Tattoos are a divisive body modification. Unlike piercings, hairstyles and clothing, all of which can be fairly readily changed, tattoos are a mostly permanent addition to your body, yet just as subject to trends as any other item you wear.
While in some circles it is almost expected that you have a tattoo – think gang members and musicians – there are other arenas – corporate law and medicine – where tattoos are still considered relatively taboo. It’s likely that if you do have one, it’s strategically hidden under a pant leg or inside a shirt.
While attitudes to tattoos are changing, becoming more accepted in some areas and more despised in others, psychological research has sought to understand the perceptions we have of tattooed people.
Negative perceptions of tattoos contend with the concept of tattoo as positive self-expression, and so understanding how tattoos are viewed can help to understand where these negative stereotypes come from and how we can change them.
Almost without evidence to the contrary, women with tattoos are perceived more negatively than men with tattoos. This is likely because tattoos have traditionally been perceived as a masculine pursuit, and have at various points throughout history, been associated with groups such as gangs, sailors and outlaws.
Ironically, women now have more tattoos than men. This doesn’t mean that all women with tattoos are perceived in a negative light, just that they are judged more harshly than men are for the same activity, mirroring other behaviours where women are judged more negatively than men for engaging in ‘masculine’ behaviour.
Interestingly, women also perceive themselves as less attractive with a tattoo than without. This is likely due to internalising societal expectations about what is considered ‘attractive’.
This also doesn’t mean men get off scot-free.
In a recent study, researchers at Federation University sought to determine how men and women view men who have tattoos. This was building on a study conducted in 2016 which argued that men’s tattoos serve as a signal of a man’s immunological competence, and thus men with tattoos should be perceived as more attractive, more masculine – and more healthy – than men without tattoos.
As researchers, we wanted to expand on this to determine whether our judgements of men with tattoos also depends on the way we view ourselves. What we found was that men with tattoos were perceived as having lower ability to be a father, and lower ability to be a partner, although women did perceive men with a medium-sized tattoo as being more masculine.
The research then looked at how women’s ratings of their own attractiveness impacted their perceptions of men with tattoos. The results showed that women who rated themselves as attractive were pickier, rating men with larger tattoos as less attractive, whereas women who rated themselves as less attractive were unconcerned with tattoos.
Similarly, women who rated themselves as attractive thought men with tattoos would be less capable as fathers, while women who rated themselves as lower in attractiveness were unconcerned.
So what does this tell us? While tattoos are becoming more popular, they still carry a lot of stigma, and people appear to judge others differently if they have a tattoo. However, this appears to depend on whether you, yourself, think you are attractive. As tattoos become more mainstream, these effects will likely diminish.
Dr Danielle Wagstaff is a Psychology Lecturer in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport