Student's Body Modification Religion Questioned After Nose Piercing Controversy

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"We strongly believe in the relationship between mind, body and soul. Sometimes what you do to the body can strengthen the mind and soul or bring the mind and soul into harmony with the body," he said. "Which I don't think is a crazy concept."

And while the church is a religion, it doesn't involve a deity and it doesn't preclude members from practicing other religions. Some members identify also as Christians, Buddhists or Wiccans.

Members practice a variety of body modification, including tongue-splitting, ear-lobe or skin extending and a variety of methods to make art or designs on the body, including sub-dermal implants, branding and scarring.

Though the church does not have any brick and mortar houses of worship, many gather in houses or at sporadic events and keep in regular contact otherwise. There are just 20 members of the Church of Body Modification in North Carolina.

Gary Laderman, professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University, had not heard of the Church of Body Modification, but said it and religions like it are "the future of religious life in America."

"I think there's much more to religious life and culture than God," he said. "To me this is a great illustration of an alternative form of religious practice and commitment than what we're used to."

But finding the line between religion and something a little more diluted, he said, is "tricky." Also complicating what constitutes religion are social mores that vary by region.

"The south is pretty tight and conservative generally," he said. "Those kind of community standards are going to come into play and those are often difficult to contest."

But Laderman, author of ""Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States," noted that the Church of Body Modification had government approval as a recognized entity. And not having a physical house of worship doesn't mean it shouldn't be observed.

"When you sort of open the doors as wide as it can go you are really struck by the variety of religious values and commitments people will respect," he said.

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For Ivey, who grew up as a Jehovah's Witness and called his mother's worshipping "cult-like"was kicked out by his mother, then the church, just before his 18th birthday. He has used body modification as a way to heal.

"I carried a lot of issues with me because of my past," he said. In addition to his multiple tattoos -- more than 300 hours worth in total-- piercings and extenders, Ivey has practiced what is known as suspension.

Most commonly done from the back, suspension involving hang from a series of carefully placed hooks in the skin. Ivey has been suspended from his back and his knees. He said he found peace in suspension and his frequent panic attacks and bouts of anxiety subsided.

Ariana, her mother said, has found similar solace through her nasal piercing.

"She had been abused as a kid, as a young kid, for several years. She struggled with self esteem and self worth," Iacono said. "This was for her a symbolic representation of reclaiming her beauty and her self esteem."

"It had a lot of meaning behind it, which is why I stood behind her," she said.

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