Tattoos May Be a Coping Mechanism for Some College-Age Women

Texas Tech sociology professor Jerome Koch says body art may be a way of dissociating with one’s past.


Texas Tech University sociology professor Jerome Koch has been studying body art – both tattoos and piercings – for years. And in that time, his research has turned up some pretty unexpected results.

According to his new study, some interesting emotional correlations emerge among college-age respondents with four or more tattoos. Women with multiple tattoos report higher levels of self-esteem than anyone else in the study. Moreover, escalating acquisition of body art does not correlate with increased depression or suicide ideation among men or women. However, the same multi-tattooed women also report a much higher frequency of past suicide attempts.

So how does Koch explain this paradox?

“I think women, especially, are more aware of their bodies through, among other things, fat shaming, the cosmetics and plastic surgery industry and hyper-sexualized imagery in media,” Koch said. “What we may be seeing is women translating that awareness into empowerment. We know women sometimes replace a surgically removed breast, for example, with elegant body art. We wonder if more tattoos might be a way of reclaiming a sense of self in the wake of an emotional loss – evidenced by a suicide attempt.”


Jerome Koch

The study, titled “Tattoos, gender and well-being among American college students,” will be published in The Social Science Journal in 2016. It is the companion piece to Koch’s 2010 study, “Body art, deviance and American college students,” which found respondents with four or more tattoos, seven or more body piercings or piercings in the nipples or genitals were significantly more likely to report regular marijuana use, occasional use of other illegal drugs and a history of being arrested for a crime.

“This latest piece takes the same question inside out,” Koch said. “Instead of talking about deviance, it’s about wellness. We wanted to find out, to what extent does the acquisition of body art correlate to a sense of well-being or a greater sense of self? It’s pretty paradoxical.”

In a 2008 study, “Motivation for Contemporary Tattoo Removal,” Koch’s team found women were more than twice as likely as men to want tattoos removed, most often as a way of dissociating from the past. But this new study appears to show the addition of a tattoo can serve the same purpose as a removal.

“That’s what we think is going on,” Koch said. “Women with four or more tattoos were the group that showed us the only two interesting connections: they had a much higher suicide attempt history, and paradoxically, it was this same group – and the only group – that showed an increased level of self-esteem. Our interpretation is maybe it’s a parallel, emotionally, of what we see with breast cancer survivors. We can only speculate what these findings might mean, and more research needs to be done. But I think the logic holds when linking suicide survivors and breast cancer survivors who might use tattoos when reclaiming an emotional or physical loss.”

College of
Arts & Sciences

The Texas Tech University College of Arts & Sciences was founded in 1925 as one of the university’s four original colleges.

Comprised of 15 departments, the College offers a wide variety of courses and programs in the humanities, social and behavioral sciences, mathematics and natural sciences. Students can choose from 41 bachelor’s degree programs, 34 master’s degrees and 14 doctoral programs.

With just under 11,000 students enrolled, the College of Arts & Sciences is the largest college on the Texas Tech University campus.

In fall 2016, the college embarked upon its first capital campaign, Unmasking Innovation: The Campaign for Arts & Sciences. It focuses on five critical areas of need: attracting and retaining top faculty, enhancing infrastructure, recruiting high-potential students, undergraduate research and growing the Dean’s Fund for Excellence.


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