It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen up to that point in my life. National Geographic magazine showed people in Africa and Asia stretching out their lips and ear lobes by inserting larger and larger wooden disks into slits they’d cut into their own flesh. They believed the mutilation made them attractive and that astonished me. I couldn’t believe people would do that to themselves on purpose, but there they were.
How could they talk with those big disks in their lips, I wondered. As for the long loops in their ear lobes, I wondered if they every got them snagged while walking through thick jungle. That would hurt. So, you can imagine my surprise when I noticed some American guys at the Lovell dump last summer with stretched-out ear lobes just like I’d seen as a kid. It’s been fifty years since I read those National Geographics, but I never thought I’d see Americans doing that to themselves. If I ever did though, I’d expect I’d see them in Portland or Boston, but in Lovell, Maine? I didn’t know the guys, and maybe they were just visiting. I hope so.
So what does it mean when Americans mutilate their faces? Is it a sign of cultural devolution? The decline of western civilization? Or, am I just a right-wing bigot who refuses to celebrate diversity? I’ve been having trouble with this sort of thing ever since men started wearing ear rings, and that was when? Thirty or forty years ago? I’ve gotten used to ear rings on men since but it took a while. When I first saw them, I figured a man with an ear ring was announcing his homosexuality. Then someone gave me a slogan to help me understand: “Left is right and right is wrong,” it went, meaning if the ear ring were in the left ear the guy was straight. I pondered that, but I figured I’d just avoid all men with ear rings no matter what side they were on. To me they announced: “I’m confused.” Now I can accept that some otherwise-normal men wear ear rings. I can deal with them the same way I would if, say, they had an Obama sticker or Kerry/Edwards sticker on their car. I see them as misguided, but maybe not completely hopeless.
I suppose I should apply the same magnanimity to people who pierce themselves in their lips, tongues, nipples and other more intimate parts of their bodies which, hopefully, I’ll never see, but I can’t. For the time being, I shall continue to avoid those people. Maybe I’ll change my mind some day, but I doubt it. One thing about piercings: they can heal up. People do strange things when they’re young and foolish that they grow out of when they mature. Heck, I was a Democrat once. Stop sticking metal into your body and the holes will close.
Some people like getting tattooed when they’re young. “Tattoos are permanent proof of temporary insanity,” someone said once and that still makes sense to me. Another said, “Why would you put something in your skin that you wouldn’t hang on your wall?” I guess tattoos are not permanent anymore, but I’m told it costs a lot of money and some pain to remove them with lasers. Some of my father’s WWII friends had gotten tattoos overseas. It was the mid to late 1950s when I was old enough to notice and ask the men why they had done that to themselves. None were proud of them. All said they did it when they were drunk.
It was in National Geographic again that I first saw facial tattoos on Maori tribesmen in New Zealand. I’d gotten used to seeing them on the arms of my father’s veteran friends, but the facial ones threw me. I wondered why anyone would do that to himself. It wasn’t until I was visiting someone in jail that I saw facial tattoos on Americans, and I guess they’re getting fairly common in prisons. They’re off-putting to the observer and I guess that’s the point. On convicts and violent gang members, they’re definitely signs of civilizational decline.
If the tattooed don’t die young, they grow older of course. Many grow horizontally after a certain age and that distorts their tattoos. Can’t say I ever saw one I thought was attractive, but the tattooed obviously thought so when they stayed still while someone else stuck needles into them repeatedly. Tattoos get fat and wrinkly along with the rest of their bodies. After so many years, they’re just faded skin graffiti that somehow diminish the dignity of old age.