The knowledge of experience is a wonderful and often overlooked means of education. Perhaps that is why this tattooed and pierced punk kid never really got along so well in the collegiate world and perhaps why I am destined to live in obscurity writing about relatively small movements and trends. But I cannot fathom how one can teach about struggle, change, love, and difference without living through it. Let’s face it, most people who teach or write about certain things have jobs that pay them to tell other people about them, whether they actually know anything or not. I think this may be true of Nan McNab, as her book Body Bizarre, Body Beautiful fails the experience litmus test.
This coffee-table slab of a book has very little in the way of content. In fact, it is so vacant of anything remotely insightful about the meanings behind body modification that it makes me wonder whether or not the author has even gone as far as to poke holes in her ear or sport some hair dye once in a while. I realize as a white, American, middle-class male it is very normal and accepted that I have tattoos and piercings (nine tattoos and four piercings to be exact) but I can’t help but think that the knowledge I have gained from these experiences makes me a bit more sensitive when it comes to the topic of body modification than those who have not gone through it, like McNab.
McNab does do a good job of realizing what body modification is and she talks briefly about some of the histories behind makeup, jewelry, and hair styles as well as other accepted and “taboo” methods of modifying one’s own body to “shape it” into something individual and beautiful. I will also give McNab credit for leveling the field of modification as she makes the connections from branding to hair cutting. She ties the rituals of historical and modern tribes in to the western trends of piercing in shopping malls. She even includes bodybuilding in her book as a means of body modification, which I admit is not a stretch even though it usually falls under the rubric of health.
By and large, however, Body Bizarre, Body Beautiful is little more then a hyper-visual look into body piercing. Anyone with a curiosity to learn more about the cultures, histories, and safety of body modification and beautification can serve themselves much better by spending many hours in libraries or at the vast number of websites dedicated to this same topic. Body Bizarre, Body Beautiful is an MTV snapshot with bright colors and extended background layouts. It’s mostly show and little content, belying the fact that beauty, as well as the reasons people feel for changing their bodies, is anything but skin deep.
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