Friday, October 21, 2011

Mattel, Inkorporated

Parents are up in arms over the latest "Gold Label Collector" Barbie, who sports permanent tattoos and leopard-skin leggings, a la Peg Bundy:

She finally did it.  Barbie has out-skanked the Bratz dolls. 

Barbie has dabbled in body art before, but the tattoos packaged with the 2009 Totally Stylin' model were just temporary heart and rainbow designs.  Tattoos are becoming increasingly mainstream, with about 13% of adolescents getting inked.  It's a perennial rite of passage for teens to adopt outrageous trends just to piss off their parents.  The obvious difference, though, between a tattoo and midriff-baring tops is that one is permanent and the other isn't. (Except in cyberspace.  Aren't you glad the Internet didn't exist back when you had a mullet?)  Sure, your kid could have a tattoo removal in the future, but it's expensive and not always successful. The health risks of tattoos, particularly hepatitis B and C, are generally well known.  Some parents, though, feel that if they let their teenager go to a reputable parlor (an oxymoron, if there ever was one), what harm could there be?

Plenty, it turns out.  Several studies have shown a strong correlation between adolescent tattoos and high-risk behaviors.  The largest was a survey of over 6,000 adolescents.  At baseline, tattooed kids were more likely to live in a single-parent household with lower levels of parental education and income.  After controlling for these risk factors, tattooed kids still had higher levels of substance use, violent behavior, early sexual involvement and school truancy and failure.  Another survey found not only higher rates of drug use, violence and sexual activity in tattooed adolescents but also increased risks of disordered eating and suicidal behavior.

Wait a minute, you say, having a tattoo is simply associated with these high-risk behaviors -- surely getting a tattoo doesn't cause them.  That may be true, but there are multiple studies showing that having a visible tattoo affects others' perceptions in a negative way.  In one study, 286 people were asked to describe the personality characteristics of virtual avatars who were identical, except for the presence or absence of tattoos.  Tattooed avatars, especially the female ones, were described as having significantly more sexual partners.  Another study asked college students, a third of whom had tattoos, to describe the personality characteristics of a photographed female model with a large dragon tattoo, compared to the same model with the tattoo Photoshopped out.  The students described the tattooed model as being less intelligent, caring, attractive, fashionable and athletic.  (On the flip side, she was deemed to be "more creative.")  Interestingly, the results were much less impressive when the experiment was repeated with a model who had a small dolphin tattoo.

I've never wanted a tattoo, even as a teenager.  But when I was a college freshman, I had my ears double-pierced.  My conservative, first-generation immigrant parents made me remove the posts so the holes would close up, since "only bad girls" would mutilate their ears like that.  When I tearfully tried to explain that the piercing would in no way make me misbehave, they said, "No, but everyone will think you're a bad girl, and you'll attract only the bad boys" -- precisely the same argument I'm now making about tattoos.  Double earlobe piercings are so mainstream now, even passe, that I don't think their argument holds water any more.  Maybe the same will be true of tattoos in the next 20 years.  But you can rest assured that my kids won't be getting inked as long as they're under my roof.

Unless they want to write "Mother."


  1. It's interesting to read that research bears out the "common knowledge" that tattoos send a message, not necessarily the message the bearer intends.

  2. I know we're the exception, but all myself and my two siblings all have a tattoo (variations on a theme of the same tattoo, in fact, our family crest). The youngest of us was 16 when he got it, and my parents took him to the parlor to get it done. We're all upper middle ( lower upper?) class, no behavioral problems, nada. College educations and stable employment abound.

    In our case (or at least in the case of my brother) our parents required that he think long and hard about it, and that he be able to explain the significance of his tattoo extensively. I mean,'s not like he was having a pin up girl tattooed to his back. It WAS our beloved family crest, after all. But I'm sure they wouldn't have agreed had he had a lame reason like "Because it's cool." All three of our reasons were based in wanting to feel connected to each other and to our family. We love our matching tattoos. Are there less permanent ways to do that? Of course. Was my conservative grandmother aghast? Definitely. Do we regret it (almost 6 years, a marriage and the birth of a child later)? Not a one of us. Not even my parents.

    Anyway, just wanted to share our (somewhat unusual) story!