favorable or Unfavorable Opinion of Tattoos in the U.S. 2015 (“Favorable or unfavorable opinion”).


Generally speaking, the issue of modifying people’s body is a personal concern. Despite the right of people to change their bodies according to their ideas of beauty, body modifications have always been a controversial matter of discussion. Body modifications have historic roots. Since ancient times, they were used as distinguishing features of tribes or to protect people from evil spirits. At present, people tend to change their appearance because they are not satisfied with it or as a way to express their personality. Despite generally neutral attitudes to people who modify themselves, there are both those who support these individuals and those who oppose any changes in the bodies. Nevertheless, it is the choice of a person to provide any manipulations with one’s body. Still, some psychological and medical

considerations should be taken into account because the desire to alter the body can be a sign of a psychological disorder or even cause serious health problems.

Works Cited

“Age at Which Parents Allow Their Children to Get Tattoos or Piercings 2015.” Statista, 2017. Web.

Caldeira, Sílvia, et al. “Tattoo or no Tattoo? A Contemporary Ethical Issue in Nursing Education.” Nursing ethics, vol. 24, no. 5, 2017, pp. 626-628.

D’Ambrosio, Antonio, et al. “Piercings and Tattoos: Psychopathological Aspects.” Activitas Nervosa Superior Rediviva, vol. 55, no. 4, 2013, pp. 143-148.

Dickson, Lynda, et al. “Stigma of Ink: Tattoo Attitudes among College Students.” The Social Science Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, 2014, pp. 268-276.

Dukes, Richard L. “Regret among Tattooed Adolescents.” The Social Science Journal, vol. 53, no. 4, 2016, pp. 455-458.

“Favorable or Unfavorable Opinion of Tattoos in the U.S. 2015.” Statista, 2017. Web.

Foster, Sam. “Like It or not, the Way We Look Matters.” British Journal of Nursing, vol. 25, no. 16, 2016, pp. 941-945.

Gillen, Meghan M., and Charlotte H. Markey. “Beauty and the Burn: Tanning and Other Appearance-Altering Attitudes and Behaviors.” Psychology, Health & Medicine, vol. 22, no. 10, 2017, pp. 1-7.

Guéguen, Nicolas. “Tattoo, Piercing, and Adolescent tobacco Consumption.” International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 87-89.

“How Many Tattoos do You Have?” Statista, 2017. Web.

Lim, Weng Marc, et al. “Contemporary Perceptions of Body Modifications and Its Acceptability in the Asian Society: A Case of Tattoos and Body Piercings.” Asian Social Science, vol. 9, no. 10, 2013, pp. 37-42.

Pekar, Joanna, et al. “Popularity of Body Modifications and Knowledge about Their Complications among Young Adults.” Journal of Education, Health and Sport, vol. 7, no. 4, 2017, pp. 694-700.

“Share of Americans with a Tattoo – By Occupation 2013.” Statista, 2017. Web.

Stirn, Aglaja V., and Ronja Zannoni. “Body Modifications and Sexual Health: Impact of Tattoos, Body Piercing and Esthetic Genital Plastic Surgery on the Sexual Health of Women and Men.” Bundesgesundheitsblatt, Gesundheitsforschung, Gesundheitsschutz, vol. 60, no. 9, 2017, pp. 1009-1015.

“Survey on the Perception of People with Tattoos in the U.S. 2015.” Statista, 2017. Web.

“Survey on the Probability of Deviant Behavior among Tattooed People.” Statista, 2017. Web.

“Tattoo Takeover: Three in Ten Americans Have Tattoos, and Most Don’t Stop at Just One.” The Harris Poll. 2016. Web.

Van Hoover, Cheri, et al. “Body Piercing: Motivations and Implications for Health.” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, vol. 62, no. 5, 2017, pp. 521-530.

Williams, Don J., et al. “You Need to Cover Your Tattoos!”: Reconsidering Standards of Professional Appearance in Social Work.” Social Work, vol. 59, no. 4, 2014, pp. 373-375.

Wold, Kari A., and Cynthia L. Turk. “Body Modiication: An Attempt at Mood Regulation for Some People?” Journal Contents, vol. 20, no. 1, 2015, pp. 51-57.

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