If ever there were a group to embrace and impart change for others, it would be those women who have made great changes to themselves – through some ways via body modifications.
That’s the gist of Modified Dolls, a national organization founded in 2011 in Washington state that has chapters all over the country, as well as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. In November of last year, Pennsylvania finally got its own.
“We very much try to cover all aspects of charity and spread hope, kindness, and positivity to those in need,” said Sandy Yager of the work the Dolls.
The PA chapter is a relatively young one still building its foundation, and striving for non-profit status, but the work it’s accomplished already has made quite a difference.
The Modified Dolls of Pennsylvania have worked with the Autism Society of Greater Harrisburg, Mission of Mercy, 4 Paws for Ability, and the National Foundation for Ectodermal Dysplasia, to start. They attended the Punk Rock Flea Market in Reading in May and are continuously looking for ways to branch out.
Dolls meetings are held online, as the girls are located all over the state, with the current concentration in the Harrisburg area, though it spreads to Philadelphia and Berks and Lancaster counties. They’re excited to make their way into NEPA.
While the Dolls are there for others, they also do what they do as a way to help themselves, and other women who are modified, or who have made alterations to their bodies in the way of piercings, tattoos, scarification, branding, or any such act.
What the Dolls would really like is to rid society of the stigma attached to a woman who handles her body in this way.
Women covered in ink or poked through with metal pieces are becoming a more common sight as the years go on – and the same goes for men, as body modifications and what comes along with are not solely for women - but it’s the way people react to it that has been a bit slower to change.
“There are more women out there that are getting tattoos and because of that society is forced to be more accepting in public,” Yager said. “However, I don’t think attitudes have really changed, and I say this because people still are not hired because of tattoos and there are still many stigmas attached to people who have them. Until changes are shown in mainstream society, things will remain the same.”
“I feel like a lot of people still look down on it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about,” said Amber Hlavaty, “as if it must be a ‘phase’ and we are troubled and irresponsible.”
Hlavaty is conscious of the stares she receives and the mothers who pull their children away from her. Many Dolls – and tattooed folk in general - constantly hear “You’d look so much better without them,” “You’re ruining your body,” and, in one case, that a Doll was told she “wouldn’t get into heaven because of [her] tattoos” – something said by her own parents.
Yager and chapter president Erin Naylor once made appointments at two retirement homes to discuss the possibility of volunteering. The first told them no one was available the minute they walked through the door and though the second played nice while they were there, they never heard from them again, even after reaching out numerous times.
“Both facilities had zero volunteers and needed them badly,” Yager said. “It truly broke my heart that people can be so fake to your face and judgmental behind your back. A lot of those people [in the homes] are alone and have no one and I would have loved to spend time with them.”
Though there is bad, there is also quite a bit of good to be garnered from living a modified life. Hlavaty loves that her piercings are conversation starters (“Did it hurt?” is the most common inquiry), Stacy Howarth is a parent liaison for her son’s sports teams despite the fact that some parents have been a bit close-minded toward her, and Yager will never forget the time an elderly woman stopped her to look at her tattoos, telling her she was a “regular art show” and that they were “all so eye catching.”
In interacting with people through the work they do, the Dolls have a chance to tell the story that may not be so apparent via their skin; not only the reasoning behind such actions but that fact that said actions are not the only thing that make them who they are.
“There are still many people that look at me and ask, ‘Why?’” Becky Heater said. She can point to a number of reasons.
“Sometimes it’s like therapy. Sometimes it’s because I get the honor of showing the world a beautiful work of art everywhere I go. Sometimes it’s to keep someone or something close to me. Sometimes it’s simply because it’s my body and I can do what I want with it. Most of the time it’s a little bit of all those things mixed together.”
Members of the Dolls have pointed to descriptors like promiscuous, trashy, drug addict, and attention-getter, to name a few, that were flung their way. Some welcome the chance to combat such buzz words.
“People say my modifications make me look ‘tough; I’m completely okay with that,” Naylor said. “I am tough. I’m raising two children, putting everything into this non-profit, building relationships, maintaining a household, and working full time. I’m also one of the most caring people you could ever meet.”
Head of Public Relations
Amber Higgs is her doll name and though the moniker may be simple, it’s one that’s very telling – it comes from the Higgs boson particle, and sheds light on who Hlavaty is when you look past her plethora of piercings.
The 22-year-old from Middletown holds a degree in culinary arts, works full-time as a commercial real estate property manager and is currently pursuing a degree in physics.
Hlavaty leans towards piercings (she has only one tattoo) and tops out at 16. The majority of them are around her face and her favorite is her first, her septum.
“It was my first out-of-the ordinary piercing,” she said. “My parents actually paid for it as a birthday present to me for my sixteenth birthday. That first one took some convincing.”
Stacy L. Snyder Howarth
The 34-year-old mother from Strasburg is a bit of a paradox – a self-proclaimed “girly-girl tomboy.”
“I like to color coordinate my outfits while dressing comfortably. I can dress up and go out dancing with the girls or sit at home watching Marvel with the guys.”
Howarth is an accounts payable administrator for a nationwide stone manufacturer and installer and is currently attending the University of Phoenix for her Masters of Accountancy. She spends her time with her two sons, husband and two dogs.
Howarth has two inner forearm tattoos, two upper thigh tattoos, a full back piece, an ankle piece and vertical labret and horizontal nipple piercings. Her full back piece – a butterfly and two small stars – is her favorite.
“It means the most,” she said. “The butterfly is in memory of my father and represents eternal life and the two stars are for my sons.”
New recruit trainer
The 26-year-old Reading resident is a new mother who love hula hooping, animals, gardening, and seeking out adventure. She’s got eight tattoos (“And counting,” she said), purple and blue hair, and nose and septum piercings.
As far as favorites go, Heater has a hard time choosing.
“I have a tattoo on my hip that I love a lot because at the time I felt like I had to close that chapter of my life,” she said. “It was like a bandage for my wounds. I’m not sure I can choose a favorite though. I also love the sun and moon on my shoulders. They are such great pieces of art and they make me feel so beautiful.”
Recruting manager and third in command
Whitman is a big kid at heart, and much of it has to do with her 11-year-old son David.
“I like to spend time with my son, play laser tag, race go karts and play at the arcade,” the 36-year-old Wernersville resident said of what she likes to do in her down time, a list that also includes reading and going to the gym.
Whitman works for Snap-On Tools as a billing clerk. She currently has one piercing and nine tattoos.
“I have a butterfly tattooed on my lower back that my friend is working on turning into a piece that covers my entire back,” she said. “This tattoo is to represent my grandparents that have passed away. All of my tattoos represent something significant that’s happened in my life or a significant person in my life.”
The 40-year-old Steelton mother of a 21-year-old son and 19 year-old daughter has quite the quirky nickname: The Tattooed Minister.
She runs a business called At Your Service, as she is an ordained minister who performs weddings.
“Most people hire me because they are comfortable that I have tattoos. Yay reverse discrimination!” she joked.
She also has another side business, Drop Dead Dollies, through which she makes macabre custom dolls and, as of late, zombie sock monkeys. She is currently a full-time student who just completed her Associates degree in Psychology and is currently earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling. She interns at a duel diagnosis drug and alcohol treatment center where she co-runs a relapse prevention group once a week.
Originally from Tamaqua, the now Harrisburg resident has two children and is crazy for cats, which she says she both owns and fosters. The current employee of the Department of Labor and Industry also enjoys another big C: crafting.
“I love repurposing things and I currently sell them on Etsy,” she said.
Naylor has a lip piercing, stretched ears and 13 tattoos.
“I have dedicated my chest to my children. I have both children’s names, a Celtic sister’s knot that I share with both my older sisters, and a dragonfly, representing my mother who passed away. I always keep those I love close to my heart.”
Head of Donations
She calls it a “labor of love,” but the ordeal this 39-year-old Harrisburg resident went through for her favorite tattoo – her chest piece – was certainly more than that.
“I had an allergic reaction to the ink and had to have a lot of it redone because my skin pushed the ink out,” she said. “I had sores and was bed ridden from the experience. Fun! It was worth it though. I never regret it.”
Her tattoo number is a high one, and she also has her tragus, Monroe and nose pierced.
Jordan is unfortunately no stranger to pain. She was paralyzed three years ago and had emergency spinal surgery, leaving her disabled due to a spinal disease. She said chronic pain rules her life – but that never stops her from having one. Jordan is also a wordsmith that deals in poetry, a vegetarian, and an animal lover who dotes on her five cats.