Ongoing studies of college-age women with tattoos paint a complex, even contradictory picture of mental health and illness, self-esteem and suicide.
In the latest research, Texas Tech University sociology professor Dr. Jerome Koch, found such women with multiple tattoos tend to have increased levels of self-esteem. Further, there was no connection found between increasing acquisition of body art and increased depression or suicidal ideation among men or women.
But at the same time, women with several tattoos report a much higher frequency of past suicide attempts.
The findings, according to Koch, may show that tattoos may be an act of empowerment — an expression of moving from depression to a stronger sense of self. Koch has been studying body art, both tattoos and piercings, for years.
“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.
“What we may be seeing is women translating that awareness into empowerment. We know women sometimes replace a surgically removed breast, for example, with elegant body art. We wonder if more tattoos might be a way of reclaiming a sense of self in the wake of an emotional loss, evidenced by a suicide attempt.”
The study will be published in the Social Science Journal in 2016. It is the companion piece to Koch’s 2010 study, “Body art, deviance and American college students.” That study found participants with four or more tattoos, seven or more body piercings, or piercings in the nipples or genitals were significantly more likely to report regular marijuana use, occasional use of other illegal drugs, and a history of being arrested for a crime.
“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.”
In a 2008 study, “Motivation for Contemporary Tattoo Removal,” Koch’s team found women were more than twice as likely as men to want to have a tattoo removed, most often as a way of disconnecting from the past. But these new findings appear to show the addition of a tattoo can serve the same purpose as a removal.
“That’s what we think is going on,” Koch said. “Women with four or more tattoos were the group that showed us the only two interesting connections: they had a much higher suicide attempt history, and paradoxically, it was this same group — and the only group — that showed an increased level of self-esteem.”
“Our interpretation is maybe it’s a parallel, emotionally, of what we see with breast cancer survivors. We can only speculate what these findings might mean, and more research needs to be done. But I think the logic holds when linking suicide survivors and breast cancer survivors who might use tattoos when reclaiming an emotional or physical loss.”