Tattoos and piercings are more common among those who experienced childhood abuse and neglect

Tattoos and piercings have skyrocketed in popularity over the last 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 have cultural or personal significance. Old-fashioned norms thought of visible tattoos or piercings as unprofessional, but society has been moving away from that view in recent years and nowadays it is very common for people to have these body modifications.

Many people partake in them to express their personality or aesthetic. Previous research on tattooed and pierced individuals has linked them to having lower self-esteem and a higher 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 utilized a sample of German participants who were 14 years old to 44 years old. The sample included data from 2,510 households. Questionnaires were handed out and socio-demographic information was gathered by an interviewer face-to-face. Participants answered questions about tattoos and piercings, as well as completing a measure on childhood trauma. A total of 1,060 participants were included in the data utilized, with the average age being around 30 and most participants falling into the lowest income bracket.

Results showed that around 40% of participants had at least one tattoo or piercing and approximately 25% of participants reported significant child abuse or neglect. Among the participants reporting child abuse, 48% had a tattoo or piercing, while only 35% of people not reporting child abuse had a tattoo or piercing. Different types and severity of abuse showed relationships with both tattoos and piercings, with more severe abuse or neglect being associated with more tattoos and more piercings. The 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 within a representative population sample. These relations did not just pertain to physical and sexual abuse, but also to early experiences of neglect and emotional forms of trauma. They were still observed in statistical models that controlled effects of potential socio-demographic confounders such as gender and age,” the researchers concluded.

“Hence, for a substantial number of individuals who acquire body modifications, they could present a means of coping with previous adversity and be an expression of autonomy. These findings open up new avenues for support offers (involving tattoo artists and piercers) and screening (e.g., in primary care). Tattoos and piercings could also provide an impetus for therapeutic conversations about the significance of past experiences and about currently important themes.”

But the study has an important limitation. One cannot draw causal conclusions from a cross-sectional study.

The study, “The association of childhood abuse and neglect with tattoos and piercings 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.