There used to be a time when it was common practice to teach our children how to properly respect our bodies. Used to be. Now that respect extends to the farthest frontiers of the term consent, well past the long-rotted fences that cordoned off the brighter pastures of moral guidance and virtue. The common assumption is that proper respect for the body rests somewhere between the humiliating and derogatory attack on common decency, and the lurid sexuality of wanton lust pushed by corporate interests and characterized by billboards, internet pornography, and the expectations of a sexual culture.
But what is respect for the body? How can the body be respected when, according to the modern way of thinking, the body is little more than a fleshy and often baffling possession of the will? We’re led to believe, in both popular discourse and most fields of academic study, that the body is simply a vehicle for our expressions and actions, and that it is related to our identities only as a matter of genetic coincidence. The problem with all of this, as always, is that it’s all completely wrong.
So let’s take a look at what we’re told today. We’re told to stay healthy, keep clean, and to maintain some level of physical fitness. That’s all fine, even though most of the reasoning that this stuff is pushed so hard is to sell moisturizers and overpriced health foods. What’s ironic is that the cultivation of a “healthy lifestyle” has become branded alongside the New Age and washed-out hippie alternative markets, which is really where things start to get a little weird. These piercing-perforated, tattoo covered advocates of free love have lined up at the registers of Whole Foods and Wegman’s, somehow affluent enough to shuck out the absurd amount of money for an organic label that carries more value as a brand than as an edible product.
The problem isn’t the food they’re eating, or even the gullibility necessary to buy into the branding. It’s the tattoos. It’s the body modification. It’s the willingness to forsake meaningful interaction for the impulsive interests of a few minutes tumbling around in the sheets.
“Oh, but what’s the harm?” So stands the first objection offered by modern sensibilities. “They’ve consented to these things, right? No one is advocating for these things to be inflicted upon another person’s body by force!”
Ah, there it is. The defining feature of modern ethics: consent. Around that word turns the entire structure of Modernity. And there’s certainly a place for consent, no doubt about that. But that isn’t everywhere. Sometimes what someone is willing to consent to extends far beyond what is moral.
Indeed, it is with this very idea in mind that various religious systems stumbled upon the natural law and formulated moral frameworks in the first place. Just because a thing can be done, even without hurting anyone but imposer, does not mean that it should be. In the case of body modification, the ailments and physical destruction of the consenter’s body is exactly the problem. Their attitude towards such actions remains less important than the transgression of the modification. The transgression is an intentional misuse—not merely an accidental one—of what the body is for.
Superfluous additions or changes, such as piercings or tattoos, to say nothing of the more extreme variety, aren’t simply addendums or technological improvements to compensate for failures in what the body is naturally supposed to do. They cut into the flesh for the sake either of vanity or pride, and, it should be noted, for no reason other than to service a twisted and isolated conception of beauty. The human form, healthy and maintained, contains more beauty than the best tattoo artist in the world could ever conjure with his needle.
The body is not something as simple as a possession of the will or a vehicle for souls to travel around in like a car. It is the physical embodiment of the soul itself, an expression of form given material. To speak of body and soul in contradistinction to one another is to ramble on about an absurd impossibility. The body, therefore, reflects the soul in appearance and function to at least some limited degree. Things that attack the soul—sins and vices—tend to have outward manifestations depending on the kind and severity, but there’s no reason to believe this is a one-way street. It’s reasonable to believe that physical attacks upon the body, especially those that are self-inflicted, leave marks upon the soul, if for no other reason than turning the will against the body characterizes a misuse of the will, since it’s turning the will quite literally against itself.
This is why some religious extremists frame body modification, be it as simple as a tattoo or piercing to as drastic as the ridiculous punk and underground subcultures that involve putting prosthetics in your forehead to look like some kind of Star Trek alien, as fundamentally degrading. It doesn’t matter what sort of consent was given; any sort of attack against the person’s body, even if self-inflicted, is an attack against that person. For someone to do it to himself betrays such an egregious conception of his being that the clarity of thought necessary to act freely in the world has to be called into question.
Interestingly enough, the general acceptance of mild forms of body modification stands in harsh contrast, at least in the popular culture, to various forms of self-harm. Cutting, self-starvation, purging, and the like are rightly considered indicators of some kind of mental unbalance, and when noticed, it’s encouraged to intervene in such behavior before it gets worse.
Body modification remains within the bounds of self-harm when the facts are maintained. Ink is plunged beneath the skin through the use of a needle. Piercings are driven through the flesh. Proponents who fail to see the connection, who attempt to draw parallels to things like physical fitness, or extreme acts of religious devotion, draw parallels where there aren’t any. Physical fitness is a fulfillment and extension of man’s purpose, attempting to perfect the capacity of his physical form; the inking of the flesh fulfills no obvious function except to appease an egomaniacal pursuit of being cool. The flesh is a canvas upon which the pursuit of perfection should be written across time, wherein age is factored in like it is with wine. Pouring ink beneath a man’s skin is tantamount to injecting fat into a bottle of wine just to see what kind of patterns it makes against the surface.
And yet, obvious cases of self-harm and the consensual pursuit of body modification are held apart from one another for one reason alone: the latter’s abuse is so rampant that it tends to affect others. Body modification has a culture that surrounds it, and for those who don’t participate in that culture but still have a piercing or a tattoo someplace, the general culture that they live and breathe maintains connotations with body modification that vary in result: some good, some bad. But all connotations associated with more legitimately-perceived forms of self-harm are universally bad.
The message is clear: Modernity rejects looking after one’s neighbor. It rejects actual, tangible charity in its pursuit to balance utilitarianism, individual “human rights”, and consent. A good neighbor shouldn’t stand idly by while someone plunges a razor across their own flesh for a few minutes of an endorphin rush. Most of us are willing to recognize that today. But when that razor is the width of a needle, and instead of an endorphin rush, the flesh is marred with ink to form some silly illustration or saying or name? Where is the outcry there?