Tattoos and piercings are more common among those who were abused and neglected as children

Tattoos and piercings have exploded in popularity over the past few decades. These body modifications can be seen as a way to express individuality, but could there be a darker association? A study published in BMC Psychology suggests that people with a history of child abuse and neglect are more likely to get tattoos and piercings.

Tattoos and piercings have been around for centuries and often hold cultural or personal significance. Old fashioned standards considered visible tattoos or piercings to be unprofessional, but society has moved away from this view in recent years and nowadays it is very common for people to have these body modifications .

Many people participate in it to express their personality or their aesthetic. Previous research on tattooed and pierced people has linked them to low self-esteem and an increased need for uniqueness. Trauma survivors may turn to body modification as a way to overcome past experiences. Despite this, there is a lack of research regarding body modification and child abuse, which this study seeks to address.

Researcher Mareike Ernst and her colleagues used a sample of German participants aged 14 to 44. The sample included data from 2,510 households. Questionnaires were distributed and socio-demographic information was collected by a face-to-face interviewer. Participants answered questions about tattoos and piercings, as well as a measure of childhood trauma. A total of 1,060 participants were included in the data used, with the average age being around 30 and most participants falling into the lowest income bracket.

The results showed that around 40% of participants had at least one tattoo or piercing and around 25% of participants reported significant cases of child abuse or neglect. Among participants reporting child abuse, 48% had a tattoo or piercing, while only 35% of those not reporting child abuse had a tattoo or piercing. Different types and severities of abuse showed relationships with tattoos and piercings, with more severe abuse or neglect being associated with more tattoos and piercings. Strong relationships are somewhat surprising due to the growing popularity of tattoos and piercings among young people.

“The present study adds to previous research by confirming positive and similar associations of tattoos and piercings with childhood abuse and neglect in a representative sample of the population. These relationships did not involve only physical and sexual abuse, but also early experiences of neglect and emotional forms of trauma. These were still observed in statistical models that controlled for the effects of potential socio-demographic confounders such as gender and age,” concluded the researchers.

“Thus, for a significant number of individuals who acquire body modifications, they could present a means of coping with prior adversity and be an expression of self-reliance. These results open up new avenues for offering support (involving tattoo artists and piercers) and screening (for example, in general medicine). Tattoos and piercings could also spark therapeutic conversations about the meaning of past experiences and currently important themes.

But the study has an important limitation. Causal conclusions cannot be drawn from a cross-sectional study.

The study, “The Association of Childhood Abuse and Neglect with Tattooing and Body Piercing in the Population: Evidence from a Representative Community Survey,” was authored by Mareike Ernst, Ada Borkenhagen, Jörg M. Fegert, Elmar Brähler and Paul L. Plener.

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