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Apart from her exotic leopard-spot tattoos, Buelow seems normal-looking. She seems safe. Then Fox notices Buelow's forearms.
There's something moving under Buelow's skin.
Fox leaps out of her chair.
"They're implants," Buelow says, her face aglow at Fox's obvious horror. "You can touch them."
Fox shakes her head, staring at the alien lumps.
"They're Teflon," Buelow says, knowing all of Fox's unspoken questions.
"Why did you do that?" Fox manages.
"I like the way they look and feel. I like it when I move my arms and they shift around."
Buelow stretches her arms to demonstrate.
"Did it hurt?"
Fox edges away.
"This is fucking crazy," Fox whispers. "I just don't understand why anybody would want to do this to themselves. I feel like I'm the only person here who isn't a freak."
"Freak" is the body modification f-word.
Members in the Church of Body Modification use it to describe themselves, yet get touchy when it's said by others. They enthuse about their extreme modifications and practice exhibitionistic fleshplay that relies on shock value, yet complain they are misunderstood and labeled as freaks.
Everybody is modified, they argue. There is no such thing as a natural human form. Everybody who gets a haircut, exercises, pierces her ears, gets breast implants or is circumcised is modified to fit a Western societal image of beauty. So how is a split tongue any different? Why should penis beads seem shocking? Why should an employee be forced to wear long shirts to hide subdermal implants?
Their modifications are simply more creative and tribalistic, they say, than most.
"It's fascinating that our culture will accept people who practice extremes," Haworth says. "Some people will sit on a couch, push buttons on the TV and gain weight. Another person will spend hours upon hours in the gym building their body into massive Goliath hulk -- and nobody seems to have a problem with that."
The Church has grown to nearly 50 members since it was established last year (www.churchofbodmod.com). The Church is a literal church. Members are literally card-carrying. There is a rented Phoenix office and ministers who are licensed to perform marriages. Next month, the Church will host its first matrimonial union; a couple from Seattle wishes to be married while suspending from flesh hooks.
One member even moved to Phoenix to join the group -- 18-year-old Stacey Anderson says she left Iowa after her modification demands exceeded the talents of her local piercers. Anderson has suspended several times and has asked the Church to crucify her (presumably not fatally). The request is currently under consideration.
Church members have monthly meetings at their office. The gatherings are more like business strategizing sessions than Sunday services. The Church's doctrine is likewise the antithesis of most religions: Nobody has authority over what you can do with your body. Not God, not your family, not society. The fleshplay is part of this philosophy. Through piercings, pain and markings, members say they are reclaiming their bodies.
It's not necessarily a rejection of faith. Members are free to worship as they wish. It's more of a nondenominational benefit club, a circling of the wagons to form a support group and ideological center for the alienated.
"Body modification has been around as long as man has been around," Buelow says. "Until now, it's just been a part of many different religions."
Since Church members are not required to worship a supreme being, it is interesting that the Church of Body Modification was conceived by a man who is regularly accused of playing god.
Steve Haworth, 36, knows his friends in a unique way. He knows what their flesh feels like. He knows the measure of resistance when a hook goes into them, whether their body is tough and meaty, or loose and fluid -- the hook moving, he says, "like a hot knife through warm butter." It's an unusual sort of intimacy.
Gesaman lies face down on Haworth's padded table and prepares himself -- the best a person can prepare himself -- to have 12 hooks pushed through his body. Like everybody who lies on this table, he has signed a waiver of liability. His girlfriend says he is scared, yet trying not to show it.
Aside from the curious faces pressed against a window facing the backyard, the room looks like a typical doctor's suite. There's the padded adjustable table, cabinets of surgical accessories and hazardous waste disposal bins. The professionalism of the office makes it oddly comforting.
Everybody involved in the procedure, including the subject on the table, is sober. Haworth does not allow inebriation during the fleshplay, saying it's unprofessional for the piercers and would invalidate the challenge and, in some cases, the purpose for the participants.
Haworth takes a hollow piercing needle and slides it over the tip of a hook.
"Pain," he ceremoniously announces, "is the sensation of weakness leaving the body."
Two latex-gloved assistants grab one-inch folds of Gesaman's back, carefully aligning the pairs of pre-marked ink dots where the hooks will enter and exit.
A few cry out when pierced. Most Church members choke it down, playing it tough. Others confirm that, yes, it hurts exactly as much as you'd expect hooks going through your non-anesthetized body to hurt.