Self-Harm and... Tattoos?

My colleague Tiffany McLain is the resident advice columnist for the SF Weekly, and in her recent column addressed a mother's concern over her daughter's tattoos. The daughter had a history of cutting, and though in recovery from self-harm, was now beginning to get tattoos.

The mother wondered to Tiffany, "Should I be worried?"

Tiffany asked me for my perspective on tattoos as self-harm, and I wrote,

a photograph of one of my tattoos, by Molly Decoudreaux Photography

Tattoos can be a way of reclaiming one’s agency and body, for those who have felt helpless or powerless. They can also be a way of allowing unconscious images to be seen, memorializing a person or event that’s important to you, or representing something symbolically that may not be easy to put directly into words. The skin is the largest organ in our body, and is the first point of contact with the outside world. To mark it with something that is meaningful is a powerful way of taking up space and being recognized in a world that often seeks to devalue difference.
— Molly Merson, MFT

While I don't know this daughter's full story, or what she herself would make of her tattoos, I can say that tattoos can have so many meanings, and those meanings can shift over time. Tattoos can be a remarkable way of making peace with a body that has long felt to be at war.

I met a woman recently with a tattoo of a semicolon, to represent healing from suicide and self injury. The semicolon reminds her that her pain is not an ending; it is a pause in a longer sentence that she will continue to write.

If you're interested in learning more about tattoos and women, I recommend the beautiful book, "Bodies of Subversion," because of its gorgeous photographs, historical details, and feminist lens.

If you are feeling suicidal or having thoughts of harming yourself, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255. I cannot provide advice or help in a crisis unless you are a current patient of mine, so please reach out to someone you trust or go to your nearest emergency room or crisis center. Also, please read this first.