Self-Expression Through Mutilation

TORONTO — Shannon Larratt speaks with a forked tongue. Literally — as he has chosen to split his in two.

Larratt also sports tribal markings on his face and two-inch stretched earlobe piercings. What most would call “mutilation,” Larratt calls “body modification” or BM — a contemporary expression of an ancient, pagan-istic practice.

It would be easy to write off Larratt as a lunatic, but an interview with the Register reveals this 30-year-old Torontonian as thoughtful and articulate. A successful businessman, he is married with a small child. He and his American wife, Rachel, operate a website that caters to the body modification “community.”

It is unknown how many Americans engage in body modification. But as the abundance of young Americans sporting lip, nose and eyebrow rings attests, it's a lot more popular than a generation ago. And beach-goers in Florida this summer have witnessed firsthand that far more extreme forms have gone public.

Reuters reported that the Monroe County sheriff's office and the U.S. Coast Guard were called July 12 to a Florida Keys sandbar, where five young people had erected a bamboo tripod with meat hooks. A young woman dangled from the hooks. A young man who also had hooks “embedded in his heavily pierced and tattooed skin” told a Coast Guard officer that the group was “just enjoying the afternoon,” Reuters reported.

21st Century Paganism

Because of body modification's strong connections to paganism, tattooing has been proscribed by Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Until the end of the 20th century, tattooing and the grosser forms of body modification were associated almost exclusively with non-Western societies; travelers to those societies, such as sailors; the degraded (slaves, convicts); and the marginalized (gangsters, bikers, prostitutes, homosexuals).

Despite the dangers, which include hepatitis B and C, anywhere from 20 million to 40 million Americans are tattooed, including one-quarter of those aged 18 to 25, women as much as men. And despite the greater dangers of piercing (ear piercing alone carries an 11% to 24% risk of infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control), the wearing of rings and jewels attached to eyebrows, noses, lips, navels and other parts is now commonplace.

Even by contemporary standards, however, Larratt's body modifications are extreme. He has written that these are “done without anesthesia or pain control, often in unregulated and unsanitary situations that put the wearer at needless risk, to say nothing of the long term potentially stigmatizing and life-destroying effects.”

And yet, Larratt told the Register, the only bad thing about body modification is discrimination in employment and education.

He explained how he began: “I was doing temporary piercings on myself at about age 10 and started tattooing and piercing myself when I was 15 or 16. I don't know why I did it; I ‘just had to’…You'll find that most people seriously involved in body modifications have analogous stories to my own.”

To many, this sounds more compulsion than choice, especially given that Larratt has publicly defended self-injury — such as slashing oneself with razor blades — as a valid form of self-expression.

As well, Larratt admitted body modification is closely connected with sadomasochism, both as “part of the look” and because the pain of modification induces “physical sensations that many people find highly erotic.”

Body modification is often extolled by its practitioners as a religious experience, and until recently there existed a Church of Body Modification. Larratt's religious beliefs combine elements of pantheism, Gnosticism and Manicheism. His body, he explained, “is the only tool I have to experience what this world has to offer. I'd be a fool not to manipulate it in ways that allow me as many experiences as possible.”

Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, said that body modification “is a great way of shocking parents who are increasingly hard to shock. Sex, drugs and rock and roll no longer quite cut it.”

In fact, Jenkins believes that body modification, and its attendant sadomasochism, entered the wider culture through rock music.

Christopher Check agrees. He is vice president of the Rockford Institute, a Midwestern think tank concerned with the family, liberty and Christian civilization. “MTV is in every suburban home,” he said.

One of the consequences of this, Check noted, is the mainstreaming of tattoos for women — not discreet roses and not found on “trailer-trash women but sweet girls like the lifeguards at the pool I take my wife and sons to,” Check said,

Check, a Catholic, described body modification as a subset of the larger cult of body worship, which is “a misunderstanding of why we were created, by whom and to what purpose. The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and a gift from God, but the enthusiasm for fitness and exercise, the desire for eternal youth, is a serious moral distortion.”

Helen Hull Hitchcock, founding director of Women for Faith & Family, pointed out the irony that “there is one kind of socially approved body modification” — the plastic surgery celebrated in such programs as Extreme Makeover and

The Swan. The difference is that the entertainment industry's “good” type of body modification aims to make people beautiful, while the “bad” type aims to make them ugly, she said.

Hitchcock argued that both types exemplify “the ancient heresy of mind-body duality. You see this in the militant abortion movement, the idea that the body is mine to control, to be abused in any way,” she said. “Throughout the ages, this duality has been used to justify self-abuse, selfish mortifications and in using the body for pleasure in ways that divorce it from the soul.”

Hitchcock regards the return of paganistic mutilation among the young as both a reflection of and a cry against the nihilism of our age. “Generation X and Y have grown up in cultural chaos, and they are terrified of being swept away,” she said. “So they look for something to hang on to, no matter how extreme.”

She concluded, “If you read St. Augustine's Confessions, it is almost as if they were written yesterday. There is the same agony of trying to make sense of a senseless world. Whenever I get discouraged, I remember that he reminded us, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’”

Kevin Michael Grace writes from Victoria, British Columbia.