Tattooing fulfills, in many ways, one of the strongest of all human needs, that is, the desire for self-expression. It is a highly individual and distinctive way of displaying on the human body a personal narrative. In the current culture, it has become acceptable for women as well as men without the stigma that might have accompanied its practice in earlier times.
The practice of body adornment is certainly not new. Both men and women have found elaborate means of adorning their bodies since time began. They have done so for a variety of reasons: establishing status in their communities; attracting suitable mates; intimidating their enemies; displaying power and wealth, to name a few. But tattooing is unique in that it provides a highly personal canvas on which to tell a story, make a statement or establish an emerging identity.
Doris Silverman, Ph.D. points out that the practice of tattooing allows a person draw to from a nearly infinite selection of symbols and in this way tailor the tattoos to the symbolic meaning they wish to represent. (“Feminism: A Revolutionary Call about Female Sexuality” in A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy. Routledge, in press.) Biker chicks can choose frightening images such as masks or skulls. Women typically choose relatively benign symbols such as flowers or butterflies—projecting messages of peace or beauty. Tattoos can be used to cover the scars from a mastectomy instead of a prosthesis. As stipulated in the Breast Cancer Recovery Act, that decision is now recognized as payable by insurance. Both the placement of the tattoo and its subject matter represent personal and often permanent communication to the larger society. Silverman states that while there is less of a stigma for women than in times past, there is still a tendency toward associating tattooing in women with a harder life style. Still it is an acceptable outlet for those who wish to make an edgier statement about their presence in society.
If we as parents view tattooing within its cultural and historical context we are in a much better position to speak with and counsel our adolescent children. Human history has long accepted the need and the desire to make a personal statement—one that defines or secures identity. That being said, how would I feel if one of my five beautiful granddaughters decided to get a tattoo? Well, fortunately, it is not my decision but one for their parents to negotiate. So I am free to speculate about what my son Matthew would say to his feisty daughter, Clementine, who is only eight but remarkably “teen-age.” Fortunately, a child cannot obtain a tattoo until the age of 18 without parental consent. But perhaps the dialogue would go something like this:
“Daddy I would like to get a tattoo of a unicorn on my right shoulder.”
“Oh, how come?”
“Well, it’s a mythical beast and it’s beautiful.”
“Payton is getting one.”
“You know, it’s permanent. What if you change your mind?”
“But I won’t. I’ll love it forever.”
“I know I will love you forever. But I want you to make that decision when you are older.”
“But Daddy…” Tears. Tantrum.
“I promise we will talk about this again when you are older. In the meantime can you draw me a picture of a unicorn?”
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.