My grandma thought his parents would be ashamed of him, but I thought he was fascinating. He was just some stranger walking through a shopping centre in the middle of a small Midwestern US town. My grandma had been visiting and taken me out for something I can’t quite recall nearly a decade later.
But I remember him.
He had a vivid red Mohawk that stood proudly above his head like a Parakeet’s crest, a collection of glittering facial piercings and a smattering of colourful tattoos running down both his arms.
My grandma scoffed and commented he looked ‘unnatural’. But he looked so happy and natural in his skin.
That moment really fuelled my already burgeoning fascination with body modification. I had already been addicted to watching TV shows like Miami Ink (and the later spinoff LA Ink because I had a shameless crush on Kat Von D). My favourite musicians from Benji Madden to Sonny Moore all had piercings or tattoos. I studiously doodled My Chemical Romance and The Used lyrics onto my forearms as I daydreamed in class.
As I grew older, I visualised myself with more and more modifications.
At the same time, I was constantly aware of my unmodified body. Growing up, I had always been overweight, and childhood bullies were always quick to point this out. I became ashamed of my figure, my out-of-place extremely pale complexion and my ‘oddness’. While everyone else was listening to pop music, I kept to classic rock, the disco my mom loved and alternative music. I lost myself in books and anime which was not the norm for a small town with their minds constantly on the next baseball or American football game.
Doodling on myself became cathartic. My thighs might have been bigger, but that was just more room for art. I could blend the colouring better across across a larger canvas.
When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, things came into perspective.
My piercings were strategic. I hated the rolls on my stomach and refused to take my shirt off anywhere no matter how hot it was. But then I had an idea. Piercings were an overwhelmingly positive experience for me so I decided to get a double navel piercing.
I couldn’t get enough of them. Every time I removed my shirt, I would smile down at my stomach that held the two, glittering pink barbells.
When they became infected and I had to remove them, I was honestly devastated. I was in the middle of a very dark time of my life. My support network had collapsed, and I was at university far away from any family or friends. I was severely depressed and began an unhealthy obsession with disordered eating.
While my mind was chaotic, I sought to control my body, but it was rebelling as well.
My navel piercings, like many surface piercings, were being rejected. And I made the decision to remove them. I had a tearful Skype session with my long distance boyfriend.
I argued back and forth, pros and cons about keeping them in before deciding it was best to take them out before they became infected.
But the next week, I kept myself bundled up. The empty piercings felt like literal holes in my self-perception – how I perceived myself in the world around me.
Knowing that triggered me gave me power though. I suddenly could put my thoughts into words when I spoke with my counsellor.
Body dysmorphic disorder. My counsellor explained it was a mental health condition where a person obsesses or worries about flaws in their appearance, which are often unnoticeable to others.
There was actually a word for what I was experiencing. I wasn’t alone. That power allowed me to think about myself in different terms. Piercings and tattoos helped me view what I saw as imperfections in positive terms. I could add something, alter the look of what I thought was ‘ugly’.
My ‘tiny’ ears were the perfect size for over eight piercings that made me feel like a gorgeous pirate. My lobes could stretch to hold gorgeous artwork that made looking in the mirror much easier.
My tattoo over my arm fat helped me to respect that area instead of pinching it in constant disappointment that it wouldn’t disappear no matter how little I ate or much I worked out.
My nipple piercings replaced my rejected navel piercings. I felt empowered as I glanced at myself in the mirror post-shower. I was part of a badass sisterhood of empowered women who all had the same piercings as myself.
Recently, I noticed I started picking at my skin to cope with pending anxiety attacks. I seemed to focus on my top lip and neck to the point I developed slight scarring.
Three weeks ago, I got my septum pierced. I suddenly looked in the mirror and thought yes, that’s me. I stopped picking at my skin and instead gently tapped my septum ring. I felt this little ring of cold metal and felt a little warmth bloom in my heart.
Each piercing and tattoo are brands on my ‘imperfections’. They are marks of my reclamation of my body. Each mark is a rebirth. My ability to recognise that I am unique, this is my body and I love each pierced, art-covered inch of it.
Words by Maggie Baska. Illustration by Holly Eliza Temple.