My body is a temple. Clean-shaven, well kempt, unblemished. Natural. My skin has never met the sting of tattoo gun nor the puncture of a piercing needle. I’ve never taken the plunge to modify my body through plastic surgery. Despite this seemingly perfect record, however, I feel this nagging urge to alter my appearance in some way—to forever change the essence of my identity. Sometimes I think I want a tattoo and other times I yearn for oral surgery to fix my unsightly open bite. It really has less to do with what the modification is and everything to do with what the modification means.
You see I, like many other men, have a degree of uneasiness around certain types of commitment. Specifically, the kind of commitment that involves things like forever, eternity, or the rest of time. This realization hit me bluntly over the head a few years ago when, on a whim, I decided to hurl myself from the second highest freefall bungee jump in the world. Looking out over the Swiss Alps on the platform and feeling my heart racing in my throat, I realized that it wasn’t the vertical drop or the chance of equipment malfunction that scared me. What frightened me most was making the commitment to do something unique and exhilarating with my life, something that I couldn’t change. Since taking that jump, I’ve decided to face this fear of commitment head-on by biting the bullet and saying yes when the pit in the bottom of my stomach screams no. I started by finding a ring and proposing to the love of my life on the Mediterranean coast in Cinque Terre, Italy. Thankfully she said yes, likely due in large part to the help of such a romantic backdrop.
Another way I’ve devised to exercise my demons of devotion is permanently modifying my body, either by way of the needle or the surgical tool. Given that I haven’t yet sat down in the artist’s chair, I’m still acutely undecided on this whole matter of body alteration. In addition to my mother’s threats of being disowned from the family, there are all sorts of moral, ethical, and social implications to consider. First and foremost, am I ready for that kind of commitment? Once that needle makes its mark, there’s no going back. And even if there were, it wouldn’t be pretty. Second, some say that these types of changes are “unnatural” in some way, disrupting the perfect human form created by God or evolution. Can I live with that kind of existential weight on my conscience? Lastly, how would the modification affect my health over the course of my life? I’ve heard too many horror stories about botched plastic surgeries and infected ink designs to blindly undergo this kind of change. While some of these questions may serve more as excuses than as actual barriers to a decision, they can still weigh heavy in the mind of a typical male commitment-phobe like myself.
Unfortunately I’m not the only guy troubled by the perils of permanent body modification. Throughout history and across cultures the question of neonatal circumcision has pushed the boundaries of acceptable moral behavior for doctors, parents, and children. For those readers who may not be aware, the procedure of circumcision involves the surgical removal of genital tissue from the penis immediately after birth. While there is some dispute over the amount of pain experienced by the baby, it can be safely assumed that it’s not a comfortable experience during or after. Many doctors argue that removing a male’s foreskin at birth will help in the prevention of certain diseases as well as help men maintain their nether regions throughout their adult lives. Given that the child is unable to provide consent at the time of the procedure, however, many argue that circumcision is an unethical practice that robs boys of their right to make decisions about their own bodies.
Despite the many fears and challenges posed by permanent body modification, the list of individual and social benefits related to altering one’s appearance is long and popular among the world’s population of men. For example, people throughout history have inked their skin as a means of artistic expression, cultural tradition, and social identification. Additionally, tattoos and piercings provide a unique opportunity for many men to proclaim their individuality in a personalized way to the world.
On top of the cultural and aesthetic motivations, permanent body modifications in the form of plastic surgery offer a breadth of medical and psychological health benefits that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Reconstructive plastic surgery offers many the opportunity to repair parts of the body that may have been damaged as a result of injury, burn, or birth defect. For example, some world health organizations like, Operation Smile, have used plastic surgery to correct cleft palates, one of the most tragic global health issues of our time. Extensive research highlights the emotional perks of plastic surgery, boosting self-esteem and confidence for those who go under the knife. And contrary to popular belief, medical body modification procedures are widely popular among men. Growing trends in plastic surgery show spiking numbers of men opting for botox, laser hair removal, nose jobs, hair transplants, and liposuction. Indeed, a growing number of guys are reaping the benefits of medical body alteration.
Yet another factor in the win category for permanent body modification is the ability for many transgendered individuals to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Procedures like these allow both men and women who were born into bodies that don’t match their preferred gender expression to surgically change their physical sex organs. The idea of gender reassignment and Transgender identity has only recently gained popular support. Much of this social consciousness has developed through the help of narrative accounts like Middlesex and documentaries like TransGeneration. While there is still much work to be done in the way of supporting and embracing the Transgender community, sex operations and permanent genital surgeries have provided many with the peace of mind to live more comfortably in their own skin.
Certainly one’s opinion on the issue of body modification is a matter of personal values, culture, identity, and generation, among other factors. Regardless of whether you think body alteration is good or bad, there is no question that surgeries and procedures like the ones mentioned have a significant impact on our society. More specifically, they have an impact on the way men and boys view themselves and others. In the best cases, body modification can empower men to choose how they want to present themselves in the world, enabling increased self-esteem and confidence. More secure men could result in better husbands, brothers, and fathers. Of course, this isn’t telling the whole story. Body alteration can also cause men to feel afraid, disenfranchised, and insecure. In a world of surgically sculpted calves and tremendously tucked tummies, it’s understandable that some men could feel inadequate. Self-doubt like this has proven to be hazardous for some men, driving them to defensiveness, degradation, and even violence. Certainly the last thing we need is more reason for insecure men and boys to cause harm.
Like it or not, permanent body modification is a prominent issue for men and will increasingly impact our lives in both helpful and harmful ways. With advances in medicine and technology, the options for what is possible through surgeries and procedures will only continue to grow. We mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that these physical alterations are the either the cure or the cause of our emotional ills. Body modification is a tool that we have at our disposal and like any other tool its up to us to choose how and when that tool will be used. Regardless of how well intentioned the motives are for choosing to make changes to our bodies, its crucial to understand and analyze the impact this behavior will have on ourselves and others. For the individual it could mean reconciling a fear of commitment, correcting a debilitating illness, or enabling a liberty of self-expression. For society it could mean anything from denying a personal freedom of choice for one’s body to enabling a culture of insecurity and self-doubt about body image.
With all the cards on the table, the commitment to put a needle to my skin seems more frightening than falling 720 feet from the top of a Swiss mountain. But I suppose any weighty decision, like changing your body for eternity, should involve a bit of reflection and contemplation. Its no wonder then that I’ve given myself plenty of time to think about getting the tattoo that has become far more than merely ink and artful design in my mind. While my stakes seem trivial compared to those facing serious medical or identity-related alterations, my hope is that men in these situations do their diligence to consider the impact of their actions. My hope is that these men are thoughtful. My hope is that these men are considerate. My hope is that these men are good men.
Image credit: JohnONolan/Flickr