Body Piercing, Tattooing, Self-Esteem, and Body Investment in Adolescent Girls

By Carroll, Lynne; Anderson, Roxanne | Adolescence, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Body Piercing, Tattooing, Self-Esteem, and Body Investment in Adolescent Girls


Carroll, Lynne, Anderson, Roxanne, Adolescence


Tattooing and body piercing have become increasingly prevalent in popular culture over the last 30 years (Featherstone, 1999; Sweetman, 1999). Such practices are considered forms of body modification along with branding, cutting, binding, inserting implants to alter the appearance and form of the body (Featherstone, 1999), plastic surgery, and gender reassignment (Benson, 2000). Martin (1997) perceived adolescence as a time when body modification becomes particularly appealing as adolescents struggle for identity and control over their changing bodies. Particularly noteworthy is the rise in body piercing and tattooing among adolescents (Armstrong & McConnell, 1994; Houghton, Durkin, Parry, & Turbett, 1996), with current estimates among adolescents ranging from 10% (Armstrong & Pace Murphy, 1997) to 25% (Grief, Hewitt, & Armstrong, 1999).

Debate persists about the motivation of persons who engage in such body modifications as tatooing and piercing. Some (e.g., Craik, 1994) assume that body piercings and tattoos are nothing more than fashion accessories. For example, Sweetman (1999) noted in his interviews with tattooed and pierced adults that most referred to their body art as decorative accessories. According to Sweetman, these components fit into the postmodern world of fashion where "anything goes." Among tattooed adults, Houghton et al. (1995) noted that most participants in their study had obtained their tattoos in late adolescence and were motivated to do so by the desire to improve appearance and because they perceived tattooing as a viable art form. Alternative explanations for body modifications, particularly for piercing and tattooing, abound; predominate among these interpretations are that: (a) body art constitutes a statement of control or ownership over the body in a cultural context characterized by accelerating commodification and alienation and is, therefore, an expression of individuality and uniqueness; (b) body art is a means of identifying and affiliating with a group; and (c) body art is a manifestation of self-destructive impulses and can, therefore, be seen as a form of self-mutilatory behavior (Jeffreys, 2000; Martin, 1997).

Body Art as a Search for the Self

Giddens (1991) emphasized the increasingly close connection between the body and self-identity as evidenced by the growing trend toward relating to the body as a "project." Featherstone (1999) argued that in postmodernity, identity is fluid and thus "the body is mobilized as a plastic resource." Armstrong and McConnell (1994) found that among their sample of 642 high school students, tattooing was motivated by the desire to project a certain image to others and to enhance self-concept. Armstrong et al.'s (1996) study of persons attending a dermatology clinic for tattoo removal found that the majority of participants reported that they had obtained their tattoos impulsively, and that they related this decision to a search for self-identity. In their sample of over 19 universities in the United States and 824 respondents, Grief, Hewitt, and Armstrong (1999) reported that 73% of their sample were tattooed and 51% had body piercings. The predominate motivation for piercing and tattooing among their sample was sel fexpression. Sweetman (1999) observed, in his intensive interviews with light, moderate, and heavy body modifiers, that many stressed the sense of commitment required to make the decision to pierce the body and/or tattoo, the relative permanence of such a decision, the experience of pain and discomfort involved, and the necessity for aftercare. Many moderately and heavily tattooed and pierced persons described these markings as "acts of self-creation" (p. 68) and noted an increased sense of self-confidence after having pierced or tattooed their bodies. According to Sweetman, it was as though the desire to mark the body supposedly emanated from some inner sense of self, rather than the opposite desire to create a particular image in order to be liked.

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