Popular Culture Meets Psychology

Understanding ourselves through pop culture.

Tattoos and Body Piercing: Adolescent Self-Expression or Self-Mutilation?

Do you believe body-piercing and tatooing are self-mutilation?

                      

               

Contemporary adolescent and young adult culture has embraced tattoing and body piercing, ostensibly as a form of self-expression. It seems that if not tattooed themselves, there are very few degrees of separation between any adolescent and someone in their life who bears a tattoo or is pierced somewhere on their body.  Sports stars, rock stars and movie and telvision icons are covered in images and piercings; but we expect that of them, for they are in the public eye.

When a recent newspiece highlighted a young woman who received 56 star tattoos on her face after only requesting three, I was moved to ask the question as to whether this phenomenon, as well as multiple and multi-site tattoos and piercing is really just a socially sanctioned form of self-mutilation?!  I am, of course, driven to reflect deeply on this as I am afterall, a psychologist and a tattooed one at that.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry released a statement in 1999 in which they listed tattooing and 'excessive piercing' along with picking, burning, head-banging and cutting as possible forms of self-injury.While this may seem somewhat of an alarmist conclusion to many, especially those who are tattoed and pierced, the AACAP is not the first on the block to reach this conclusion. In mainstream professional journals, including The Journal of Psychosomatic Research (2006, volume 6, issue 4), Adolescence (2002, volume 37, issue 147), The Journal of Adolescent Health (2005, volume 36, issue 4), Deviant Behavior (2009, volume 30, issue 6) and Pediatrics (2002, volume 109, issue 60), tattooing and body piercing have been associated with dangerous and sometimes lethal risk-taking beavior, eating disorders, self-loathing, substance abuse, depression and social alienation.

These findings and interpretations may well be valid, particularly for the samples upon which they are based. Certainly, we have all witnessed young people swathed in images, both benign (butterflies, roses and hearts) and horrific (skulls, demons and swastikas), and wondered "what the heck could they have been thinking...if they were thinking at all?!" And what about those who have gone to incredible lengths to virtually change their appearance by tattooing whiskers and cat's eyes over their own, in addition to having their incisors sharpened. And then there are the real over-the-top instances where seomeone will surgically implant horns on their forehead, and permanently paint their faces to mirror those of demons?

 

 

Are these all instances of self mutilation, especially in the case of multiple or full-body art and piercings of everyting from nostrils, tongues, belly-buttons, earlobes and eyelids (favorites among teen girls) to nipples, genitals and everything in between.  All of these hurt, to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the place in the case of piercings and tats, and the amount of time the body is exposed to the unrelenting ink-bearing needles.  And I must admit, of the 4 tattoos I have received, they hurt! You would think; however, that a little tat here or a little ring or stud there can't be compared side-to-side with repettitive self-inflicted razor wounds, beer chugging, street racing, and the myriad of other creative ways young people abuse themselves and flirt with danger, if not death?

It hurts so good as singer  John 'Cougar' Mellencamp reminds us. 

Might there be alternate, less pathological explanantions for this tsunami of seeming self-desecration? At a most basic and benign level, perhaps tattooing and piercing are simply forms of self-expression, a means of marking ourselves in a society that fosters, both wittingly and unwittingly, anomie and anonymity. Perhaps, as postmodernists might argue, this self-marking is a means of asserting mastery and control over our boides, and anchoring ourselves, quite lterally during a time of life when the only constant is change. Maybe it is not self-mutilation, but rather  self enhancement and adornment, a means of saying "I am' in a way that is heard...body bling!  And don't forget the socio/anthropological possibility that tats and piercings may demonstrate loyalty, affiliation or be a ritualistic rite of passage. For some, it may simply be the  rush of adrenaline that accompanies a self-chosen and self-controlled moment of physical pain.

You decide for yourself.

Lawrence Rubin, psychologist and counseling professor, is co-author with psychiatrist Mike Brody of Messages: Self Help Through Popular Culture.

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