For a long time, there was a stigma around many types of body modification. Western society finds some types of body modification (like women piercing their ears) acceptable, while others (like branding or scarification) are not. Some things (like tattoos) fall somewhere in the middle, and are rapidly becoming more acceptable with a wide range of people. What types of body modifications are socially acceptable is also modified by where in the world you life, your socioeconomic status, your gender and where on your body the modification is.
I love that we are living in a world that is moving more towards acceptance of these types of body modifications. I got my ears pierced after high school, and one of my main reasons was so that I could wear stone earrings and match the type of stone to the energy I wanted to carry with me that day. I also loved that there are so many varieties of earrings, so I could absolutely pick symbols that not only were beautiful but that also had personal meaning for me.
My first tattoo was also a spiritual thing for me. As much as I love beautiful body art, and may someday get a more photographic piece, symbols speak much louder to me, and I absolutely love the idea of marking significant symbols of personal meaning right on my body. It becomes a statement of belief.
Some of the common warnings about tattoos are that 'they are permanent, are you sure you will want that still when you are 80, what if you change your opinion about what you got tattooed.' But I have always taken the road map perspective. I do things to mark where I am at in my life when a thing happens. If my circumstances change, that doesn't change the past, and I will always bear that memory as a part of my life. I do think long and hard about the things I would get tattooed, but ultimately, if someday I change my beliefs, I'll still have a visible memory of an important period in my life.
I find the stigma around scarification (a form of body modification where cuts are made with the intent of making scars) rather interesting. Much like branding, it is a more extreme form of modification in some ways, but in other ways it is more subtle. I think one of the big concerns is definitely one of safety, especially if it is something you are doing yourself, and of course you want to make sure you are doing things with the right impulse (self-harm and body modification through scarification are not the same thing, they are rooted in different impulses).
But almost all forms of body modification have been used in sacred practice at different points in history and in different religions and cultures. Tattooing was a pretty common way of marking sacred initiations (but both scarification and branding were also used). I also feel very strongly that just because something has deep spiritual meaning to you doesn't mean it can't also have layers of personal meaning or just plain asceticism. If you have a great love for a particular tv show, find meaning in a symbol, saying or image from the show, you can have a tatoo that expresses both your fandom and your spirituality!
One thing I find that can make body modification sacred as well is how you approach the pain. Almost all body modification involves pain of some sort. Rarely are you given ways to bypass the pain, and it becomes part of the process. This can definitely be approached as a form of sacrifice, or as a personal initiation. The experience of getting the modification done can be spiritually enhanced by entering into a meditative state or focusing on the significance of the modification as it relates to you as it is being done. After-care can also become a spiritual practice, adding in a mantra or focusing on the intent as you follow your care instructions (such as cleaning a piercing site or putting ointment on a tattoo).
I very much like the fact that the face of spirituality is being challenged by the spectrum of body modification that is becoming accepted as well. We see spiritual people who have very traditional and demure body modification, perhaps only pierced ears or only temporary things (such as henna). But we also see deeply spiritual people who fully embrace the extremes of body modification, marking their beliefs on their skin, altering their appearance to reflect what they feel their inner truth is or simply loving body modification while still being spiritual. And we have everyone in between. What I think is truly beautiful about this is that it is showing the world that anyone can have sincere and deep spirituality, and that how society perceives (and judges) you based on your external appearance has nothing to do with the kind of person you are on the inside.
I also love that obviously spiritual tattoos of all sorts are becoming more mainstream. If you have a lotus flower or sacred geometry symbol tattooed on your skin, people may not even realize that it is a spiritual thing. Deities of all flavors are popular as well, and many people will not know that the image you have on your body is one you are devoted to. Even some of the more well known and often misunderstood symbols (like the pentagram) are becoming more accepted as they are embraced by popular media (in shows like Supernatural) and desired by fans.
The other thing that I think is really powerful about things like body modification, is that it is an artistic process. You can either create your own design or work with an artist to create whatever you can imagine. You can work in whatever imagery or symbols that are important to you, and really create a one of a kind piece that represents you.
If you are considering getting some kind of spiritual body modification, think about what you want it to mean. Will it represent an initiation of some sort that you went through or celebrate a spiritual event? Will it honor a deity or energy that you work with regularly? Will it be a spell that you carry with you always? Will it be a reminder about a lesson that you are working on or a spiritual truth that you want to be mindful of? Is it something beautiful that represents you, your spiritual life or your path? All of these (and more I'm sure) are wonderful reasons to get body modification done.
You also definitely want to consider your own pain threshold and make sure you do your research on both the process of the modification as well as any after care. Modern tattoos are often quick and can be relatively pain free (depending on where you get them done). But if you decide you want a traditional tattoo, that process is very different, and the experience (and result) will also be different. Neither way is better, it's just a matter of deciding what is better for you (for this particular piece). The same goes for piercing, there are different ways and different places to get pierced, and you want to figure out which one is the one that fits your needs best.
If you aren't very familiar with the modification you are considering, definitely do your research. Look it up, read about it, talk to people who have had it done, and speak with the person who you are thinking about getting to do the modification. If you have any questions or concerns....ask!
You may want to work the modification experience into a ritual observance. Depending on who is doing your modification, you may be able to do an actual ritual around the modification itself, but even if you are getting your modification done at a tattoo shop or piercing parlor, you can still do personal ritual preparation before and ritual acknowledgement afterward. Marking the occasion spiritually can add great meaning to an already meaningful experience.
Whatever your reasons, and whatever modification you choose, there are many options available to you. You can be discrete and keep your modification in a place where the general public will not see it or you can display it for the world. You can tell other people what it means to you or simply let them wonder (it is your body! if you want to say 'I got it because I liked it' that is your right!) So, if you feel called to Sacred Body Modification, find the one that fits your needs, your life and your desires!