Establishing boundaries between body play, self-mutilation, and psychopathology is very difficult. As easy as it may be to say that these boundaries are established by any given society, there are undoubtedly disagreements in communities as to what constitutes mutilation and psychopathology. The disagreements do not end there, as body play specialists have different perspectives, and even psychologists have different answers. All of this discussion also puts forth another question; how effective are these labels, and are they even important in the grand scheme of body play?
The idea of body play is essentially engaging in forms of bodily modification or mutilation. Musawfar prefers to use the term “body play” instead of mutilation due to the negative connotations that come along with the word. Those connotations are one of the main reasons as to why this conversation is so difficult. There seems to be a blanket generalization in our society that any form of body play that is slightly esoteric or seems harmful is a form of pathology. It is also no secret that pathology is not met with open arms in our society. While we rush to the defense, help, and aid of people who are physically, people who who suffer from mental illnesses are considered freaks or just seeking attention.
For that very reason, Musawfar discusses, people who engage in self-harm are forced into isolation. There is such a stigma against these types of activities that people are either banished once they divulge that they engage in those activities, or they are too afraid to interact with other people to begin with. The fact there is such a strong stigma against any sort of body play that people feel isolated not only demonstrated a general close-mindedness, but it also limits our ability to understand it better.
For instance, many people consider getting a tattoo a form of self-mutilation. However, given some people who do not enjoy tattoos, a vast majority of people do not see getting a tattoo as a form of pathology, as society has grown to accept it. However, in our society, there are forms of self-mutilation that are considered to be deviant. Cutting is an example of this. While many people are able to find an inner peace when cutting, it still seems to be generalized as a mental illness. Further, people who partake in even more esoteric practices such as suspension are considered deviant and pathological. It is so far outside of the realm of mainstream society that people do not want to discuss it.
The discomfort around “deviant” self-mutilation leads to silence that is potentially harmful and counterproductive. As Zarathustra discussed, his attempts at getting his work on body play published were difficult. Many publishers shot him down merely because they were disgusted by the content. That disgust goes past the media, as Zarathustra references cases of body players being met with fear, anger, and disgust by their caretakers. The societal constructs that try to sweep body play under the rug do not allow us to engage in self-reflection.
Some practices that our society identifies as particularly strange are commonplace in other cultures. Suspension, for example, is a common practice in other cultures due to the positive outcomes that the suspender experiences. A person practicing suspension in our culture is often similarly engaging in the act for a pleasurable outcome; not to harm themselves. This begs the question why we consider those in our own society pathological and those in other cultures as just, “different.” As we discussed, psychological literature only looks at the individual, and not the culture, trying to make the individual be the outlier.
The film “Modify” goes into some similar discussion of what constitutes pathology, and the general consensus from the experts was that if there were no positive benefits from the body play, then the line has been crossed. To me, the labels can become somewhat arbitrary. It can be immensely difficult to file each person who engages in body play into one of the sections. The discussion of discrimination in “Modify” shows that no matter where a person may fall on the play/pathology spectrum, there is a general distaste or discuss. Close-mindedness only isolates people, making it difficult for people who are not pathological to live a free, happy life, and for people who are pathological to get the help that they need.