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.


Anger At The Wrong Size: Fat Shaming, Part III

If anything, fat healthy people should be furious at the great oleaginous masses of fat unhealthy people, because it’s the latter group that turned obesity into a moral issue.  Before, being fat was more likely to be predominantly genetic.  Now it’s a choice born of processed diet and utter disinclination to hit the fucking treadmill.  And the more choice enters the equation, the more morality comes into play.

Take, for instance, the civil rights wars America has grappled with in the last half century.  The most culturally predominant are probably black rights and gay rights.

Look at how choice has factored in to collective moral disdain with each movement.  Blacks have no choice whatsoever in their skin color.


Well, for the most part.

Not only did the moral backlash to allowing blacks civil rights die off within a generation, the ensuing legal standard involved in adjudicating a claim of discrimination based on race is one of strict scrutiny – a compelling governmental interest, narrowly tailored, and the least restrictive means possible to achieve that interest.  In essence, we view it as immoral now to determine a man’s legal status based on an immutable characteristic – and have codified that belief into our highest levels of jurisprudence.1

Whether gays have the choice to be gay, on the other hand, is a divisive issue that splits the camps.  One side believes homosexuality is not a morally tinged act, and supports full integration of gay rights.  The other believes it is, casts moral opprobrium on gays, and would like to see them disappear.  This schizophrenic approach to the morality of the underlying issue has been reflected in Constitutional cases, with gay issues moving from rational basis review during the 1980s and 90s cases like Bowers and Romer to an odd unstated ethereal ground with hints of strict and intermediate scrutiny underpinnings in latter-day landmarks like Lawrence and the recent DOMA/Prop 8 decisions.

Coming back full circle to fats – the more militant of whom are actively trying to elevate fat acceptance to a civil rights issue – the underlying mutability of weight and body composition gains them no foothold in the moral battleground of the American consciousness.  If anything, we should predict “obesity discrimination” to be looked at with a jaundiced, rational basis eye, reflecting obesity’s continued place as a moral failing.  This effect should increase as America gets fatter – the more fat citizens are out there, the more must be Poor Lifestyle Fats rather than Genetic Fats.  The problem the latter faces is the impossibility of the casual observer to tell them apart from the former.  In short, a generation ago, healthy but genetically fat people were just considered physically unattractive; now they’re both physically unattractive and personally bereft on a moral level, which is why it’s called fat shaming: the shame aspect to it indicates the deep affront to the basic sense of personhood.

But how now, you shameful HAESsies?  Your shame wasn’t born of thin privilege, but from the empty carbohydrate and video-screened pores of the modern Lax Americana.  Want to kill it from the public discourse?  Go, West, to the gym.

1.  OK, so I didn’t really logically link moral acceptance, or the lack thereof, with judicial review standards.  Let’s take it on assumption for now that the standards – or, really, Constitutional law as a whole – reflect an anecdotal moral conscience of the nation.