Body suspension has been called a fetish, a form of self-mutilation, and much worse. But for those who have done it — and those who understand it — this is nowhere close.
"I found out about suspension and body modification when I was 15," Angela Ranieri, a stylist with Paul Mitchell, told me over tea. Ranieri has brightly colored hair, tattoos covering most of her arms and legs, and a pierced septum. "I just really enjoy that kind of lifestyle," she said.
Body suspension, for those unfamiliar with it, is the act of hanging from ropes attached to hooks or barbells pierced under the skin. Photos and videos of it may make it seem grotesque, but for Ranieri, it's one of the most spiritual things she's ever done.
The first time Ranieri became involved in body suspension, she started with something called an energy pull. "So hooks were in me, and hooks were in my friend, and we pulled each other, but I wasn’t hanging," she explained.
Ranieri was 23 at the time, and went with a friend. It took place in a tattoo studio; everything was "as clean as a doctor’s office, very sterile," she said.
"The energy pull was the only one where it was actually hooks," she clarified. "The suspensions were just like a thick barbell that got screwed to the sides, so they're a little more heavy-duty."
Ranieri got pierced first — "everyone thought I was going to chicken out if I saw my friend go first" — and after the ropes were attached, she and her friend pulled on each others' ropes.
"So I was kind of bent forward, roughly at about a 45-degree angle, and I remember standing there being like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but this is the most relaxed I’ve ever felt," Ranieri said.
"It's this sense of calming, and I was just like, ‘I must be fucking crazy, because this doesn’t make sense,’" she said, "but I’ve never felt more at peace than I did in that very moment."
Ranieri and her friend pulled each other for about 15 minutes. After that, Ranieri decided she wanted to do a full suspension.
She attempted her first one almost two years later. "I shouldn’t have done it that day," she said. "It was a very bad experience because I wasn’t feeling good and I hadn't eaten enough."
But it was her 25th birthday, and it was something she'd wanted to do for years — but as soon as the piercer hooked her and lifted her up, she demanded he put her back down.
"I felt like I wasted everyone's time," Ranieri said. "But I told people, ‘I need to do it at least one more time before I say I’ll never do it again.' I feel like I could have had a good experience if I had eaten, and I hadn’t felt sick that morning, so I want to do it one more time.”
She got the opportunity this past October. "I was going through a really hard time in my life — I call it my spiritual rebirth — and I started writing letters to all the people in my past who had hurt me, and I wanted to burn them while suspended."
"This time I was doing the suspension in a guy’s backyard," said Ranieri. "He had this giant swingset — or, it looked like a swingset. It was higher than his house, and took up his whole backyard."
He pierced her inside the house before taking her outside. When they pierce you, she said, "they ask a lot of questions to make sure you don’t push yourself more than you want to; it’s very soothing."
As for the hooks, "they’re roughly like, an eight-gauge, so they’re decently thick." (An eight-gauge is about an eighth of an inch.)
Then they went outside.
"He hooked me up — I ate a lot that day," Ranieri noted. "And then I ran and jumped up, and I had a lighter and the letters I wanted to burn.”
"It was perfect," she said. "The next thing you know I’m literally higher than his house and I look down and I’m like, 'holy hell!'"
At first Ranieri had trouble getting the lighter to light while she was swinging. The piercer asked her how her back was feeling.
"I was like, 'I don’t care about my back, I can’t get the fucking lighter to work!'"
The way Ranieri was suspended was called a suicide — two hooks in her shoulders, which allowed her to hang straight up-and-down. But that's not the only way to suspend.
"I originally wanted to do a Superman, which is eight hooks on your back and then you fly parallel to the ground, but at the time I didn’t think I could handle that many holes," she said.
She also mentioned another form called the lotus, in which the placement of hooks enables you to suspend lotus-style, "usually above water; I think it looks really pretty."
"They all have different names," Ranieri said. "I don’t even know them all."
Body suspension can actually be a bit expensive — Ranieri paid $130 for hers — but she has her next one scheduled for July with a group of people.
Clearly she's hooked on the feeling (no pun intended).
“It’s more a sense of calm — even when I’m swinging, it doesn’t have a swinging feel to it, like a roller coaster-esque feel or anything like that," she said. "You kind of can’t stop once you’re going.”