TUESDAY, July 22, 2008 — Jen Graham, 28, of Brooklyn, N.Y., has gone through three sessions so far to remove a band of stars she impulsively had tattooed around her ankle at age 19. A tattooed ex-boyfriend gave her one “homemade” star with a safety pin and ballpoint-pen ink, and she had the design touched up and completed at a tattoo parlor soon after.
“I didn’t immediately regret it, but certainly within a year,” she says. “I’d thought about getting it removed for a long time and then finally made an appointment when I got a much more professional job at a publishing company and moved to New York. Plus my aesthetics had changed; I think tattoos look trashy now.”
Getting a tattoo is historically a male-dominated activity—but in a society where celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Rihanna flaunt their latest inked designs, tattooing has become popular among females as well. However, women may still face more societal stigma than men about their tattoos, and are more likely to have them removed because of embarrassment, body image, or career concerns, according to a new study.
More social stigma for women
Women represent at least half of the 45 million Americans with tattoos today, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). About one-fourth of adults age 18 to 30 have a tattoo, and 20% are estimated to be dissatisfied with their body art. Only about 6%, however, seek removal—a costly, painful, and time-consuming procedure that involves laser treatments, surgery, or chemical skin treatments.
In the recent study published in Archives of Dermatology, researchers from Texas Tech University surveyed a sample of 196 patients visiting dermatology clinics for tattoo removal. In contrast to a 1996 survey, study participants were more than twice as likely to be women (69% vs. 31% men), and were typically white, single, college-educated, and between the ages of 24 and 39. Previously, more men had requested tattoo removal.
Both men and women said they wanted to get their tattoos removed to leave their pasts behind them, and because they:
- Just decided to remove it (58%)
- Suffered embarrassment (57%)
- Had a lowered body image (38%)
- Were getting a new job or career (38%)
- Had problems with clothes (37%)
- Experienced stigma (25%)
- Were marking an occasion, such as a birthday, marriage, or newly found independence (21%)
While most women were pleased with their tattoos when they got them, their feelings changed over the next one to five years. “While men also reported some of these same tattoo problems leading to removal, there seemed to be more societal fallout for women,” the authors wrote.
Specifically, their tattoos had begun to cause embarrassment and no longer provided a feeling of uniqueness. More women than men said they were removing their tattoos because they often had to hide them (73% vs. 36%); they experienced stigma problems because of them (27% vs. 9%); and the tattoos elicited negative comments in public, the workplace, and/or in school (31% vs. 5%).
The decision to remove
Graham first visited a hair-removal clinic where a woman used a painful laser without an anesthetic. Since then, she’s had two treatments at a doctor’s office—much better, she says, because they numbed her first—for $400 each plus a $300 consulting fee. “Sadly, it’s not much lighter yet,” she says. “The edges are blurrier, though; right now it just looks like I have a bad tattoo.”
Though the removal process is expensive, Graham considers it a career investment. She’s waiting until the fall to have any more procedures—”It looks terrible right afterward; you get these huge blisters that stick around for over a week, and I’d rather hide it under pants or tights,” she says—and then plans to get one every four to six weeks until she’s satisfied.
When considering a tattoo, women especially should think twice about the location on their bodies, say the Texas Tech researchers. Compared with the earlier survey, more study participants had skin markings in visible locations such as arms and legs, suggesting that they may have felt more comfortable about getting a prominent tattoo at the time, but regretted it later in life.
What to think about
The FDA warns consumers to think of tattoos as permanent because removal doesn’t always work and some colors may never be entirely gone. Those considering getting inked are also urged to consider the following:
- Known health risks of getting a tattoo include infection from dirty needles, allergies to various ink pigments, and unwanted scarring or small bumps called granulomas, which may form around material that the body perceives as foreign.
- Tattoos can hide or obscure signs of skin cancer, French researchers reported in the same issue of Archives of Dermatology. Patients with a history of melanoma should avoid tattoos, and those with a family history of melanoma or atypical moles should choose small designs with light colors, the researchers concluded.
- The FDA has not approved any tattoo inks for injection into the skin, and many pigments used are industrial-strength colors suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.
- Do not buy or order do-it-yourself removal products online. These acid-based products are not FDA-approved and can cause bad skin reactions.
- If you want a tattoo removed, consult your health-care provider (not a spa, clinic, or tattoo parlor, where the procedure is not always FDA-approved); the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery can help you find an experienced and certified doctor.