For college students anxious to rebel against their parents’ fashion sensibilities, getting a tattoo or piercing may be the modern-day equivalent of the 1960s-era fascination with long hair and love beads.
As with the hippie look, body art has caught on with both genders. But the motivations fueling a trip to the tattoo and piercing parlor can vary dramatically between men and women, and between individuals. Youngsters may sport tribal tats or facial piercings because they’re thrill-seekers, says a University of Florida researcher. Others might want to work through a traumatic life experience or just find romantic partners.
UF researchers co-authored a study published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that examined gender differences and personality traits among college students who had at least one tattoo or non-traditional piercing, defined as located anywhere other than the earlobe. Popular piercing sites include the eyebrows, nose, lips, tongue, chin, nipples, navel and genitals.
“Fifty years ago, generally Americans did not have tattoos or any alternative body modification,” said Eric Storch, a UF assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and a study co-author. “Times have really quite quickly changed.”
A 1999 study by researchers from Emory University and Howard University published in the Journal of Public Health Policy indicated that 15 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. teen and young adult population had tattoos, and that a typical piercing establishment would perform about 3,000 piercings per year.
The new UF study, based on a written survey of about 280 UF undergraduates, showed that those with multiple piercings were much more likely to have experienced stressful life events such as severe injury or illness, abuse or the death of a loved one, Storch said. In the study, he collaborated with principal investigator Jonathan Roberti, a psychologist and clinical researcher at the University of South Florida and the New College of Florida, and former UF research assistant Erica Bravata.
In addition, men in the study were more likely than their female counterparts to seek out new and intense experiences, Storch said. And despite the common perception that people with body art are free spirits, the results suggest at least one gender stereotype -- that tattoos are strictly for men -- may still wield influence.
More than 80 percent of the 160 women surveyed were pierced but less than 20 percent were tattooed, Storch said. In contrast, half the men in the study had piercings and half had tattoos. Men also waited longer to get pierced -- 40 percent took the plunge at age 18 or older, compared with less than 20 percent of women.
“My initial interpretation is that this very much reflects societal points of view,” Storch said. “That is, it is very acceptable for a woman to have piercings in multiple places and a bit less so for men.”
One aspect of piercing where gender seemed irrelevant was that both men and women with multiple piercings reported greater incidence of stressful life experiences, Storch said. Piercings might help some people work through past trauma by giving them a permanent reminder of a difficult event in their lives, he said.
“We were slightly surprised that it (a stressful experience) was not predictive of the number of tattoos people get,” Storch said. Because tattoos can communicate more visual information than piercings, the researchers expected to find a correlation between multiple tattoos and stressful experiences, he said.
College students with an interest in body art don’t necessarily have more psychological impairment than their classmates, but the study results regarding multiple piercings shouldn’t be ignored, Roberti said.
“One of my goals for engaging in this research was to heighten awareness on college campuses of potential problems that could be associated with body art,” he said. “Our findings could assist college counselors, faculty and other health-care professionals in developing proactive outreach programming for students.”
But for many students, a tattoo or piercing is simply a way to show off their wild side.
The UF study found men had higher scores than women on parts of the survey measuring their sensation-seeking tendencies, Storch said. Sensation seeking, the drive to have new, unique and intense life experiences, is associated with participation in activities ranging from extreme sports to illicit drug use to dangerous driving.
Historically, men have been greater sensation seekers and that hasn’t changed in recent times, said Marvin Zuckerman, a professor emeritus of clinical psychology with the University of Delaware and a renowned authority on sensation seeking. But since the 1970s women have been less inhibited, particularly about sexual matters, he said.
Sexual attraction and its traditional counterpart, long-term commitment, may be keys to the popularity of body modification, Zuckerman said. Most personality traits have little predictive value in determining which men will marry which women, but when it comes to sensation seeking, “like attracts like.”
“People use various ways of signaling in their search for attachments,” Zuckerman said. “Tattooing and piercing are ways of identifying one’s self to others. So that it’s a way to, you might say, save time in the mating game, that you want someone like you in the sense of being a non-conformist, a little outrageous and willing to take risks for the sake of exciting experiences -- that’s part of the definition of sensation seeking.”
But today’s outrageous trend may be tomorrow’s routine grooming option, Storch said. He cites the recent history of longer hairstyles among U.S. men as an example -- in 1964 the Beatles’ “mop-top” coifs shocked television viewers; five years later shoulder-length hair was a political statement for those opposed to the Vietnam War. By the 1980s, flowing manes were worn by so many men for so many reasons they no longer meant anything in particular.
“I think what we’re seeing is kind of a recycling of that rebellion, just in a different form,” Storch said. “Regardless of the meaning behind it, body modification is a way to express your individuality, to explore and to experiment with really being an adult for the first time.”