Well, if you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
‘Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are
In his latest colum Erik, The Lizardman, suggested that it was laughable to seek out body modifications solely because they are rare or unusual, and even more foolhardy to get rid of a body modification when it becomes popular for fear of being perceived as part of the crowd. While I believe his core premise is accurate on a business level*, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with his decrying of difference for the sake of difference.
* It is the “trend followers” who ultimately pay the bills of the body modification industry and thus keep it alive. Therefore it is wrong to downplay their value, since without them, we’d face significant hardships.
On an animal level, body modification serves to further two goals: first, strengthening the herd through a shared “belonger” visual language (African tribal scars, the Jewish bris, stretched lobes in the piercing scene, and so on), and second, as self-differentiating mating behavior (usually within certain boundaries, although we’re seeing those grow all the time). Until quite recently, all atypical modifications have been an individual expression — that’s where my interest lies, it’s what this article will focus on, and it’s what I believe we should protect and encourage.
To attract a mate of a specific type, animals differentiate themselves. Since females “choose” their mate in most species, males have evolved garish ways of drawing attention to themselves — look at birds and one of the first things you’ll notice is that the males are brightly colored and perform bizarre and dangerous rituals to attract attention, while the females have muted colors and tend not to put themselves at such risk. The basic idea though, universal across almost all animals, is that the unique and exceptional individual gets the best mates.
Humans of course are more complex animals, so our appearance and behavior is more than just mating behavior; it’s a broader form of communication. But it still boils down to the notion that the unique individuals define and rule the herd and the plain ones simply are going with the flow and get second pick. I should note that the definition of “plain” changes from year to year — at times it was normal to be corsetted, and nowadays it’s not abnormal to have a small number of tasteful body piercings.
Even a cursory overview of “successful people” (ie. business leaders, self-made millionaires, authors, celebrities, etc.) makes it clear that they’re not normal people. They tend to be tall. They tend to be beautiful. They tend to be eccentric. Of course there are exceptions, and it is true that the majority are excelling in socially acceptable ways, but the fact remains that the world and its destiny belongs to unique and exceptional individuals. That said, the brightly colored bird is more likely to be killed by a predator, and the same goes for humans. If your goal is survival rather than success, maybe you’d be better off flying under the radar and stick with the crowd.
The future is defined by change. When things stay the same they stagnate — and the sad truth is that most people prefer to avoid change out of fear. The person who embraces mods that are already “normal” is not taking humanity forward. They’re certainly helping by not holding it back, and, as Erik stated, they are helping build a foundation for further change, but they are not involved in defining the future. Maybe not everyone wants to do that (and some would argue that not everyone is qualified to do that), but anyone with decent self-esteem should want to be involved in this process. After all, if you believe you are a good person with valid ideas, should you not be taking part in deciding humanity’s future? We’ve seen that when the future becomes defined by the herd that it tends to fail until a small group of individuals stands up, tears it down, and rebuilds it with forward vision.
One of the points that Erik made — and a very valid one — was that no matter what, we are all individuals, and are all different. No matter what. Sure, that’s true, but on an objective level it’s not really so true after all. It’s kind of like the person who watches contests on TV and swears up and down that they’re smarter and could win the million dollars… that’s all good, and maybe it’s even true, but what does it matter if you’re not going out there and winning? We’re social animals — few of us, short of sociopathic serial killers, operate solely as individuals. As such, while it’s definitely good to perceive of yourself as an individual, you’d better be able to prove it if you want anyone to take the claim seriously.
Being different with the same form of expression is not really being different objectively; only subjectively. For example, if a person who’s lead a vanilla life gets a navel piercing, it can be a profound and positive statement on a personal level — one that I’d encourage (and I hope this isn’t coming across as negating that value) — but it is only a private statement. However, when you pursue modifications that are unique or relatively unique, you make a larger statement, and if you have some basic comprehension of esthetics, you can get “heavy mods” that are still attractive (read: successful) on a mainstream level and can even help you succeed in that mainstream — not because the mod “makes you better”, but because it’s an effective way to advertise and promote yourself. As I’ve mentioned before, it makes you memorable (unusual modifications do — a navel piercing did ten years ago, but that is no longer the case).
The term is thrown around a lot, but I believe that we’re sitting at the cusp of a major paradigm shift that will define human culture over the next millenia. We’re currently deciding whether we want to move toward a society that embraces the unique individual, or a conformist culture that insists on uniformity. Powerful forces and trends are fighting for each option, and as society stratifies the coming culture war becomes more apparent.
We have to ask ourselves which kind of culture we’d rather live in: are you defined as a member of a group (black, American, Russian, white, Christian, whatever) or are you defined as an individual, with your group allegiances being secondary? That is, are you defined by your similarities with your compatriots, or your differences? Logically, I fail to see how an individual can be defined by anything but the differences.
One of my favorite movies, Harold and Maude, contains a scene where they are walking through a flower greenhouse near a giant field of white daisies. Maude, an eccentric and full of life old woman says to her much younger boyfriend Harold, “I like to watch things grow. They grow, and bloom, and fade, and die, and change into something else! Ah, life!” She then tells Harold how she would like to be a sunflower, on account of them being “so tall and simple”, and then asks him what sort of flower he’d like to be.
Harold (an oddball who longs to be “normal”) gestures at the wide field of daisies, which from a distance look uniform in nature, and says to her, “I don’t know… one of these maybe. They’re all alike.”
Maude replies, “Oh, but they’re not! Look, see, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some grow to the right, some have even lost some petals… all kinds of observable differences! You see Harold; I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people that are this, yet allow themselves to be treated as that,” pointing from the single flower to the giant field of daisies which then transitions into a field of thousands of white gravestones.
In conclusion, be yourself and don’t be afraid to tell people that as loudly as you want. Be proud of your differences; fight not just to protect them, but to amplify them! I named BME not just as an acronym for Body Modification Ezine, but as a symbolic statement of “BE ME“. IAM is of course the same. I aggressively encourage you to be yourself and back up that action with evidence of your uniqueness.
See the future. Be the future!
PS. Let me be very clear though: if you want your navel pierced, that’s awesome and I think that on a personal level you can get a lot out of it and it’s absolutely worth doing and I encourage it as well. This column is not meant to spit on the mainstream; I’m simply trying to illustrate that the other side of the coin (“difference for difference’s sake”) has value as well. I also am not so blind as to believe that atypical body modification is the only way to achieve the goals I’ve discussed here — it’s simply the path I’ve chosen for myself (and I think it’s a good one; or at least the right one for me).