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Tracy Alderman, Ph.D.

Tracy Alderman Ph.D.


Tattoos and Piercings: Self-Injury?

Are tattoos and piercings really just forms of self-injury?

Key points

  • Self-injury is an attempt to harm oneself without committing suicide.
  • Tattoos and piercings likely do not qualify as self-injury because they are usually done by someone else.
  • Self-injurers are not proud of what they do to themselves, making it a distinct behavior from tattoos and piercings.

A few weeks ago when I was out walking, I noticed a sign in the window of one of the local tattoo shops. "Yes, it hurts!" the sign declared.

The sign made me recall a question that frequently occurs when talking about self-injury. Are tattoos and piercings really just forms of self-injury? After all, with both of these acts, the person is consenting to something that will injure and disfigure the body (at least temporarily). It might make sense that tattoos and piercings are just different methods of self-injury.

I've previously stated that self-injury is an act that inflicts harm to one's self, by one's self, not for the purpose of suicide. In the cases of tattooing and piercing the harm is definitely done to oneself (as opposed to another). If I want a tattoo, the ink is going on me rather than on a friend of mine. Getting pierced and/or tattooed is a lousy and ineffective way to try to kill yourself, so the idea that either of these behaviors would be done as a suicide attempt makes no sense. But most people don't tattoo or pierce themselves; instead, they enlist the assistance of a professional. Occasionally someone may tattoo themselves, particularly in settings such as detention facilities, inpatient programs, and other residential environments. Self-piercing is a bit more common as it is fairly easy to accomplish. So, one factor seeming to separate "true" self-injury from tattoos and piercings is the idea that self-injury is performed by one's own hand.

The other main issue separating self-injurious acts from tattoos and piercings is that of pride. Most people who get tattooed and/or pierced are proud of their new decorations. They want to show others their ink, their studs, their plugs. They want to tell the story of the pain, the fear, the experience. In contrast, those who hurt themselves generally don't tell anyone about it. Self-injurers go to great lengths to cover and disguise their wounds and scars. Self-injurers are not proud of their new decorations.

Once in a while, there will be cases in which piercing and/or tattoos do fit the definition of self-injury. I recently heard of a case in which a young man took a needle and pierced his cheek several times (not as a way to change/enhance his looks). But overwhelmingly self-injury is a distinct behavior, in definition, method, and purpose, from tattooing and piercing.