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Special Report: The Stigma Surrounding Body Modifications

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HEAVY talks to the incredibly modified Erik ‘the Lizardman’ Sprague (pictured) from the US and the body modification expert and owner of The Piercing Urge studio in Melbourne, Peter Sheringham, to gauge their opinions on the stigma surrounding body modifications.

Body modifications like piercings and tattoos are now fairly widely accepted, but why is there still such a stigma surrounding other forms of body modification? Whether it’s a reasonably common type of modification such as genital piercing or a more extreme modification like penile sub-incision, tongue splitting, scarification, facial tattoos or sub-dermal implants, society generally frowns upon these types of modifications.

The US has passed legislation in a number of states specifically outlawing tongue bifurcation, commonly known as tongue splitting, which involves cutting the tongue lengthways so that it is forked akin to that of a snake. Australia has also passed legislation that specifically refers to tongue splitting, although only banning it for minors. Has tongue splitting become so common that it requires legislation or is it something that the media has sensationalised to the point where the government has been pressured into passing legislation to quash societal fears? HEAVY talks to the incredibly modified Erik ‘the Lizardman’ Sprague (pictured) from the US and Peter Sheringham, owner of The Piercing Urge body modifications studio in Melbourne to gauge their opinions.

A number of US states have specifically outlawed tongue bifurcation when other more so called extreme modifications, such as penile sub-incisions or bisections, were not and the Lizardman agrees that the media may have had some influence on the passing of the law “It has always been an attempt by politicians to grab easy media attention. The laws themselves are poorly written, disingenuous, and ill-informed. At their best they are redundant to existing laws regarding surgery without a license and at worst they are legalised prejudice that prevent doctors from doing the procedure properly, thus driving people to do it themselves or seek out less safe underground options. The people behind them are simply latching on to images in the media to get attention for themselves which is why they went after tongue splitting – it is far more visible and well known than other so called ‘extreme’ procedures.”

The media also tend to sensationalise things that will trigger a response from society, which only adds to the stigma surrounding body modifications. Peter Sheringham, expert piercer and body modifier, agrees “The media as a general rule… are horrible when it comes to body art. One little thing happens and… like tongue splitting – sometimes they make it out that there’s four million people running around with split tongues. There’s not, they just make it seem like everybody’s doing it.” The Lizardman has a similar opinion “the main effects [of the media sensationalising body modifications] are perpetuating prejudice and making it more dangerous by driving it underground…the media is prone to claim that anything new is a trend and claim it is the new thing that kids are getting into even when the truth is that we are talking about an incredible minority of adults. Body modifications are often the subject of this sort of bad reporting because it very often results in high viewership. The bad or completely false information then helps drive things like bad legislation.”

Due to his extensive experience performing body modifications, Peter Sheringham was asked by the Victorian Department of Human Services to consult with them and provide his opinion in relation to the legal aged required for piercings. Peter is of the opinion that tongue splitting is not common enough to warrant specific legislation, but that there does need to be age restrictions on extreme body modifications “[tongue splitting] is something that is popular. I wouldn’t say that it’s done regularly… I don’t think someone who is 16 or younger should have access to [tongue splitting]. You know, it’s a permanent thing.” He continues “When you’re 18 you’re an adult and can make up your own mind… we do tongue splitting here, we do scarification here, we do branding here, but I will not brand, scar or tongue split anyone that is under 18. Anyone that is barely 18 I’ll have lengthy discussions with them before I do anything on them so I’m comfortable with the fact that they really, really understand what they’re asking for and understand that it’s permanent and understand that… it’ll change the way other people view them. I’m all for body mods, but I don’t want to be involved in creating a situation for somebody where they’re now scarred for life from a psychological point of view… you need to make sure that people are strong enough to deal with that.”

The Lizardman also agrees that you have to have your life in order before committing to an extreme modification “When things aren’t going well it can be easy to convince yourself that doing something, especially something extreme, will solve all your problems. The reality is that extreme moves tend to increase the difficulty, not remove it. If you are experiencing difficultly and uncertainty you cannot truly know that you are acting from the best motivations. Lifelong changes like permanent modifications need to be undertaken from a place of secure self knowledge not as rash attempts to escape adversity or they will simply bring more troubles.”

Peter feels that the stigma associated to body modifications has decreased somewhat. “It’s changed a lot over the years. It used to be quite a full-on thing… but now it’s anyone and everyone so it’s less of an issue. You know you show up with a tattoo sleeve and no one gives a shit, whereas 15 years ago it’d be like ‘the weird tattoo guy’. It’s so much more common that it isn’t as much of a thing… there are still areas where they have no idea and just assume that everybody should look a particular way, but generally it’s getting better as the years go along.”

Although the stigma may be decreasing, there are still some surprisingly conventional modifications that outrage society.  You would never think that growing facial hair would elicit the same, if not a more outraged, response from society as tongue splitting or facial tattoos, but this is something that the Lizardman has experienced firsthand – he sported a Hitler style moustache only to receive a response from the public that far outweighed the negative responses he receives for any of his other body modifications. “I prefer to think of it as a Chaplin style moustache, but the rest of society seems to think that it belongs to Hitler exclusively. The reactions I got were extreme and included violent threats, no one seemed to care that I was not expressing or endorsing any form of hate. I would say that my brief time with that moustache was far more intense and negative than what I have experienced as Lizardman.”

It’s clear that the stigma surrounding the more common body modifications has dramatically decreased, however, if you’re planning any extreme modifications or even considering growing a Hitler/Chaplin moustache, then you may need to prepare yourself for an unwelcoming reception from the public.

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