The Psychology of Body Modification | Painful Pleasures Community

The Psychology of Body Modification

What drives body modifiers to get tattooed, pierced, scarified, or branded, have implants inserted, or get other extreme mods? We take a look at the psychological motivators behind body modification.

by PainfulPleasures Last Updated: May 16, 2021

Dennis Avner, the Stalking Cat, Had Tattoos, Piercings and Implants That Made Him Look Like a Cat People have been modifying their bodies for a variety of reasons for thousands of years–reasons like aesthetic enhancement, spiritual enlightenment, signifying social status, and marking major life milestones. Despite their rich history, modifications ranging from piercings to tattoos, brands to implants and beyond have at times been viewed by many as a form of self-mutilation and a sign of underlying psychiatric issues. It's true that some people who desperately want to change their appearances, whether with plastic surgery or extreme body modification, do have issues like body dysmorphic disorder and need mental health intervention. That may have been the case with the Stalking Cat, Dennis Avner (shown right), who sadly committed suicide in November 2012. However, mentally unstable body mod enthusiasts like the Stalking Cat represent a very small percentage of the masses who seek out varying forms of body modification today. If body mod enthusiasts aren't all mentally ill, what's driving them to do things like get dermal implants, stretch their lobes, get tattooed or branded, or even go to the extremes of modifying themselves to look like other creatures ranging from cats and lizards to elfin sprites and split-tongued, horned demons?


The Psychological Motivators Behind Body Modification

There are a vast number of reasons why people get tattoos, piercings, brands, scarification designs, implants, and other body modifications. If every body mod enthusiast was questioned about what motivates them to alter their bodies, nearly every answer would be different. The underlying reasons behind each individual's explanation can usually be grouped into a few general categories of psychological motivators, though, as detailed below.

To Express Individuality

The most common response people give when asked about their body modifications is that they got them to express their individuality. The deep-seated desire to be unique and different from other people is inherent in humanity as a whole. It's one of the most common psychological reasons that drives women to wear make-up, men to bulk up, and both sexes to do things like dye, cut and color their hair, keep themselves well-groomed, exercise, eat better, dress stylishly, have plastic surgery, and more, including getting tattoos, piercings and other body mods.

To Enhance Attractiveness & Sexuality

Belly Button Piercings Can Be Very Sexy Have you ever heard someone say, "Look at that guy peacocking?" Peacocking means to "display oneself ostentatiously" or to strut like peacocks, which use their beautiful, fanned feathers to attract mates. Not everyone who gets body mods sets out with the conscious intention of making themselves more attractive to potential mates, but its an underlying psychological factor that motivates a lot of people who engage in body modification, whether they realize it or not. Think about some of the most sexual piercings, like tongue piercings, nipple piercings, genital piercings, and even belly button piercings; people often get these piercings either to draw attention to a sexy part of their bodies, to enhance sexual stimulation or both. Tattoos and even brands and scarification designs are also sometimes sought after for physical enhancement. Maybe you want to cover up an ugly old scar or think that a tattoo that curls around your breasts and down your side will draw attention to the curves of your body, and maybe not. Again, not everyone who gets modified goes into it thinking they want to look hotter or get mods to enhance sexual experiences. If you do a little soul searching, though, you may realize you mostly enjoy mods you think make you look better or that will turn up the heat in the bedroom, and more power to you if that's a driving factor for modifying yourself. There's nothing wrong with enhancing your appearance and playing up your sexuality as long as you don't go to extremes simply because you're dissatisfied with your appearance.

For Love of the ArtUp Movie Tattoo by Rich Pineda

As tattooing and other forms of body modification progress and the procedures behind them are refined, body modification artists are becoming better equipped than ever before to modify people in truly artistic ways. When it comes to tattoos in particular, progressively more people are drawn to them simply for love of the art. If you like getting piercings so you can wear stylish, fashionable jewelry, want to be emblazoned with a beautiful portrait, landscape or other artistic tattoo, branding or scarification design, or just want cute little pointed elf ears because you think they're beautiful, you have a great reason for getting modified. Body mods can be very fashionable, and many forms of body modification involve intricate artwork that gains more appreciation in the mainstream with every day that passes. If you haven't already, embrace the art of body modification! Get the tattoo, piercing or other mod you've been dreaming of and become a living, breathing canvas for a great artist's work.

To Create a Personal Narrative

Tattoos are often the outcome of a tattoo artist and enthusiast working together to create a visual that tells a story that's meaningful to the person getting tattooed. The same could be said about scarification and branding designs. But what about piercings and implants? Can people create personal narratives with them, too? The answer is yes. Any body mod can be utilized to create a personal narrative on some level. You might get a piercing or implant as a right of passage when you become legally able to get a modification without parental consent. Your mods may be a way for you to express your personal values or even your heritage. A study titled Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced also mentioned the way that abused women "create a new understanding of the injured part of the body and reclaim possession through the deliberate, painful procedure of body modification." Embrace your story, whatever it is, and let your mods share it with others. At the very least, they may encourage people to ask you about the meaning behind your modifications and give you an opportunity to verbally share the personal narrative behind them, if you choose to do so.
Carrie Black of Bigfoot Tattoo Tattooing a Client

To Develop Physical Endurance

Since body modifications are not performed by physicians, any form of anesthesia beyond over-the-counter anesthetics isn't allowed. That means that each person who gets pierced, tattooed, scarified, or branded, or who gets their tongue split or has an implant inserted, will have to accept and endure whatever level of physical pain comes with the mod they want. That's a plus for some people–people who look at getting modified as a way to develop physical endurance to great pain and master their bodies' responses to it. Other people just get off on the endorphins and adrenaline released when they're modified, but that's another story.

To Show an Affiliation or Commitment

There are so many ways people have used body modifications throughout history to show their allegiance to a cause, their affiliation with a group, or a commitment to a person or goal. Military personnel often get tattoos that feature emblems and mottoes of their sects of the military or their countries. Lovers get mods to show their undying devotion to each other. Tribal cultures have used modifications for thousands of years to show their tribal affiliations and rankings within their tribes. As much as people want to be individuals, they also want to belong and feel a part of something greater. Choosing to get a tattoo, piercing or other modification to physically show you've found a way to fill that need for yourself through affiliation or commitment is a valid and worthwhile reason for getting modified.Military Tattoos and Patriotic Tattoos

In Search of Spiritual Enlightenment

Members of the Church of Body Modification and other like-minded individuals believe that every modification and challenging activity (e.g. fire walking and fasting) that enhances the unity of mind, body and soul is worthwhile as long as it's performed safely and consensually. The motivation behind the mindset is spiritual growth, plain and simple. If you enjoy engaging in body modification because enduring the physical pain gives you mental clarity, makes you feel closer to a higher power, or just opens you up to new experiences that will help you grow as a person, spiritual enlightenment through body modification may be the primary psychological factor driving you to get modified.

As a Sign of Resistance

Despite the growing popularity of body modification in the mainstream, it's still primarily a subculture activity. As we've outlined above, there are a broad number of reasons for people to get modified, and resisting popular culture, society, government, or just parents is one of them. Teenagers act out by getting tattooed and pierced, adults show their resistance to popular trends by choosing mods they feel are the antithesis of mainstream fashion, and people of all ages choose to emblazon themselves with counter-culture imagery to show their resistance to the trends of the masses.

Bad Tattoos Happen. Just Look at This Old Girl's Tattoos... On an Impulse

Sadly, all too many people have hideous tattoos, bad piercings and other mods they later decide they'd rather live without, all because they acted on impulse. Maybe they were intoxicated at the time, wanted to do what their friends were doing, or just plain made a bad spur-of-the-moment decision. Whatever the case, impulsiveness is a real driving force for many people who get body mods. They're often the ones who later seek out remedies like laser tattoo removal, scar therapy treatments, surgery to repair widely-stretched piercings, and cover-up tattoos–things people who carefully plan out their mods don't usually have to worry about. Fortunately, thanks in large part to the impulsive modifiers of the world, there are a lot of good remedies available now for bad or just unwanted body mods.

Due to Addiction

People often say of tattoos and piercings in particular that it's hard to stop after just getting one. There is an addictive quality to body modification, most likely due to the release of endorphins and adrenaline that flows through your veins when you experience intense pain. If you really can't stop because you need that feeling–the "fix" you'll get from being modified–then the psychological motivating factor of addiction is hurting you more than helping you. If you just really enjoy the experience of getting modified and plan out your collection thoughtfully and without urgency, true addiction isn't a factor, even if you do like the rush of getting modified when it comes.


Choose Your Mods Wisely

Scarification Art by NotMyBlood in Painful Pleasures' Online Body Mod Photo Gallery Whatever your reasons for getting modified, understand and embrace them. If you find that something negative is motivating you, stop and think about what you're doing and why. Talk to a therapist if you want to better understand what's driving you and make sure you aren't doing yourself more harm than good. Body mods are fabulous for so many reasons, but your reasons for getting modified should be sound. You're more likely to end up with modifications you'll treasure for life rather than regretting your choices or feeling worse about yourself later if you take the time to plan out the body mods you get, get them for good reasons, and have professional artists perform them.




Modifying the Body: motivations for getting tattooed and pierced Study Performed by Educators at the University of Goettingen in Germany

Body Modification — or Mutilation? Article by Dr. Anthony Youn on

Tattoo Psychology: Art or Self Destruction? Modern-Day Social Branding Article by Reef Karim, D.O., on

Google Definition of "Peacocking"

Enlightenment Through Body Modification Blog Post on

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