If you’re a Millennial (between theages of 18-35), you have, according to researchers, a 50% chance of sporting at least one tattoo.For Generation X folks (between the ages of 36 and 50), it’s about 35%. And approximately 35%of men and women who have one tattoo have at least one more12In fact. “collections.”, you may have seen a front page article in The New York Times, in which a celebrity tattoo artist said that his tiny, delicate designs inspire his female clients’ tattoo "collections."3
What’s really new is that all of these numbers are near equal for men and women. Before 1960, tattooed females were mainly substance abusers, convicts, bikers or circus sideshow performers. Intense reactions4 to women’s tattoos among some people, however, still harkens back to these stereotypes that imply an indecency, or at the least, poor judgment. 5 I view today’s permanent tattoos as externalizations of someone’s personal and cultural values, interests and identities; few of my patients in their 30’s and 40’s lament having been inked when they were younger: Instead, they appear to feel somewhat nostalgic about these reminders of the significant periods in their lives.
As a psychotherapist, I have a few particular questions for the women who tell me that they have a tattoo. For instance, why would you want lifelong body art; why did you choose this particular part of your body; what did your boyfriend say about that tat, and WHAT DID YOUR MOTHER SAY? I found some answers when I was writing a paper on the subject for a recent psychoanalytic conference in California.
When thinking about my patients’ individual body art in the psychotherapeutic setting, I see definite gender differences expressed in a tattoo’s design and placement. While everyone is concerned with appearing attractive or sexy, women’s imagery is more often a reminder of pivotal life experiences: Tattoos seem like entries in emotionally-inspired pictorial diaries.
Some mental health professionals remain quick to see tattoos as symptoms of self-harming-- in a category with cutting and anorexia. And some tattoos are indeed meant to reclaim a body after a significant trauma, like those etched on Lisbeth Salander, the title character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
According to a survey at Texas Tech University in 2015, women who report four or more tattoos actually have the highest self esteem, but they are also the most likely to have tried suicide. One reason for this paradox can be that some tattoos are “badges of honor” for suicide victims who subsequently consider themselves as suicide “survivors.”5Likewise, a woman recovering from a serious eating disorder may want a permanent symbol that states that she has reclaimed her body and no longer feels it is under assault by society. Her tattoos not only repudiate her former behavior, but remind her of her new coping skills and reward these achievements.6
I believe that there are very general distinctions between trauma-driven tattoos, like Salander’s, and those that are adornments and/or distinctive, non-traumatic narrative designs. Both bear the strong marks of body ownership.
A tattoo can also be seen as a part of fantasy, similar to a dream image. For instance, if a female tennis player dreams about a Maori warrior, the warrior is no longer in any world, nor is his actual being contained in her body. On the contrary, his world is in hers. And if this athlete copies the warrior’s tattoos, she can imaginatively inhabit him through this imagery, which represents his strength, enables her to play hard and to fight fatigue. It is another part of her “self” in a psychotherapy setting. 7
The increase in women’s tattooing has been inspired by a number of societal shifts like the continual evolution of feminism, sexual freedom, gender multiplicity and the mass marketing of female empowerment. Prosperity can also encourage greater self expression in fashion. What women deem “fashionable” can be as fluid as a skirt length or as indelible as a mummy’s tattoos. In fact, the most obvious historical source for women’s tattooing is Egyptian: Recently, a female mummy was unearthed in Egypt, dating from 3000 BC8, one-upping another in Russia from 2500 BC that is nicknamed the Siberian Princess. 10
In the affluent 1960’s, rock music’s queen was the multi-tattooed Janis Joplin, and during the well-heeled 1970’s the anti-authoritarianism of punk rock further encouraged tattooing’s popularity12. Today, body art is seen in the store windows of upscale retailers like Barney’s and on the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue, attesting to its acknowledgment among upper income consumers. “Tweaking the skin” is now “no more alien or off-putting than a Botox party.” A college-aged woman might offhandedly attribute a tattoo to her behavior on Spring break! 13
We cannot ignore, however, that tats involve insertions of pigment into the skin and can only be removed with difficulty. And because tattoos are now often obtained in adolescence, they can easily become an anachronism or simply a really bad idea. For instance, an angry teenager arrived at my office with a tear-shaped tattoo below her eye: She felt, she said, that her parents could not accept her coming out as a lesbian, “So, f* ‘em!” Because her adolescent defenses felt inadequate, she used her body to illustrate her emotional pain. What she didn’t know was that criminals sometimes tattoo a teardrop for each murder that they have committed.
Adolescent role models like Lena Dunham14, the creator of the TV’s “Girls,” and comedian/actor Amy Schumer15, were each inked as teens and driven by parents to the tattoo shop. Schumer says that she now regrets her decision.
Many other stars are frequent Instagramers, parading their latest tats. I think of this tattooing behavior as “self-branding,” reminiscent of the logos and packaging distinguishing products and services that compete in symbol-saturated environments-- like supermarket shelves and electronic and print media. Tattoos have become fashion items for consumption in the parallel universe of social media.
The longing to be thought of as hip, unique, or of belonging to an idealized group has always had a strong appeal for people, young-- or older. Nothing, however, is a stronger hold on a woman than that of the men who observe her. Many years ago, the art historian John Berger discussed heterosexual females as being taught to “survey” themselves continually, because he states, “men act and women appear… [and] men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at [and] thus… turn [themselves] into an object-- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”16I would include how women, heterosexual or not, look at other women as well.
A female infant is, of course, taught first and most importantly by her mother. She does this unconsciously by means of the maternal mirror function17, which reflects what is deemed desirable by means of her coos and smiles-- and later her appearance. It becomes echoed and fine-tuned by societal norms and media standards of beauty once the girl watches TV and enters preschool. Many little girls, consumed with the color pink and with putting make up on their toy Barbie heads, practice the outcome as early as 3-years old. And, as the object of the gaze, a female, gay or straight, thereafter sees herself as such in every mirror: Self-objectification is forever part of the developmental process18.
In psychoanalytic treatment, I see tattoos-- for a woman or for a man-- as embellishments that serve as non-verbal messages (even when they are composed of names or sayings), and that they offer a potential for increased creative and playful stories. The skin forms a “transitional area,” which is experienced, the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott19 maintained, as a communication between an individual’s inside and outside.
Psychotherapists have recently begun more serious thinking about the body’s surface. This work offers the potential to repair dissociations and to suture new connections between our unconscious experience of our body in early childhood and our conscious, verbal awareness as we grow. To disregard any important facet of a woman’s (or a man’s) appearance-- tattooed or not-- seems to me like an opportunity ignored.