Is Piercing a Form of Self-Mutilation?

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

You can go to a piercing booth and get any part of the body pierced.  Nose, ear, and belly button are the most common part, but not everybody is satisfied by piercing just these organs.  There are needle men everywhere who specialize in piercing and tattooing.  It pays to pierce and tattoo others.  You can make a good packet by the end of the day.  

 Piercing is observed in primitive tribes as well as highly developed societies.  In tribes, piercing and tattooing is part of the initiation ceremony and an opportunity for the youngsters to demonstrate that they have mastered the pain.  These also served as means of identification.  Members of a tribe were identified by the specific body parts they tattooed and/or pierced.  Females used their tattoos and pierced body parts to make themselves more attractive to males.

 In the eastern societies, ear and nose-piercing was a part of  acupuncture treatment, specifically, preventive medicine acupuncture.  For example, ear lobe piercing was believed to protect a male from certain testicular diseases, and piercing of the upper part of the ear was believed to increase pain tolerance in women.   Nose piercing was believed to control the sexual drive.  Unmarried girls wore a ring in their nose which for courtship purposes proclaimed her virginity.   

 In the olden days, piercing and tattooing constituted a social rite, fully approved and encouraged by the eldermen, and performed under their direct supervision.  In fact, it was a part of an initiation, graduation ceremony to proclaim that the initiate has met all the requirements and passed all the tests assigned by the wise men of the society.  Now, the social dynamics of tattooing and piercing is totally opposite of what it used to be in tribes and  ancient societies.  What was once a social award and a mark of social recognition, has now become an act of rebellion and is often carried out with disapproval and displeasure of adults.   

 So how should we view piercing and tattooing today?  Is this an act of rebellion and protest against the authority of adults and the norms and rules adults want kids to follow?  Are youngsters, through tattooing and piercing, announcing their independence, autonomy, and free will?  Is it an outward expression of pain they experience on the inside?  Is the pressure of, and the conflict between the adult culture and the peer culture is hard to bear that youngsters have to resort to self-injury.  Some psychologists regard tattooing and piercing  as acts of self- mutilation.   

 Piercing, tattooing, picking at skin, burning by a lighter or a cigarette or cutting by a knife or a razor are viewed by some psychologists as a cry in distress or self-mutilation of sorts.  These are different ways to deal with the internal pain resulting from the conflict between the demands of family and demands of peers.  

 So how do adolescents cope and deal with their pain when the above conflict becomes overpowering?  Psychologists have identified five major behaviors:    

1.  Submission:   "I can't or don't want to fight.  You want to hurt me, go ahead!  I submit!"

2.  Protest:  I can't fight it but in protest I will hurt myself and you will  be sorry  because you do this to me." 

3.  A cry for help.  "Do something about it,  I am really hurting.  If you can't see how much I am hurting inside, let me show you from the outside the bruises and wounds I carry inside."

4.  An attempt to regain control.  "Before you can hurt me, I will hurt myself.  I won't give you a chance to do it to me first."

5.  Cry of desperation.  "I can't take it anymore.  Maybe after this (my act of self-mutilation ) you'll let up on me."  

 Psychologists speculate that inflicting harm or violating one's body releases tension for some people.  Such an act calms them down  For some, inflicting pain on themselves hardens them mentally and gives them an edge over the emotional pain.  For some, it provides a way to defy the parental authority

 Here are a few suggestions for positive coping:  1.  Identify early when you are in pain.  2.  Label that internal conflictual state as "painful," so you know what it is and how should you refer to it  3.  Think about how to act to reduce the emotional pain. 4.  Seek help.  5.  Parents, be flexible but at the same time don't abandon them or lax completely in the hopes that that would make your teenager "happy".

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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