Covering The Shame: Tattoos Are Narcissism, But Not Only For The Reason You Think

Proclaiming tattoos to be inherently narcissistic is hardly insightful; after all, tattoos are visually disruptive, and, like most things that are visually disruptive, catch the eye and attract attention to themselves. By undergoing the inking, the tattooed gains attention, positive currency in the human system of self-worth, for an external modification that makes her stand out from the rest of the pack.

That attention, however, is only half the puzzle. As any great artist will tell you, the negative space in a piece is as important as the feature. To belabor the metaphor, what the eye is asked to miss is just as crucial as what the eye is asked to see.

Consider what tattoos are in message form – and remember, if you can see them, they are for you. A tattoo is the literal act of covering the wearer with an image she prefers to her own natural state – in essence, hiding true aspects of herself underneath a chosen, solely external design.

The emotional logic follows this path:

P: I am not beautiful enough or worthwhile as I am; if people, including myself, get a glimpse of me laid bare, they’ll abandon me.
SC: I need to hide myself.
SC: I need to portray something beautiful to attract attention.1
MC: A tattoo solves both problems.

Lena Dunham tats

There’s a brutally honest, and I assume autobiographical, scene in the first season of Girls that demonstrates this dyadic process perfectly: Lena Dunham is explaining to that weird dude willing to plow her how she got tattooed specifically because she gained a lot of weight very fast, and felt like it was the only way to “regain control” over her body. The shame Lena felt at her sudden weight gain led her to distract attention from it by simultaneously hiding portions of her body beneath ink and providing a visual catch away from her belly fat.

Both the hiding and distracting mechanisms suggest narcissistic personality traits, not just the latter. The narcissist’s greatest fear is being exposed as a fraud and abandoned. In order to avoid this untenable outcome, narcissists hide themselves, especially aspects they consider negative, out of a deep-seated sense of internalized shame. Narcissists do not fundamentally accept that people will forgive them their flaws without withdrawing love, and often cannot forgive their own perceived flaws.

Hiding and painting over the flaws is easier than fixing the underlying sense of self-worth, but it’s a short-term strategy; just as tattoos look like shit on aging skin, the narcissist’s compensation strategies fade and wither in the face of deeper issues.

Update: Here’s a first-hand account of a fat feminist discussing how she deliberately hid a part of her body she felt ashamed of with a tattoo in order to cultivate a specific “acceptable” image. It doesn’t get much clearer than this.

[1] Here, we finally see one advantage of tattooing over cutting. Cutting scars hide the unmodified self, but typically receive only negative attention.


7 Comments on “Covering The Shame: Tattoos Are Narcissism, But Not Only For The Reason You Think”

  1. […] Both the hiding and distracting mechanisms suggest narcissistic personality traits, not just the lat… […]

  2. […] Covering The Shame: Tattoos Are Narcissism, But Not Only For The Reason You Think ( […]

  3. brookingstyler says:

    well put. One can throw a rose or curvy mermaid on the superficia, but seeing something like this sign in front of a junk yard doesn’t fool anyone.

  4. Josh says:

    I have to agree, while this obviously isnt always the case, many if not all of the people I know who are heavily tattooed are extremely narcissistic or visibly insecure. I hope this does actually make them feel better.

  5. Everyone I know with tattoos is narcissistic, insecure and pretty much a douchebag.
    Tattoos are NOT cool, they at NOT unique and they look BEYOND STUPID on ‘old’ people.
    Yeah, one day you will be 50 and EVERY TATTOO looks STUPID on a 50 year old.

  6. Delta says:

    A very good article. I learned something about narcissism too. But I find there to be a huge double standard at play.

    Those covered in tattoos often assert that they are simply expressing themselves and their aesthetic. Should anyone not share a love for their aesthetic they are shouted down as tattoo haters and bullies.

    It’s a kind of subtle cultural bullying – ‘look at me, but don’t criticise me.’

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