Body piercings and tattoos are often controversial.
Many view them as a form of self-expression. Some believe they make you unemployable. Some can appreciate them on other people, but wouldn’t consider getting pierced or tattooed themselves.
I’m in the self-expression camp.
I feel like piercings and tattoos are a way for me to express my personality and decorate my body in a way that makes me feel like me.
I have two tattoos (a swallow and a cat on my forearm) and five piercings in which I wear jewellery every day. I’ve also had many more piercings throughout my life, but I’ve since let them heal.
One of the more controversial views is that body piercings and tattoos are actually a form of self-harm.
Whilst it’s true that body-modification can be painful, and people do it voluntarily, does that mean that people who choose to get them are engaging in deliberate self-harm?
German psychologists Aglaja Stirn and Andreas Hinz conducted a study on this topic (published August 2008) in collaboration with the body-modification magazine Taetowiermagazin. They asked 432 of the magazine’s readers to complete a “comprehensive questionnaire about their tattooing and piercing practices and motives” (Source).
The study found that 119 of the participants admitted to cutting themselves in childhood – 27% of the sample. The researchers noted that this is a significantly higher percentage than is found among Germany’s general population, which is 0.75%.
Another interesting finding in the study is that the participants who admitted to self-harming reported that they “often had their skin tattooed or [pierced] to help overcome a negative experience, or simply to experience physical pain”.
Nevertheless, Stirn and Hinz concluded that these results do not indicate that most people who get body piercings or tattoos do so due to psychological problems. However, they did suggest that body-modifications “sometimes serve as therapeutic substitutes”, in that many of those who admitted to self-harming said that they “ceased cutting themselves” after getting their first piercing or tattoo.
Moving away from academia and towards my personal experiences as both a self-harmer and a body-modifier, I can honestly say that I have never entered into a body-modification in an attempt to harm myself or to deliberately feel pain – in fact, quite the opposite.
Firstly, the idea of experiencing pain during a piercing or tattoo has actually put me off going through the procedure, and I’ve had to work up the courage to go through with it. Secondly, whenever I got a piercing or tattoo, the experience has been about self-liberation and freedom to express myself – the pain was merely an inconvenient side-effect. Thirdly, if the body-piercer offered me freeze-spray, you can guarantee I took it to avoid the pain altogether!
Now, of course, I’m not trying to say that my experience is the universal experience of all body-modifiers or self-harmers, but I can only offer my experience as one example of the theory being incorrect.
Furthermore, added to this is the fact that many people who undertake body-modification have never self-harmed before. If getting a piercing or a tattoo was linked to self-harming, why would someone who had never self-harmed or thought about self-harming modify their body in this way?
But there is a flip side.
Going back to Stirn and Hinz’s 2008 study, some self-harmers did admit to using piercings and tattoos as a form of self-harm. There is no denying this. It happens.
Does that mean body-modification is always a method of self-harm? Of course not.
I think it comes down to intention.
If you walk into a body piercing shop or a tattoo parlour with the clear intention of wanting to experience pain, then yes, I believe that would class as self-harm.
But if you walk in with the clear intention of wanting your septum pierced or a symbol on your wrist despite the pain, then I don’t think this would class as self-harm.
If you’re concerned or confused about your motivation to undertake a form of body-modification, talk it over with a friend or family member – or even your doctor. Don’t rush into a procedure that can be permanent (like a tattoo) if you’re not entirely sure why you want it.
Don’t get me wrong – if you think getting Baby Yoda riding a skateboard tattooed on your leg will just looking fucking awesome, then, by all means, go ahead! (It will, by the way – but don’t quote me on it.) However, if you’re choosing something based purely on experiencing the pain of a tattoo or piercing, you might want to take a step back and discuss it with someone you trust first.
Do you have experience with self-harm and body-modification? Do you believe they are inherently linked? Let me know in the comments.