I have pierced ears. Almost every woman I know has pierced ears. But now some of my women friends have several piercings in their ears, or a tiny stud in their nose. Some also have tattoos. I remember back in the 1960s, one of the townies who lived where I went to college was going back for his third or fourth tattoo. He described the pain as addictive. He couldn’t wait to get back under the needle. I thought that strange at the time. If I go to a youth event, even among Catholic youth, I see lots of the girls with tattoos and piercings. And among young men, my goodness, though I haven’t noticed it in Catholic circles so much.
I was having a discussion about tattoos with someone the other day and this article by Dr. Norman Doidge a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst came to mind. Here’s an excerpt of Needles ‘R’ Us.
The girl at the cash in the health food store smiles overly sweetly, in a way that betrays more absence than presence. She opens her mouth and displays a stud in her tongue. She lisps, thickly. There’s a safety pin through her upper lip, and a ring through her lower. She’s got quite a spout.
She’s selling chelating agents, to help rid the body of traces of bad metals, but she can’t get enough metal into her soft flesh. She sells only all-natural foods and soap, but her hair is neon purple, and looks as natural as candy floss. What forces are at war within her?
If you shudder, and turn away when she displays her ornaments, it’s because she intended it. She’s apotropaic, that is, designed to turn a threatening spirit away. Ancient seamen placed a carved model of her on the hulls of their ships, to avert evil spirits. In Renaissance Florence, she surfaced as Medusa’s severed head on armoured shields. She was last seen as Scary Spice, sticking out her studded tongue.
The girl in the health-food store is hardcore, but oral piercing, which poses a risk of nerve damage, spreading HIV and hepatitis, is going more mainstream. Kids in the suburbs are getting into softcore, somewhat reversible, mutilations. Intimidated and impressed by the seeming courage of street kids who are into heavy piercing, they get pierced themselves so as to say, “I’m no wimp!” Earlier this year, even Barbie was marketed with a tattoo — a new fashion statement. But fashion, by definition, comes and goes; mutilations and tattoos are permanent solutions to temporary problems.
In fact, hardcore piercers are extremely disturbed. Many have had nightmarish childhoods, filled with severe neglect, savage physical and sexual abuse, and now are locked into repeating the abuse, turning sadistic urges on themselves. Feeling ever fearful, unlovable and certain they will be rejected, they pre-emptively drive others away, by becoming apotropaic.
Chronic psychic deadening makes it impossible to get a continuous sense of oneself over time, or an identity. This is no mere psychobabble, but a description of a catastrophic psychological state. Psychic deadening also interrupts normal symbol formation. Consider how child-like many of the images adults have tattooed on them are — fire-breathing dragons, monsters, skulls — or opposite syrupy ones — Mickey Mouse, Mom, flowers, hearts and butterflies.
Worse still, psychic deadening interferes with the very process of symbol formation. In ordinary symbolic activity, as seen in dreams or art, symbols stand for, or represent, something else. An evil character can stand for an evil urge. But, as British psychoanalyst Hanna Segal has shown, when symbol formation is disturbed, a symbol is actually taken for the thing it is supposed to stand for or represent. Those who believe in voodoo literally identify the doll with the person they are trying to kill. Segal calls this process “symbolic equation.”
The urge to self-mutilation is ancient; we know this, because the Hebrew Bible forbids it, and cannily sees it as a response to the loss of a love. Unlike many parents of today, Leviticus takes self-mutilation very seriously and draws a line, by commanding, “You shall not make any cutting in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” Sorry Jews, but no tattoos; that’s for pagans. The piercing of the flesh? Crucifixion is a Roman sport. In the Bible the human body is not to be mutilated, because it is sacred; and, it is sacred, because man and woman are made in the image of God. The rejection of divine sacredness undermines human sacredness, and has led to a rapid and inevitable re-profanation of the human body. With the decline of the body’s sacredness, we see, too, the re-emergence, now, in children, of a temptation to self-destruction that sacredness kept somewhat under control. And it is a sign of the neglect that follows these kids around, that they have no Leviticus to dissuade them.
What do you think of piercings and tattoos? Do Orthodox Jewish women not pierce their ears I wonder?