We spoke with a psychologist about why people alter their appearance so drastically.

By Samantha Lauriello
March 22, 2019

By now you've probably heard about the man who went viral for having the inside of both of his ears cut out. If not, here's the story: Charles Bentley reportedly traveled from Australia to Sweden to have his inner ears surgically removed by a man who calls himself a "body modification practitioner." The procedure is apparently called "conch removal," and as soon as Bentley's post-op photos hit the Internet, people started freaking out. 

Audiologists quickly began commenting on the Instagram post, saying this could affect Bentley's hearing by making it difficult for him to tell which direction sound is coming from. Some people were concerned, but others were just straight up confused as to why someone would do this. That got us thinking, why do people modify their bodies in such extreme, potentially dangerous ways? 

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Bentley certainly isn't the first person to go to extremes to change his appearance. We've all seen photos of people who slit the tip of their tongue. (perhaps in an attempt to look more like a lizard?) Speaking of lizards, we can't forget Erik "The Lizardman" Sprague, who became famous for tattooing his entire body to appear lizard-like. Dennis Avner, aka "Stalking Cat," earned his fame by tattooing his face to resemble a feline. He also got piercings that he could attach whiskers to, and he filed his teeth so they looked like pointy fangs.

Both of these men also got silicone implants on their faces, which is another trend among body modification enthusiasts. There's also belly button removal, eyeball tattoos, and the list goes on. 

Scratching your head thinking, Why, just why? Yeah, we were too, which is why we spoke with Amy Flowers, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in body image and self-esteem. 

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"These people clearly want attention," Flowers tells Health. "Sometimes, if your self-esteem is very low, negative attention is better than no attention." People with seriously low self confidence often think they don't have anything to offer, she explains; no talents, abilities, nothing. They might feel like doing something extreme is the only way they could ever be noticed. 

That feeling of inadequacy would also leave a person longing for a sense of community, something they might be able to find through body modification, she adds. Joining this subculture of people who alter their appearance is a no-skills-necessary way to fit in with people you have at least one thing in common with. 

Flowers says that when a person possesses average self-esteem (meaning they like who they are yet don't view themselves as perfect) they usually try to enhance what they already have. When it comes to looks, they put on some makeup. When it comes to skills, they keep working on things they're OK at. "These people, on the other hand, don't feel at all comfortable in their own skin that way it is," she says. 

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Another reason people might modify their bodies: to reject social norms. They use what most people consider to be an extreme appearance to connect with others and reject society together.

And of course, some people who modify their bodies simply like the way it looks. Piercings, tattoos, skin procedures, and other modifications might make them feel happier and more attractive. It could also be a form of art, Flowers says, and embracing body modifcation is their way of expressing their artistic side. 

The danger is, people can become addicted to modifying their bodies, she adds. Some, such as "The Lizardman" or "Stalking Cat," clearly have an image they're aiming for. But with each body change, they might feel compelled to push things further. "They may end up getting addicted because they think, 'I'm almost there' or 'It's almost perfect,'" she says. 

Not only can body modification be physically dangerous, it can take an emotional toll as well, especially when it's driven by low self-esteem or a poor self-image. The more a person modifies and the more attention they get, the easier it is to ignore the mental health issues that might be at the root of their need to alter their appearance so drastically. 

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