Tattoos and body-piercing: the moral dimension

Tattoos and body-piercing: the moral dimension

Fr Peter Joseph

Many good people are repelled by modern fads and fashions, such as tattooing, multiple ear-rings and other body-piercing, but feel unequipped to give a clear judgment on the morality of such practices, or to rebut the charge that they are elevating their personal preferences into a moral code. In this article, I will set out some criteria that are relevant to making a moral judgment on these things.

In some cultures, a special bodily mark or design - on the forehead, for example - signifies a certain attainment or marital status, or whatever, and is socially acceptable. Ethiopian Christians, to name one group, wear tattoo crosses on their foreheads. In Samoa, it was once a widespread custom to tattoo the eldest son or daughter of the local ruling family.

Western societies

In Western societies, ear-rings and make-up are acceptable as a part of feminine fashions and public presentability. But certain types of body-piercing and decorations in our society may be extreme and unjustified, and some of them are motivated by anti-Christian sentiments.

It would be impossible to give black-and-white judgments on all bodily decorations. But we can point to a few negative aspects which should be of concern to a Christian. Unless otherwise stated, this article will refer to Western societies only.

1. Exultation in the ugly. More than just being ugly, some body-piercing is the expression of delight in being ugly.

We recognise bad taste in tattoos, rings and studs, by looking at their nature, size, extent and place on the body. Ironically, even florid and colourful tattoos fade over time and end up looking dark and dreary. When one considers how, in concentration camps, prisoners were treated like animals and branded on their arm with a number, it is amazing to think that people today adopt similar markings as if they were fashionable or smart. This is truly the sign of a return to barbarity, the behaviour of people who do not have any sense of the dignity of the human person.

2. Self-mutilation and self-disfigurement. This is a sin against the body and against the Fifth Commandment. Some body-piercing verges on self-mutilation. A form of self-hatred or self-rejection motivates some to pierce themselves or decorate themselves in a hideous and harmful fashion. The human body was not made by God to be a pin cushion.

3. Harm to health. Doctors have spoken publicly on this health issue. In 2001, researchers at both the University of Texas and the Australian National University reported on harm to health caused by tattoos and body-piercing. Some ear-rings (on the navel, tongue or upper ear) are unhealthy and can cause infections or lasting harm such as deformities of the skin. They can also poison the blood for some time (septicaemia).

4. A desire to shock and repel. It can be appropriate to shock people, as for example, when one recounts the plight of poor and hungry people, or protests against crimes or terrible exploitation. This can be a healthy thing, when done properly and with due care, to arouse people out of complacency, so that they realise something must be done. But to shock people for the thrill of shocking them, with no intention to promote truth and goodness, is not a virtue, but a sign of a perverted sense of values.

In evaluating tattoos under this heading of repulsiveness, we look at the nature of the images, the size and number of the tattoos, and their place on the body. In evaluating piercings, we consider similarly their extent and location on the body.

5. Indecency and irreverence. It is always immoral to get or exhibit tattoos of indecent images or phrases, or derisive figures of Our Lord or His Mother or holy things.

Tattoos are more serious than other adornments since they are more or less permanent marks on the body. There's many a man or woman who has been tattooed gladly in youth, but regretted it not so many years later when they came to regard it as an embarrassing disfigurement. Once they mature, they pay dearly for the luxury of getting rid of it.

The removal of tattoos is expensive and difficult - and can leave scars. The removal of big tattoos requires surgery under a general anaesthetic, with all the potential risks, plus the significant medical and hospital costs. The removal of large tattoos can leave big segments of the skin permanently disfigured or blotched, like skin that has been burnt.

Many adults find themselves ineligible for some jobs, because businesses will not employ them with their hands covered in tattoos, impossible to conceal years after their youthful folly.

Universal criteria

In any culture, things can arise, become acceptable, and become part of the culture - but this does not necessarily make them right. Here are some examples from foreign cultures which I equally regard as wrong. In one tribe of Africa, women wear gigantic and heavy ear-rings which change the shape of the ear-lobes. In another place, women put coils around their necks and elongate them unnaturally, or put plates in their mouths to make the lips protrude some inches. In China, there was once the practice of binding girls' feet tightly to stop them from growing, because small dainty feet were admired. These and other drastic alterations to the natural growth of the human body must be judged immoral, as forms of abuse springing from vanity.

It is not always possible to draw an exact line and say where the bounds of moderation have been exceeded. But this does not mean that there is no line. No-one can define at what exact temperature a day passes from being cool to cold, but everyone knows that when the temperature is near zero, it is cold beyond dispute. Let us never fall for the ploy which tries to argue from borderline or difficult cases that there are no guidelines or principles, and that there is no such thing as a just mean or moderation, just because they are hard to define.

The human body is meant to be treated with care, not maltreated or disfigured. Its dignity and beauty must be kept and cultivated, in order that it be an expression of the deeper beauty of the soul.

Fr Peter Joseph has a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University, and is currently the Chancellor of the Maronite Diocese, Sydney.

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