Purpose of Piercing

There has been a noticeable growth in the popularity of body piercing during the past decade. Having become increasingly main-stream, piercing is no longer reserved for the fringe cultures of our society. The shock value has diminished and a new industry has bloomed. Now pierced bodies are everywhere and body jewelry is marketed to the masses at mall outlets and fashion boutiques, not just the local tattoo establishments.

Body piercing has a long history but with the immediacy of today’s popular culture, that history has been lost to fad. Young people are getting pierced without knowing, or even caring, about where the piercing came from, what they represent or what their purpose was originally. While many people have their personal reasons for getting pierced, there are four basic reasons why people have been getting pierced over the ages. They are religious traditions, cultural traditions, visual aesthetics and sexual pleasure.

Religious Traditions

photo by Dominik Vanyi

It is hard to imagine body piercing as having any connection to religious beliefs, especially in a moderately Judeo-Christian society. Travel to areas of the world where Christianity takes a back seat and you will find many cultural rich societies where piercing is practiced in conjunction with religious beliefs. One present-day example of this is the annual Taipuram Festival in India and some parts of Southeast Asia. Here young Hindu men stitch weights into their skin with hooks or carry heavy, elaborate contraptions consisting of multiple spikes that pierce the skin as they move. This practice is said to attract divine attention from the Hindu Gods through the wearer’s suffering.

In Phuket, their Vegetarian Festival consists of devotees, considered to be spiritual mediums to the Gods, making a pilgrimage from several of the island’s temples to the shore while carrying long rods, knifes, pokers and other implements that pierce through their skin. Aside from body piercing, there are other forms of self mortification including fire walking and climbing ladders made from sharp blades.

Cultural Traditions

photo by Julien de Salaberry

Piercing as a cultural tradition is more prevalent than for religious reasons. When discussing piercing in the context of cultural traditions, the images that immediately come to mind are the aboriginal adornments on the primitive tribes of Africa, New Zealand, South America and the outlying provinces of Asia and India where tribal communities are the norm. You have seen all those intriguing photographs in the pages of National Geographic of the women with neck rings or watched with wonder as natives walked around with large clay plates in their lips on some documentary show. Although the type of jewelry worn changes from region to region, many of the reasons are the same. Some cultures use piercing to enhance beauty, while other use it to signify rank or social standing. Others use piercing to boast wealth while other may boast sexual prowess. In many cultures, piercing is done as a rite-of-passage as well, marking an individual’s coming-of-age. All of these reasons can trace their traditions to their ancestors.

In modern non-tribal societies, we don’t have these deeply rooted traditions or rites-of-passage, yet cultural traditions still exist. These traditions may not have as long a history as their aboriginal counterparts, yet the same cultural drives are present. In the early seventies we had the punk rockers pushing safety pins through their ears, eyebrows and noses as a means of communicating their counter-cultural, anarchistic sentiments. In the eighties a young male showed his sexual preference by which of his earlobes was pierced. Today, piercing has ‘borrowed’ from so many cultures that it has been blended and assimilated into its own neo-tribal form. The cultural source of each piercing has been overshadowed by modern aesthetics and its meaning or reason lost on the modern piercee.

Riding on the “shock value” of body piercing, many of today’s youngsters have taken to getting their faces, tongues and bellies pierced. While you may not see kids with large lip plates, modern traditions have evolved to levels our modern society deems acceptable. We take many of the navel and tongue piercing on teens as something they do. Walk into any school and you will see plenty of young girls sporting shinning gemstones, dangling crystals and jewelry of every conceivable color from their belly button. Turn around and you will be faced with another group of girls displaying nose studs while they make fun of the group of kids wearing eyebrow rings. All these practices borrow heavily from our more ancient ancestry. While these customs may not seem as foreign to us as the clay plates in the lip, it is only because we, as a society, have come to accept these customs as part of our own personal growing culture. We may dismiss them as fads or a phase we are going through, but as long as people get pierced in order to feel they belong to a larger community, the longer that tradition will be with us.

Visual Aesthetics

1197135-pexelsOften going hand-in-hand with cultural traditions, getting pierced in order to beautify our looks or attract a mate is as old as history. Whether gold and diamond adorn the ear lobe, nose or belly button, the message it presents is the same. The wearer feels the jewelry enhances and beautifies their looks. Young girls here find it sexy to have their navels pierced just as they do in India. Young men wanting to present a strong, tough exterior to their peers will pierce their eyebrows, lips or nose much as the men in New Zealand where a tusk running through the nose will garner admiration and respect among the piercee’s social circle.

In our crowded society where different cultures reside side by side within the same geographical neighborhood, visual aesthetics are often perceived differently as cultural borders are crossed. In metropolitan areas, there is such an overlap of fashion and cultural styles that the phrase ‘melting pot’ is more than appropriate. Of course, the old adage of beauty being in the eye of the beholder definitely comes into play with such a mix of cultures, styles and fashions. While we are talking primarily about piercing, we must keep in mind that perception of beauty also applies to many other forms of adornment. Brown lip liner around hot pink lipstick may be one person’s beauty, but will be someone else’s fashion no-no.

Sexual Pleasure

photo by Angelos Michalopoulos

Since genital piercings are rarely seen, they are often overlooked or even thought about. While the original purpose of many genital piercing have either been lost or modified over the centuries, the majority of genital piercing done today, as in the past, is primarily for sexual pleasure. The type of piercing and choice of jewelry is often dictated by the desired result for yourself or your partner.

The unfortunate part about genital piercing is not the thought of what pain may be experienced but how we are perceived as a person should someone discover that we have a genital piercing. Our puritanical mentality about sex and our bodies has made us shun what can ultimately be a great thing. It has altered our own self-image, thinking that there is something ‘wrong’ with wanting such an extreme form of body modification. That having something so erogenous is somehow taboo. Nothing can be further from the truth.

In many aboriginal cultures, a woman won’t even consider marriage unless the male is pierced. Among some males, it is a matter of pride to be pierced. While we don’t have established traditions regarding genital piercing, the choice to be pierced in such an intimate way is strictly a personal one.