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'Freak'?: the social politics of body modification : gender culture and stigma

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posted on 2022-03-28, 14:47 authored by Katharine E. Hawkins
From an early age, I remember begging my parents to let me pierce my ears. To my pre-adolescent mind, it seemed a kind of bejewelled initiation into maturity -a decidedly 'grown-up' act that would mark my transition into a 'big girl'; literally and metaphorically puncturing my childish self. My mother justified her denial of permission by telling me that little girls with earrings looked 'tacky' and 'common'. Despite my protestations, her rule was upheld, and it was not until I was thirteen that I was finally able to undergo the coveted procedure. Fast forward five years: my eighteen year old self is embroiled in a furious row with my father, who has forbidden me from getting a tongue piercing. “You'll be part of a nasty class of people!” he warns me. True to petulant, teenage form, my conservative parents' objections to my burgeoning love of body art only spurs me on. I wish to be marked. Distinct. I want to be a part of that wickedly enticing, bohemian 'class of people' that supposedly exists on the margins -artful, independent and romantically exiled. Except now, I am not convinced that such descriptions or distinctions are entirely accurate. At twenty-seven I walk into an enormous showroom for the Australian Body Art Expo. The biggest public exhibition of body art in the Southern Hemisphere. At this point I have amassed quite a collection of tattoos and piercings, and I am keen to meet some more of 'my tribe'. I am greatly disappointed to find an enormously commercialised, hyper-masculine, middle-class travesty of a gathering. Instead of riot grrls and performance artists, I found bikini-clad women astride motorbikes and one company advertising their services to the 'fraternity' of tattooists. This is not what I had hoped for. What went wrong? This research is the result of many years of trying desperately to be 'unique', only to realise that there is no such thing. It is the amalgamation of academic curiosity, feminist frustration and a deep fascination for that which is abjected, ignored and obscured by mainstream culture. There already exists a wealth of information concerning the psychological reasons why an individual may wish to voluntarily undergo painful, permanent cosmetic alterations to their bodies -the work of Victoria Pitts (2003), Nikki Sullivan (2001:2009) and Michael Atkinson (2003) being of particular value in this instance. Continuing on from this work, itis my intention to understand how body modification is used as a method of social, gendered subversion and as a means of affirming subcultural identities -successfully or otherwise. It is here that there appears to be something of a gap in academic literature concerning body modification. Victoria Pitts writes about the potential for feminist re-evaluation of bodily norms, for 'queering' an essentialised social construct of the ideal cisgendered, heterosexual adult form (Pitts, 2003: 6-7). Teresa Winge speculates upon the significance of the deliberate 'Otherness' of subcultural body-modifiers, rejecting the banalities of a mainstream culture that has scorned them (Winge, 2012: 112). Sullivan (2001:2009) examines the tattooed body as the site of constantlychanging meanings and communicative potential within a pathologising environment. Some approach the issue from more critical perspective: Margo De Mello (2000: 11) echoes Bourdieu in discussing the classed divide that determines the value of 'high' and 'low' body art (eg: Murdock, 2010)while Sweetman (1999) favours Baudrillard in describing the post-modern, hypertelic market of empty signifiers, the mindless trendiness, appropriation and commodification that has replaced that which was initially intendedto be counter-cultural (Sweetman, 1999: 52) (See Tseelon, 1995). My research has lead me to believe that all of these theories are valid parts of one multi-faceted whole -and that it is not enough to simply state that body modifications are or are not inherently subversive, feminist or any other politically pithy label; but rather they are forms of bodily communication imbued with potential and constantly evolving meanings. I am interested in whether or not that potential may still be subversive, or if the very concept of subversion has lost all meaning. Therefore, in order to better ascertain what remains of the counter-cultural, queer, feminist potential of body modification, and how the experience of gender or sexuality-based social marginalisation or stigma may reinforce an individual's desire to modify themselves. I have formulated the following question, which will frame the focus of this project: “How does the role of the social 'Other' influence body modification practices?” In this context, the 'Other' refers to individuals ostracised by contemporary culture as a result of their non-normative lifestyle, appearance, gender or sexuality. Erving Goffman (1963: 4) used the term 'discredited', while Howard Becker (1963: 3) identified such 'deviant' individuals as 'Outsiders'. I will be using the term 'Other', as this not only denotes a degree of social marginalisation or exclusion, but is also indicative of a level of uncertainty; the social 'Other' represents more than just a social pariah, they function as the embodiment of that which is unknown, mistrusted or feared within a particular culture -often fetishised, but more frequently misrepresented. The 'Other' is everything that 'normal' people are not, and thus reaffirms what is normal (Thomas, 2012: 3). Given that this research is located within feminist sociology and contemporary cultural studies concerning gender and the nature of social change -there are two sub-questions that will be addressed throughout the text: How does gendered and/or sexual stigma play a role in subcultural identity? And can body modification still be subversive?”


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Chapter One. The modified body and the anatomy of the freak -- Chapter Two. Stigmata martyr : stigma, identity and body modification -- Chapter Three. The monsters in your bed : gender and the 'deviant' body -- Chapter Four. The broken carnival -- Chapter Five. Rebels with an ambiguous cause.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 75-81

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes


MRes, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Sociology

Department, Centre or School

Department of Sociology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Harry Blatterer


Copyright Katharine E. Hawkins 2014. Copyright disclaimer:




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