We have all modified our bodies in some way: dyed hair, piercings and even tattoos, but in recent years more extreme and permanent procedures have entered the mainstream through TV, news and social media. While most Western societies condemn modified people as violent, anti-social and mentally ill, some believe it is time for a change. Should we open our minds or draw the line on what we consider acceptable?
Since 2006, Lucky Diamond Rich has held the world record for “Most Tattooed Man”; he states that he has always felt different and wants to represent this in his appearance. His body is 100% covered in tattoos, including his gums, eyelids and ears. Others have taken modification even further, for example, Colombian Eric Ramirez (aka Kalaca Skull) who had his nose and ears surgically removed to look more like a human skull. While people with this amount of modification are still uncommon, interest in them is rapidly growing. New and unusual procedures are gaining coverage everywhere from Phil and Holly’s interview with ‘the most tattooed woman in Britain’ on ITV’s This Morning to Lady Gaga’s spotlighting of the heavily-inked Zombie Boy in her music video for Born This Way.
However, opposition to extreme body modifications has also been slowly mounting, resulting in an unexpected and controversial trial 3 years ago. In 2019, Wolverhampton’s Brendan McCarthy (pictured above) was sentenced to 3 years and 4 months imprisonment for 3 counts of GBH. He had performed body modification procedures (some of which were illegal) without a medical licence. His case was extremely divisive: one of his clients condemned his actions, while another joined the 13,000 who petitioned for his release. Ezechiel Lott, who had his ear removed, was unaware his procedure was illegal and claims that he would not have consented to it had he known.
Currently, extreme body modifications sit in a legal limbo. “Regular” piercings and tattoos are defined strictly by UK law and their practices are regulated by local councils. Anything beyond this remains unmentioned in any specific legislation but is usually categorised as assault. In the UK, consent does not mitigate a charge of assault, meaning even procedures performed with permission can be illegal if they are considered to be too drastic. However, McCarthy’s trial contained a note from the Court stating: “if any of the customers performed the procedure upon themselves, no crime would have been committed”, as self-harm is not legally sanctioned.
Therefore, the few people who want a more extreme procedure may only have the option of performing it at home, on themselves, in an unsterile environment. While unqualified people should not be offering these services, there is a very real and very dangerous risk of not providing an alternative. Very few medically trained people perform modifications, leaving tattoo artists and piercers to reach demand.
Other surgical procedures, such as breast implants and liposuction are much more widely available and better regulated. Yet is there really any ethical difference between these procedures and other extreme body modifications? Both are unnecessary and are carried out in an attempt to change a person’s identity and both involve risky surgery. The General Medical Council oversees cosmetic surgery in the UK and requires surgeons to be registered and follow strict guidelines surrounding consent, physical and psychological evaluations, ethical advertising, risks and decision making. The Government has also intervened recently in non-surgical cosmetic procedures, by banning under 18s from some treatments under the “Botulinum Toxin and Cosmetic Fillers (Children) Bill”. Body modifications that do not fit society’s ideals of a “perfect” or even “normal” person are often treated much differently, lagging behind the non-cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery industries.
Ultimately, it is time for a change. Ignoring the practice of more outlandish body modifications and allowing them to hang in legal limbo is not only be negligent but seriously dangerous and potentially fatal. Specific and regularly reviewed legislation could make the industry and its clients much safer. This question about whether we should legalise more alternative, radical procedures might soon be negated by increasing demand that will mean more people will undergo procedures anyway. The longer the law makers and medical bodies deliberate, the more time the unregulated world of extreme modification has to freely wreak havoc on clients who are often ignorant of the potentially harmful consequences of undertaking body modifications by unvetted ‘surgeons’.