Tongue splitting has made the news recently as a gross-out fad surpassing tattoos and body piercing. But the practice and the debate surrounding it are in fact not new.
Tongue splitting involves slicing and rehealing for a bifurcated "lizard-tongue" look. (www.neoarte.net)
Tongue splitting, which produces a "forked tongue" or "lizard tongue" look, is considered body modification by some and body mutilation by others.
The tongue is cut down the middle—no tissue is removed—and made to heal in halves. The split can be limited to the tip of the tongue, or it can go back several centimeters. Depending on the procedure, the tongue may eventually grow back together.
The procedure can involve infection, nerve damage, excessive bleeding and other risks. The trend has not only split tongues; it has also split opinions. Some see tongue splitting as a personal decision. Others think the practice should be outlawed.
Some branches of the U.S. military have already ruled the procedure off-limits for personnel, Associated Press reported. And Illinois legislators are considering a virtual ban on tongue splitting.
Illinois state Rep. David Miller sponsored a bill in February making tongue splitting legal "only if there is a therapeutic or clinical basis for performing the procedure." The bill also stipulated that only a licensed doctor or dentist may perform the procedure.
The bill passed the House, but the Senate passed it only after amending it—striking the condition that therapeutic reasons are necessary. The House has until May 31 to concur.
Illinois lawmakers' attempt comes roughly a year after Michigan lawmakers considered a similar proposal.
When Michigan politicians debated the issue last year, the Lansing State Journal carried an article on tongue splitting.
"No trained professional in their right mind would perform this procedure," Gary Zoutendam, past president of the Michigan Dental Association and an oral surgeon in Battle Creek, told the Journal.
But some observers saw a larger issue at stake in the controversy: medical ethics.
"The fact that one person finds another person's appearance odd or disturbing is not a legitimate social purpose for legislation," Dr. Tom Tomlinson of the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences at Michigan State University told the Journal. "I really don't think the Legislature can ban this without solid proof that it is more dangerous than other medical procedures."
The Michigan legislature in fact defeated the proposal, citing individual rights.
That's the same argument those with split tongues will offer as to why the procedure shouldn't be banned. And they have lots more to say about why they are interested in tongue splitting in the first place.
Reasons for body modification—in the form of tattoos, piercings and tongue-splitting—vary among practitioners. Some appreciate a modification's shock value, while others simply like the way it looks. Still others describe a modification as a type of religious experience.
Shannon Larratt, publisher of Body Modification Ezine, characterized tongue splitting this way: "When you dramatically alter its structure and free yourself of the physical boundaries your biology imposes, in some people it triggers a larger freeing on a spiritual level."
Various types of body modification have existed since ancient times on almost every continent. Larratt at BME has written that tongue splitting is part of certain yogic practices, and that certain characters in Hindu mythology are depicted with forked tongues. Many Christians associate a bifurcated tongue with serpentine qualities attributed to Satan.
BME says the phenomenon became widely documented in the West around 1997.
The subject was an article topic in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology in 1999. The author, Mark Benecke, M.D., wrote that potential tongue splitters are likely to perform the operation on themselves if professionals are not able and willing.
As for splitters' motives, Benecke wrote: "The underlying psychodynamics of their behavior may include feelings of disconnection from their body or certain emotions. Some members of this youth subgroup further stated that that this connection may be reestablished by infliction of pain or by control of their emotions."
A year after Benecke's research article was published, tongue splitting was "almost commonplace, as heavy mods [modifications] go," Larratt recently wrote. Larratt now estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 people in the West have split tongues.
It takes roughly one to two weeks before one can eat and talk, and about a month for "full" healing to take place. The procedure costs between $500 and $1,000 when performed by a medical practitioner, and between $100 and $500 when performed by a body piercer.
"When I first saw it, I thought tongue splitting was the most beautiful thing I've seen in my life," James Keen, a 19-year-old from Scottsville, Ky., told AP. Keen had his tongue split last December. When a surgeon declined to perform the procedure, Keen turned to a local body modification artist.
Keen said the splitting procedure required a scalpel—heated by a blow torch—but no anesthetic. It took three sessions to complete.
Those interested in body modification do plenty of community-building on the Internet. E-magazines chronicle trends, and also provide forums for people to share stories—and pictures, many of which can turn stomachs.
Larratt's BME is one of the more popular chroniclers. The site offers nine stated goals, one of which reads as follows: "To never judge one body modification or manipulation activity as more 'right' than another and never succumb to public (mainstream or non-mainstream) pressure to draw this line."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.