A new study suggests the ritual of body art may serve as emotional therapy for young women who have experienced intense emotional pain. Sociologists at Texas Tech University discovered female college students with multiple tattoos were more likely to have attempted suicide, yet, interestingly, these very same women also reported significantly higher levels of self-esteem. Male students with four or more tattoos were also more likely to have attempted suicide, the researchers say.

Brief History of Ink

Tattooing, according to Smithsonian Magazine, dates back thousands of years, easily. Though for many years scientists identified the earliest examples as those found on Egyptian female mummies, circa 2000 B.C., yet the 1991 discovery of a 5,200-year-old "Iceman," found near the Italian-Austrian border, also revealed tattoo patterns. In both cases, the distribution of the tattoo marks suggest they may have been applied to alleviate pain (in the woman, birth pains) and therefore were essentially therapeutic, specialists told Smithsonian. Similarly, native groups, including pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile, as well as the Inuits, used tattoos both therapeutically and for adornment.

Greeks also used ink, but in their case they primarily used designs to mark their slaves and criminals and the Romans, following in the same tradition, distinguished these separate populations from the ordinary citizenry by way of “stigmata.” A similar practice occurred in both China and Japan, according to Smithsonian. However, the earliest Japanese markings appeared since before the Iron Age, according to The Wall Street Journal, while wabori, the popular complex block print designs, can be traced to the Edo period (1603-1867). Though originally prestigious and worn by merchants and artisans, wabori and other ink markings fell into disrepute once Japan opened itself to international trade (around 1850), according to The Japan Times.

The word itself comes from the Polynesian term, “tatatau” or “tattau” (meaning to hit or strike). Overheard by James Cook’s British expedition to Tahiti in 1769, the skin markings soon became fashionable among European sailors and eventually coal miners and others, reports Smithsonian. In the United States, ink was similarly relegated to certain categories of working men yet also represented the counter culture. In the 1960s and earlier, only men and the rare woman who identified as hardcore rebels would sport tattoos. Today, tattoos no longer carry the same charge and pretty much everyone — from actresses to accountants, from shift workers to corporate managers, from sailors to stay-at-home moms — wears some ink, the only difference being in how prominently it is displayed.

Current Study

For the current study, a team of researchers wanted to understand how body art might correlate to a sense of self and also a sense of well-being. Led by Dr. Jerome Koch, a professor of sociology, the team surveyed 2,395 college students at six public American Universities: 82 percent of the respondents were between the ages of 18 and 20, 67 percent were white, and 59 percent were female. Along with ink, the researchers measured levels of depression, number of suicide attempts, and self-esteem.

Analyzing the gathered data, Koch and his colleagues came to some surprising results.

“We report consistently lower measures of well-being among women as compared to men,” wrote the researchers. “Among these public university students, the cohort of largely freshman and sophomore women have lower levels of self-esteem, higher levels of depression and suicide ideation, and are more likely to report a history of suicide attempts.”

Women with four or more tattoos reported a four-fold increase in previous suicide attempts when compared to female students with none, the team found after digging deeper into the data.

“Paradoxically, results also indicate a statistically significant elevation in self-esteem within that same group,” wrote the researchers, who said this group of women reported “substantively” higher levels of self-esteem than their female peers.

Male students with four or more tattoos were also more likely to have attempted suicide, in their case at three times the rate of men with no ink. It is important to remember men, generally, are more likely to die of suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2013, for instance, 77.9 percent of those who died by suicide were male and 22.1 percent female.

Following an attempt at self-destruction, the researchers of the current study speculate, body art may be a way of reclaiming a sense of self.

“Just as breast cancer survivors and abuse victims acquire tattoos and piercings to restore physical losses, we think the women in our study may be trying to restore emotional losses with more tattoos,” concluded the researchers.

Source: Koch JR, Roberts AE, Armstrong ML, Owen DC. Tattoos, gender, and well-being among American college students. The Social Science Journal. 2015.