Brain and Body

Are Tattoos a Coping Mechanism for Young Women?

November 24, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Young woman with tattoos, laughing
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Body art may be a way of confronting past traumas, study finds.

Society is slowly but surely reducing the stigma associated with tattoos, and a new study finds that body art may actually delve much deeper than an act of rebellion — instead, tattoos could represent a coping mechanism among young women.

Texas Tech University sociology professor Jerome Koch has been studying body art for years, including both tattoos and piercings, and his research has yielded some interesting emotional correlations among college-aged women with four or more tattoos. In his study, the young women with multiple tattoos reported higher levels of self-esteem than all other groups. What’s more, these same women also had a much higher frequency of past suicide attempts.

"I think women, especially, are more aware of their bodies through, among other things, fat shaming, the cosmetics and plastic surgery industry and hyper-sexualized imagery in media," Koch said in a press release. "What we may be seeing is women translating that awareness into empowerment.”

Interestingly, former studies by Koch found that participants with four or more tattoos and seven or more body piercings were significantly more likely to report regular marijuana use, occasional use of other illegal drugs, and a history of being arrested for a crime. However, this new research analyzes people with body art from a completely different angle.

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"This latest piece takes the same question inside out," Koch said. "Instead of talking about deviance, it's about wellness. We wanted to find out, to what extent does the acquisition of body art correlate to a sense of well-being or a greater sense of self? It's pretty paradoxical."

While piercings and tattoos are often associated with deviance and rebellion, there could be something much deeper embedded in the act. For example, some women replace the space of a surgically removed breast with elegant body art. It can instill a sense of self-acceptance and, as Koch speculates, body art “might be a way of reclaiming a sense of self in the wake of an emotional loss.”

Perhaps the permanence of a tattoo serves as a constant reminder of a personal struggle that has been overcome or as empowerment for leaving times of hardship in the past. Koch says more research still needs to be done, but that it seems logical that the link between former suicidal and depressed women and more tattoos hints at an expressive coping mechanism.

So next time you see a young woman who is “tatted up,” consider the potential emotional struggles and personal battles that you might know nothing about. If one thing’s for sure, society needs to let go of its labels.

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