This columns marks the re-introduction of a hopefully weekly piece by me, Shannon Larratt (glider). I think it's important to note that while my views do largely represent the official stance of BME, my views by no means should be taken to represent this community as a whole. I am well known for having radikal notions on most of subjects, including body modification (and I do mean to say "radikal", as in the political sense, not "radical" as in the surfer dude sense). With that caveat made clear, let's begin.
Class Consciousness and Class Warfare
No one likes to admit it, but there is a war for survival going on between those who choose to lead public modified lives, and those who believe this lifestyle is wrong. In this article I will attempt to show how this war is being fought, and will propose plans of counterattack that strengthen our collective stance without alienating the generally neutral mainstream population.
First of all, it's important to differentiate between attacks coming from the private sector (individuals and private businesses) and the attacks coming from the public sector (generally municipal and state government actions). While in the private sector there is a certain balance of rights (for example, the balance between a person's right to free expression contrasted with a private company's right to impose a code of behaviour on its workplace and employees), but in the public sector the balance must be far more liberal as the services provided are in general both monopolistic and universal, and because they are paid for by all (including the modified), morally they must be accessible by all.
I'd like to address the public sector attacks first. While I'm not proposing that there's a unified conspiracy throughout the government opposed to body modification, closed-minded and backward-thinking individuals voted into power can use the strength of the government to attack us primarily via educational restrictions (which attack young people interested in pursuing body modification), although business restrictions (which attempt to close down or restrict from opening body modification studios) and subsequent related prosecutions occur to a lesser extent.
If a state institutes a policy of banning body modifications (generally piercings) in schools, they leave "young modders" with an unpleasant choice: cease to exist as modified people, or be expelled from the school system to fend in the world without an education1. To take away someone's basic right to an education over a piercing or tattoo makes a powerful statement: the government viewpoint is that we do not in fact own our bodies or have authority over them, and that the government holds the sole rights to dictate what happens to your body. Additionally, it makes the statement that body modification is so wrong that a person who has committed the sin of body piercing does not deserve to have an education due to the level of danger (presumably via moral corruption) they present to other students. Both are of course patently ridiculous propositions and impossible to defend in any logical debate.
If a state institutes a policy of interfering with the business of body modification, either by malicious zoning and regulation2, or by an outright ban3, they attempt to kill body modification at its source. This type of attack has the end effect of putting out of business reputable high-quality studios and forcing customers into the hands of far less reputable fly-by-night studios4. The government is perfectly aware that acts like this serve not only to reduce the number of modified people in their community, but also to injure and put at risk those that remain.
I hope that short introduction clarifies that elements of the government are very much at war with the modified community, and that they are willing to both exterminate us and when not able, injure us as much as possible. It is no surprise that similar bigotry exists in the private sector as well. Every one of us has experienced a range of attacks from very minor (rudeness and bad service) to more severe (restriction of access to the job market, poor or even dangerous medical and professional service, and so on)5.
Minor and individually launched attacks, while unacceptable and boorish, fluctuate with the whims and perceived norms of the moment, and I believe will largely disappear in time as the practise of body modification becomes more normal and visible — I don't believe the average person has a problem with us. The difficulty is that more powerful forces in the private sector are doing what they can to ensure that this community doesn't grow in any space they control. The primary methods in use are the restriction of access to employment, as well as misleading and sometimes fraudulent statements made by professional and semi-official organisations such as medical fraternities and "public interest" groups6.
Businesses of course can and should dictate how their employees look and dress. In general this is done in the best interests of the business and to a lesser extent the customer (by instituting policies that give the business a unified look, ensuring employee safety, or increasing customer comfort), but in many cases do not aid the business itself and serves primarily to further the personal bias of the business owner, to the detriment of both the employees and the public — I hold that any act which attempts to restrict consensual activities which do no harm to others takes away from the validity of a free society. When individuals or corporations use their power to attempt to do economic harm to people who've chosen to modify their bodies, they are doing what they can to wage war on this community.
I've used the term "freedom of expression" a few times — I think it's important to note that this is not a legal right in the same way as free speech and free religion are. While some hold that body modification is a religion (I certainly concede that it has many spiritual aspects, and even on a minor level is an essential and life changing act for many people7), I do not believe that anyone would claim that this is a universal statement8. So the private sector attacks I've described above are perfectly legal on the whole. Unethical and disgusting, yes, but unfortunately also quite acceptable to the judicial system — and to be honest, as much as I'd like to have what I believe are fundamental rights forced through, if we believe in democracy and the general goodness of people, this can be solved without unpleasant legal confrontation.
So how do we fight this? How do we peacefully show them that we can make their lives better, and that they should want us to take part in the system?
I believe both in the general goodness of people, and in our government's general system of representing the needs of its population — although it is clear that it often lags behind in reforming questionable policies and there are times when politicians are more concerned with their personal ignorance and prejudices than the needs of their constituents. I believe that if body modification is "right", that by exercising our democratic voices, both as voters and as consumers, that we can "prove" ourselves. I also believe that if we can not use this system to prove ourselves, that it shows they are in the right9.
The simple fact is that there are a lot of us. It is difficult to get exact statistics, but studies show that about 18% of college students have tattoos (up from about 10% in 1997)10. Employment studies by Vault.com showed that about 20% of the general working population says that their tattoos or piercings have hindered their progress in the job market11. Certain demographic groups show higher numbers; for example, a full third of those involved in computer gaming have piercings and tattoos. Whatever the precise number is, it's clear that it's a giagantic group — most likely approximately one in five people12. For comparison, that means there twice as many people with piercings and tattoos in America as their are African Americans or Hispanics13. In addition, when we compare the growth rate of the modified community, we are growing at a rate dramatically faster than any other demographic group14.
Because there are a lot of us, our strength and victory can come through co-operative organisation, community strength, and grassroots action — not through confrontational legal action which works to alienate and frighten those who don't understand us. Now let's outline how we can win this battle. We need to send the message that if they don't want to play nice, we're not going to play their game, and we need to send the message that they are better off with us in the system.
The vast majority of people don't mind what other do to their bodies, but they do suffer from both fear and ignorance, with flames fanned by misleading statements issued by groups such as the American Dental Association15 which are then transformed into flat-out fraudulent statements by irresponsible journalists16. As such, we need to be vigilant and responsible in dispelling these myths through even-handed public information campaigns of our own, along with ensuring that members of our community behave responsibly and safely when interacting with the general public, so as not to provide ammunition against ourselves.
As soon as a person has body modifications that are public — facial piercings, tattoos on public skin, and so on — they become aware of the class line. While we are of course fundamentally the same, it really is "us" and "them", even though this line should be absolutely illusionary and inconsequential. Because the general public has been so effectively conditioned to believe there's something wrong with modified people, we get treated poorly and receive inadequate service17. Now, what's very important here is that the modified community not play into and confirm the stereotype.
That is, if someone is rude to you because of your piercings, in their mind, you started it. Which means that if you respond rudely, in their mind you came in to their place of work and abused them. They will not realize that what they did is wrong in any way. Politely leave, but first make sure that a manager is informed that you were displeased with the service and how you have been made to feel. If the manager does not adequately conclude the encounter, I would strongly encourage you to write a letter to the corporate offices (I have attached sample letters at the end of this article). But please do not ignore the advice of first turning the other cheek and attempting to resolve the confrontation with kindless and polite manners. Don't be surprised if by doing that you shatter that person's misconceptions and make life more pleasant for the next modified person.
In any case, the fact is that businesses, especially large businesses, operate on very slim profit margins. A single percentage point drop in their sales is enough to destabilise their business model. Again, it's very important to note that there are a lot of us, and if we work together we have enormous financial and social power. I'm not suggesting any far out goals or special recognition or special rights — I'm simply saying that we have the right and the power to demand and get "fair and equal treatment".
If you are turned down for a job, or fired from a job for piercings or tattoos, the simplest way to remedy the situation is to use your voice. Fighting it in court is generally a losing battle, and will eat up your time and money. On the other hand, telling everyone you know what happened to you, and urging them to not support this business until they remedy the situation is free, ethical, very effective and most importantly sends a clear message.
I realize that I am about to ask you to accept some self imposed hardship, but unless it's utterly necessary, please do not tell them that you're willing to compromise and take out or hide your body modifications. When that happens, it lets them know that they can push us around, and that expressing who we are means less to us that $6.50 an hour. To achieve this liberty, it's important that a modified person with uncertain job prospects live light financially and try and keep enough buffer cash to avoid becoming an optionless and powerless wage slave. In addition, it is doubly important that the network of modified people support each other through job contacts, boycotts, and so on. If every time a modified person is denied service or a job by a business, the modified community makes it clear that they've just lost a significant percentage of their customer base, the practise will end quickly and peacefully (whereas if we try and fight it using other means, the practise will continue and grow, and if we lose, it will become very clearly legalised).
The government is more difficult to fight because it can not be intimidated by the threat of consumer actions and there may not be alternate services (which gives them the power to dictate nearly any condition they want without leaving other options), and in addition the majority of government attacks are on underage individuals who don't typically have the power or experience to fight back. As such there are two very important conditions that should be met before attempting to fight this. First of all, the student should not have any major weaknesses — it is far easier to fight if they have average or above average grades, don't have a disciplinary problems, and are well liked by their peers and hopefully teachers. Second of all, the student should have the active support of their peers and family.
A school can usually get away with quietly kicking out a single student — so refuse to take out your piercings, and make sure your friends do the same, and make sure that your parents support you on the whole. A school can not kick out a dozen or more students for piercings and tattoos, especially solid student with parental support. That's all it takes to make those policies end almost overnight: solidarity of the modified.
To recap and summarise, they attack us by restricting our access to essential services and by attempting to ban our activities. We can combat that by being productive and positive members of society, while still refusing to bend to their will, and supporting each other through the tough times that sometimes get forced on us. By exercising the power we have due to our numbers, and refusing to take part in their system when it treats us unfairly, we can show them that they will be happier and successful with us than without us18.
All we have to do is stand together, and we will win.
1 Over the past five years an increasing number of school boards are including bans on body piercing and dyed hair in their dress code rules. These rules are generally retroactive (that is, the student is forced to remove their piercings and un-dye their hair). It is important to note that these rules are not passed for the safety or benefit of the student, but instead to attempt to force the social morals of a minority on the student body. There are a number of personal stories about this in the editorials section of BME/News, and an Internet search on the subject will turn up numerous examples. Sadly this is not unusual, at least not in North America.
2 Most cities have zoning laws written specifically to set rules for piercing and tattoo studies. These laws restrict the opening of studies and often restrict them to ghettos outside of key business districts. As well as restricting the business's right to compete fairly in the market, this sends the message that tattooing and piercing is "beneath the mainstream" and that it doesn't have the right to be in the same area. In addition, it is not unusual for zoning boards to try and push existing businesses out. As a point of morbid trivia, New York City's vote to re-ban tattooing was terminated by the September 11th attacks.
3 A number of states still maintain state-wide bans on the art form of tattooing. Anyone tattooing in these states faces immediate arrest and imprisonment. Recent court challenges to this law have made tattooing the only art form not protected by the first ammendment.
4 My submissions numbers at BME are very clear — piercing and tattooing reaches all demographics and geographies. Laws banning the practise simply pushes it out of the public eye, with an end result of lower quality service to the client.
5 One of the first things a person notices when they get their first public modifications is people's eyes. We are very good at catching what people are looking at — all animals are; it's a survival skill. I doubt there's a single person with public mods who's never suffered from this. Yes, we knew it would happen when we went down this path, but that doesn't make it right.
6 Again, I'm not trying to imply some grand conspiracy. I'm talking about a "trend" or "swarm" of action committed by misguided individuals in positions of power. However, all those actions brought together do represent a somewhat unified wave of attack on us.
7 Read the experiences in BME, especially in the ritual section, but also in every section, and it will become immediately clear how profoundly life-changing even fairly innocuous body modification and body ritual acts can be.
8 My polls suggest that approximately 5% of the body modification community holds that for them all forms of body modification are literally of religious purpose (and therefore theoretically already constitutionally protected in most Western countries).
9 If one agrees that a democratic system can effectively reach conclusions that are what is best for society, then one must use that system to initiate societal change (rather than attempting to strong-arm it through).
10 Statistics on college students vary a great deal from study to study, with many showing numbers far greater than the 20% range. I have chosen the lower number in order to make a "worst case" number, and I have focused on college students because they are most definitely representative of skilled young people entering the workforce with a large enough skill set to have some freedom in the job market. In addition, college students tend to have the social awareness coupled with financial empowerment that makes being an activist easier.
11 While this is how the study was presented, I believe this may in fact mean "20% of pierced and tattooed people have experienced discrimination". Either case is unacceptable. The study goes on to say that over two thirds of employers state that they have discriminated against potential employees with visible body modification.
12 BME's usage statistics dwarf many other mainstream magazines. According to Lycos, the word "tattoo" was the fourth most popular search term — of all subjects — in 2001.
13 The African American and Hispanic communities both make up about 11% of the US population.
14 BME's usage statistics have continued to ramp up faster than Internet growth, consistently since opening. In addition, the piercing and tattoo industry has continued to grow every year since the 1970s.
15 It is not unusual for groups such as the ADA to issue misleading public warnings about the dangers of piercing. While tongue piercings definitely do cause problems from time to time from chipped teeth (which can be minimised through proper jewelry), risks such as "infection leading to brain abscess" are so rare that to bring them up instead of the real risks is clear fear-mongering intended to damage the industry. The medical professionals making these statements are well educated and should be perfectly aware of the deception they are perpetrating and the effects it will have. IAM members can click here to see a letter I wrote to a newspaper on the subject.
16 A recent example that became national news was the study linking tattoos and piercings to "troubled teens". While early stories were clear that this was a study of 200 students at a military school, most of whom at been pierced illegally, subsequent articles stated only the size of the entire study (about 5000 students) which had nothing to do with the actual number of pierced students (only 200). This story was repeated internationally in its misleading form, and most certainly influenced the attitudes of parents and legislators. IAM members can click here to see a letter I wrote to one of the news wires on the subject.
17 My polls indicate that effectively 100% of people with public body modifications have had these experiences.
18 Let me be clear about something: while right now it is "us and them", I hope that one day it will simply be "us". Other than the fact that we on some levels are more self-aware and free, modified and unmodified people are not particularly different. Our goal should be to equalise the rights and treatments of the two groups. Not to achieve special rights or separation, but simply to coexist in a fair and equal manner.
To a business which provided poor service:
To a school which has threatened expulsion to modified students:
To a business which has anti-mod hiring practises: