What’s in a Name?
One of the things that’s unique about the way that body modification is used in the West is that it’s individualistic. On a historical level, when you examine body modification in more “primitive” cultures, body modification’s purpose was deeply steeped in social identity and social structure. One’s modifications signified one’s role in life and position in the tribe — a role generally immutable and determined by birthright. That is, body modifications played a role in transforming the individual into a piece of the whole. In modern society body modification often does the opposite — its role is to transform a piece of the whole into an individual. It is a way of defining a unique and self-determined identity.
Much of who we are is defined by our community and our family. Our skills, interests, and our names are all chosen primarily by others while we were children and infants — modern body modification is a part of a larger set of actions that represent a significant step in human cultural evolution — the end of homogeneity.
The Internet has played a fascinating role in this shift through the seemingly innocuous requirement of asking people to choose usernames for their email, websites, and IM clients — what is this but an adult choosing to name themselves? Thus it is put into common consciousness the idea that one’s identity is self-defined, rather than externally assigned. There’s nothing stopping people from using their real name online, but how many people do you know that do that?
Until recently, online identities tended to be secondary — almost like secret identities — but as the line between the online world and the offline world blurs, the dominant identity takes control, and often that’s the online one. For those of you who’ve attended IAM BBQs and other offline events of online communities, you know that you are more likely to know people by their chosen name than their given name. As a result, name tags usually list the IAM name, and it’s very normal for people to refer to each other by those names in conversation — and often not even know the given name of their friend!
People with body modifications are already very used to a self-defined identity — an adult identity that’s different than the child identity — so it should come as no surprise that an increasing number of IAM members are legally changing their “real” names to match the identity they’ve created for themselves. Now, before you cringe at how weird this is, ask yourself: Are your friends the ones you chose, or were they assigned? Do you watch the movies you choose, or are they assigned? Do you wear the clothes you choose, or are they assigned?
Why should a name be any different?
Meet the Reverend Grenade Bee Of Death, who you may also know as iam:Grenade. When he married he took on his wife’s name with his own, and of course after their divorce it only reminded him of things he’d rather forget. He worked a solitary job, and over time most of his friends were people he met online, where while playing the game Planetarion he was known as The Holy Handgrenade of Antioch. Grenade came to be his regular online name, and when he started meeting online friends in person, no one could bring themselves to call him “Martin” — so the nickname Gren stuck.
The name Martin became less and less relevant as almost everyone called him “Gren”. After an epiphany as to the nature of people and friendship, and after time spent with good online friends he legally changed his name to Grenade Bee Of Death. After posting this to his IAM page, and explaining how easy it was, he helped a few others do the same.
I asked him whether he felt different with his new name and what he described was very similar to the amputee fetishists who when asked if they feel different without their legs reply, “no, now I feel normal!”
Now meet Swirly Wanx Sinatra, the first person to contact Gren about doing the same, formerly swirlywanx on IAM, now going by his full and legal name, iam:swirly wanx sinatra.
About two years ago “Daz” started realizing that blending in just wasn’t for him. While looking through large amounts of tattoo flash with an older brother he saw that it was mostly just commercial scribbles and commented, “that’s awful… just a load of swirly wank!”
The comment stuck, and when he joined IAM he did so as swirlywanx — of course at BBQs people had no idea he was actually Daz, and simply called him “Swirly”. At the same time his non-IAM friends started doing the same, and in jest started adding surnames and completing the identity. Soon he realized that he’d “grown into” Swirly, and after choosing “Sinatra” as a classy surname (“Wanx”, sounding too much like a down-on-his-luck pornstar, was demoted to a middle name) he legally became Swirly Wanx Sinatra.
Other than the occasional outburst from fools thinking he’s degrading Frank Sinatra, after a bit of checking that they’re not being messed with, people tend to respond with something along the lines of “that’s fucking cool… stupid as shit, but cool!”
Now meet RooRaaah Mew Crumbs.
For his whole life, Andrew Paul Johnson had been called Roo (on account of And-rew of course) — you know him on IAM first as AndyRoo, then RooRaaah, and now as iam:MisterCrumbs. He never liked his full name, and it didn’t feel right — “it just doesn’t fit with how I see myself.”
Starting with Roo, a friend a few years ago added “Raaah” and he liked it (“simple as that!”). “Mew” comes from his passion for cats, and his tendency to actually say “mew” a lot in conversation (“you have to experience it to appreciate the full greatness of how it sounds”). “Crumbs” as well comes from a quirk of his character and interests —
Now that the change is complete, RooRaaah refuses to answer to “Andy” any more, and has spent the last while trundling around Liverpool changing his details. His workplace was incredulous and tried to refuse to accept the name change, but ultimately they didn’t have a choice — it is his legal name. At first there was a lot of explaining, but now he just leaves them stumped with a “why not”.
In a recent poll of about 1,500 BME readers, only about forty percent said they’d never considered changing their name — this is a very common drive. Well over a hundred people told me they actually went by a chosen name, and forty-five of those had legally committed to the change.
In talking to people who’d chosen their own names and rejected their given names one commonality appeared — the idea that the new name “felt right” — that it actually represented who they were, rather than acting as simply an ID tag of sorts. Body modification is of course the same phenomena, a remaking of the self into what “feels right”, and it’s for that reason that the online body modification community is one of the groups pioneering what may soon come to be a tsunami of name changes reflecting online identities.
What effect this will have in the long term is of course still to be determined — is the world a better place when we don’t feel identity-bound to the past? Can you build a successful tribe out of a multitude of individuals, or do you need people to voluntarily accept some degree of slavery? I hope these people’s stories help you think about your name and what it means to you, whether you have any interest in self-defining or not.
Good luck figuring out how you’d like the world to know you,