close-up of a woman with pink hair, bold black cat eye style eyeliner and a split tongue

Body Modification: The Legal Challenges

Recently the topic of body modification has found its way into the spotlight with the conviction of a practitioner in England for ‘causing grievous bodily harm with intent’. It highlights the question, at what point is personal consent not enough? Let’s discuss the legal challenges associated with the practice of body modification…

**Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that earn me a small commission at no additional cost to you. I will only ever recommend products/services that I love, and feel are valuable to my community. Thank you! For more information, please visit my Disclaimer page.**

Body modification refers to the practice of deliberately change or altering the way in which your body naturally appears. While some aspects of body modification are well-known and widely accepted including piercings and tattoos, more extreme forms are gaining popularity in our society including tongue splitting and ear shaping.

For many, this is a form of creative self-expression, using their body as a canvas, while others see body modification as a form of self-empowerment, embracing their ‘true selves’ and working to alter their physical form in a way that best represents their self-identity.

In more extreme cases, one who identifies as a form free from the typical human construct may choose to remove aspects of their body that they believe are unnecessary, such as their nipples. Others may feel that their soul and personal identity is best described as that of a faerie or pixie and the process of reshaping their ears to create the pointed ear most commonly associated with these beings is freeing as they are embracing this self-identity outwardly.

If you’ve never explored the world of body modification, the concept may sound a little weird or ‘out there’, but I ask you to take a step back and look at it all with an open mind.

I would like to stress that, for the purposes of this article, I am discussing solely those forms of body modification involving a consenting adult. Therefore, I will not touch on the moral and legal issues associated with practicing on a minor. I am also not referring to any situation in which one is forced to undergo a procedure against their will.

Related: ‘The Beautiful, Ancient Practice of Scarification’

If you think back throughout history, there was a time where tattoos and piercings were considered largely taboo. In fact, throughout the globe, there are still laws in place pertaining to specific types of tattoos – banning specific religious-based symbols, those that are associated with extremist groups, and even the banning of tattoos entirely in some countries.

In fact, tattoos were only declared to be legal officially throughout the entire United States in 2006 when Oklahoma, the final state to legalize tattoo arts and parlours, passed the necessary legislation. You read that correctly – Tattoos have only officially been legal nationally in the United States for 13 years!

While some may argue that the struggle in legislating and legalizing body modification is largely centred around the stigma associated with these practices, the truth is that it goes deeper than that. The real concern that many lawmakers and authorities are trying to address is the safety concerns that arise when the industry isn’t properly regulated.

While some believe that there is no way to regulate the industry sufficiently to ensure that all modifications are conducted safely, others state that we need to do more work on the laws and procedures that are currently in place. This may include the number of inspectors, how strict the requirements are to be considered ‘safe’, and the penalties that are in place for those who violate these terms.

Let’s be honest… If people want to get something like this done badly enough, they will find someone to do it! Banning the practise is only going to force those individuals to go underground which opens the doors to unsanitary conditions and a higher risk of HIV, Hepatitis B and C, or other infections.

close-up of a woman with pink hair, bold black cat eye style eyeliner and a split tongue with the title body modification: the legal challenges

Look at the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In June 2008 the city banned all forms of body modification beyond tattoos and piercings, including scarification and implants. However, if you walk the streets of the city in the evening, after 5 PM specifically, you will find that many shops are opening during these later hours. Why? As of 5 PM, the public health officers are done work and shop owners are far less likely to be caught practicing. This doesn’t even include those that are operating completely underground!

Meanwhile, returning to the case mentioned in my introduction, a body modification practitioner in England has recently been convicted of ‘causing grievous bodily harm with intent’ in relation to a number of procedures completed between 2012 and 2015 including tongue splitting and the removal of a man’s nipple. The reason he was convicted? It was determined that there are limits on the amount of ‘physical harm’ we are permitted to consent to, in public or in private.

The question becomes, where do we draw the line on what is considered to be acceptable physical harm and what isn’t? For example, we accept and allow for implants in the form of breast or butt implants by plastic surgeons, but not necessarily the subdermal or transdermal implants body modification practitioners use to create 3-D images in the skin. It is for this reason that many legitimate practitioners are calling not for a ban, but for our lawmakers to reconsider the regulation of the industry. They want to be seen as professionals, just like plastic surgeons, rather than being dismissed simply because their interests lie outside of the cultural norm.

In a world where we continually challenge the control and censorship of our personal expression, does the complete banning of extreme body modification not cross that line? Assuming one is a licensed practitioner working in a safe, sterile environment on a consenting adult client, should it not, then, be considered personal choice?

I would like to hear your thoughts on the topic! Do you believe that body modification should be considered legal? If so, what restrictions and legislation do you believe should be in place?

Remember: Keep all discussions respectful. While I am not interested in censoring your right to personal opinions and expressions, any hateful, derogatory comments or personal attacks will be removed.

38 thoughts on “Body Modification: The Legal Challenges”

  1. This was a really interesting discussion. Also, I didn’t know that about tattoos only being legal throughout the whole USA for 13 years. That crazy to think about! But in terms of body mods, obviously content is the most important thing. But like you said, if someone wants something done enough, they’ll find a way to get it done. So for me, the more sensible option would be for all tattoo / piercing parlors to offer these things so less people are getting them done down back alleys (you know what I mean). In a clean, sterile, controlled environment, with professionals is always the best option x

    1. That’s my opinion too – put strict rules and regulations in place to control the environment they can be performed in and the qualifications/training necessary of those doing them and then allow them to practice. By regulating it, there will be far less issues and it will help to prevent people from feeling like they have to seek out these services underground where they aren’t sure what they’re getting themselves into.

  2. Honestly as long as it’s done in a safe and sterile environment, why not. It should be a personal choice what you decide to do to your body. I saw a horror movie called American Mary that took it to the extreme… underground surgeries, replacing limbs etc. But something like tongue splitting or ear shaping is no different to be than cosmetic surgery or getting an ear piercing stretched. Great topic.

    1. It honestly bothers me that breast augmentation, etc. is considered completely okay but something like tongue splitting isn’t. In both situations, it is a matter of personal preference and self-expression, so why are we allowing lawmakers to determine what style is okay?

  3. Such an interesting topic and a brilliant read. I’ve had tattoos and piercings but never gone further than that in regards to body modification – as long as it’s on a consenting adult and done in a clean professional environment then I can’t see an issue. But then you have the whole issue of who is in a position to give consent, just because you’re an adult doesn’t necessarily mean you’re of sound mind to make a decision or give consent on something like this.

    1. I feel like the same rules should stand for both body modifications and any other cosmetic/plastic surgery. If someone can consent for a breast augmentation, then I think they would also be able to consent for an ear shaping or tongue splitting procedure.

    1. I find it really fascinating to look back at how far we’ve come and how recent much of it actually is. Often when we think back to ‘a time when tattoos weren’t legal in the US’, we would think it was years upon years ago!

  4. A very interesting topic, Britt. I don’t see any difference between a breast implant and tongue splitting. Not that I would consider either for myself but that doesn’t mean others should be denied the choice to have one of these procedures carried out legally. If it’s all underground then there’s presumably no regulation either, which could be downright dangerous. Great post, I agree with you completely! Lisa x

    1. Exactly, I’m not running to have either done, but it blows my mind that a breast implant is completely okay and common while tongue-splitting can land someone in legal trouble. While I am completely okay with the idea of enforcing health and safety regulations, the ability of the government to say what I can and can’t do with my body should end there.

  5. WHAT?! This was a super interesting read; I had no idea about a lot of this! Involving the government in the legality of body mods comes with it’s own can of worms. While I believe that we can all choose what is best for our own bodies, if the government should be involved, I think it should be limited to health and safety. Tattoo and piercing parlors have to uphold certain safety and cleanliness stats in order to practice and stay in business and that feels enough for me, personally.

    1. That’s exactly where I stand on it. I am completely okay with the idea of legislating health and safety, ensuring that all facilities uphold a certain level of due care. However, I feel like the government should have no say in what I do or don’t want to do with my own body.

  6. The law that guy was convicted under is absolutely bonkers. People know their own bodies and how much ‘physical harm’ they can take.

    I strongly believe that people’s bodies and what they do with them is something that should never be legislated.

    1. Exactly, that’s the exact point I was hoping to make with this! If you’re trying to force it on someone unwilling, that’s one thing, but if I consciously choose to undergo a procedure as a consenting adult, I should have that right.

  7. I wasn’t aware of a lot of this! I assumed if you gave consent to someone to carry out body modification, then you were wavering any legal action (if you know what I mean). I personally think that so long as you are over the age of 18 and you’re of sound mind, the body modification is your business and no one else’s.

    1. Apparently lawmakers have decided that consent isn’t enough – It’s crazy to me to think that I can consent to so many things, but if I wanted my tongue split, for example, they can tell me that I can’t make that decision.

  8. I never thought about this and all the legal problems that would go along with it. Although it’s not for me I do believe that you as an adult, should be able to do whatever you want.

    1. That’s just it – Personally, I’m not running to get my ears shaped or remove my nipples anytime soon, but I believe that those who do make that decision should have the right to do so.

  9. This is so interesting, I think the issue here is more who is doing it rather than the actual consent isn’t it? I’m not exactly sure what a body modification practitioner is, but I’m assuming they aren’t a doctor? Totally agree that having a nipple removed and getting your boobs done should be classed as the same thing, but I’d want it done in the same environment! I had no idea tattoos had been legal there for such a short period of time, that’s crazy to think about x


    1. Agree that it SHOULD be all about who is doing it and whether these procedures are being done safely. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The procedures themselves are actually banned in many places and that list is growing. Rather than tightening up and enforcing safety regulations, lawmakers are choosing to simply outlaw the procedures entirely which I believe is completely stepping on our individual rights (not that I’m running out to get these procedures done myself).

  10. If it’s consensual and relies solely on adult participation I really just don’t understand why tattoos, piercings, and body modification is an issue. I mean, people get plastic surgery for vanity reasons all the time. .. there really isn’t much difference. If someone feels more like themself when altering something about their appearance, then they should have the opportunity to fully express themselves safely and without political, religious, societal interference. But, I’m a strong proponent for personal freedom of expression. I tend to feel this way about all personal and body related hot topics. Great post, by the way. .. very thorough and informative.

    1. Yes, all of this! I am completely blown away that a breast implant is considered normal and accepted in our society, but another cosmetic procedure like splitting your tongue is banned and judged. I believe all cosmetic procedures should be available for a consenting adult and regulated for health and safety in the same way – treated equally.

  11. Apart from legal things, I would like to mention that everything should be done under guidance by thinking about our body and health issues if any. Body modification should not be restricted by laws but the individuals take care about the effects and side effects about the same.
    You are doing great job by writing and publishing such research posts.


    1. I agree – I am all for strict rules regarding health and safety, such as setting specific requirements for the locations these procedures can be performed in and requirements of those doing these procedures to ensure that only those who are qualified to do it safely are permitted to. However, availability should be no different than other cosmetic procedures like breast implants.

  12. I’m old school so this was helpful for me to read. I have four children who have tattoos and lots of earrings! I really enjoyed learning about the why and how if body changing. Thank you for posting!

  13. Hmm, interesting. Without giving an opinion on body modification in general, it seems that it’s the definition of “grievous bodily harm” that a judge or lawyer would look at. Maybe it would be a language-use, etymology, or original intent issue of the law?

    1. My biggest problem with that is that a tongue splitting procedure doesn’t really differ from many other cosmetic procedures conducted by plastic surgeons around the globe, and those same judges and lawyers aren’t coming after them for a breast implant, for example.

    1. As long as it’s being done in a safe environment by someone with the training and expertise to do the procedure safely, I honestly don’t see it as any different than cosmetic surgery with a plastic surgeon.

  14. It is interesting to learn about body modifications. I’ve seen some unique mods people do – especially when they want to express themselves differently. I mean, I can understand the legal challenges behind it, where they want to make sure that people think twice before doing something that they regret but at the same time, we also want to be able to trust people and their decisions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Nancy ?

    1. I agree – I totally agree that there should be regulations pertaining to health and safety, but that the right of lawmakers to say what we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies should end there.

  15. Very different post. I didn’t knew a body modification practitioner in England has recently been convicted. Quite strange! In my opinion it is a personal expression only when you are an adult and responsible enough to take your decisions. I have never personally done any tattoo so no idea about the artist and all. To me it seems quite painful.Thanks for sharing this informative stuff with us.

    1. Exactly, if you are an adult and making that decision it is, ultimately, no different than comparable forms of personal expression in the realm of plastic/cosmetic surgery, like a breast implant. What baffles me is why one is widely accepted and ‘okay’ while the other leads to a practitioner being convicted of causing harm.

  16. 13 years, that is crazy. I honestly had no idea, and ” real concern that many lawmakers and authorities are trying to address is the safety concerns that arise when the industry isn’t properly regulated” that is probably true, but at least it’s a start with removing the stigma. While there is no way to ensure that all modifications are conducted safely, that’s the same thing we can say about a lot of things, but at least there is an action and consequences linked with that now.

    “Let’s be honest… If people want to get something like this done badly enough, they will find someone to do it!” < Exactly, that is also why my little sister has so many shitty tattoos because they were done in her friends' houses and in some cases her own. A body modification practitioner in England has recently been convicted, that's crazy and tbh I'm not sure I feel like that is fair when it was the other person who wanted their nipple removed, but I understand why some plastic surgeons aren't allowed to do some body modification because of the risk involved though. I think that regulation of the industry is the way to go. It reminds me of what one of the doctors said on Botched that breast implants in a male would have been considered malpractice years ago and now it's normal, so hopefully in time body modification will be as well.

    1. That’s what bothers me about the whole situation most – I could walk into a plastic surgeons office and get breast implants tomorrow, and that would be entirely legal. However if I wanted a small implant under the skin on the back of my hand, for example, to create a 3D design, that’s considered body modification and therefore is illegal in many areas.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.