by Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC and Michael J. Salamon, PhD
One would have to be blind not to notice the number of young adults getting tattoos these days. Besides the fact that it’s “trendy”, many feels that having ink on their skin is a way to define who they are as a person. This trend is occurring even among people from very religious backgrounds.
In a recent case involving a 14 year old boy, who’s father was livid because he had professionally tattooed a dove etched in blue and white on his thigh. The father was understandably upset with the son and wanted to ground him for life but he was also threatening to sue the tattoo artist for working without adult permission. The son said he knew exactly what he was doing. “I am telling my father in a very rebellious way that I want peace in the house. I am so tired of his anger and shouting.”
One can see our youth with tattoo’s in every day life. At a kosher butcher a teenage girl was in line when she pushed her hair back off her neck. There at the bottom of her hair line was a small Mogen David (star of david) permanently etched in blue into her skin. Who knows what motivated her to tattoo herself with that symbol at that place but a reasonable guess is that she was proud of her heritage but did not want many people to see the “art”; after all tattoos are not allowed by religion.
Self-mutilation is often one of the many symptoms displayed by an individual who has serious psychological issues that have never been dealt with; usually associated with having been physically or sexually abused. Self-mutilation often refers to cutting, burning or hitting oneself until there are severe bruises and or bleeding.
Those who practice this form of self torture often talk about feeling numb or in such severe emotional pain that they feel on a regular basis and that the injuries they cause to themselves relieves some of the emotional distress that they feel. Because getting a tattoo is done only once in one location and not repetitively, it is not often classified as being a form of self-mutilation. But in our clinical experience, they often should be seen as a possible indicator of a client having a history of child abuse and or neglect, particularly among religious individuals. There is a dearth of research on the topic but a recent study of 236 college students in a Catholic liberal arts school found that there was a correlation between sexual activity, tattoos and body piercing but no correlation between body modifications and religious beliefs or practice. One possible explanation is that those who tattooed themselves were rebelling against their childhood lifestyles.
Over the years we’ve seen a trend that many of those who were abused emotionally, physically and sexually from Torah observant households, seem to move away from the traditional orthodox lifestyle and become secular — while many of those from secular backgrounds making the shift away from what they grew up with and start on the journey of becoming more observant. Both groups of survivors have one thing in common. They are searching for a deeper meaning, reason and or purpose to why they were targeted to be victimized.
In the orthodox world a woman who would not be caught dead in short sleeves in public, let alone a bathing suit. Yet one survivor disclosed that she had the words “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” (holy, holy, holy) tattooed in Hebrew on her back. With time she admitted that it was her way of labeling herself as a reminder to both herself and the world that she was holy and no one can abuse her anymore. She had been sexually abused by an older brother from the ages of 11 to 15. It wasn’t until she was in in her thirties that she had the tattoo done.
Over the years of working with Jewish survivors of childhood abuse, we have encountered all sort of ethical dilemma’s, yet recently there’s been a trend that can have all sorts of halachic (Jewish legal) implications to twenty to thirty-something year olds who get tattoo’s as they go through their lives.
What is unusual about this population is that the trend is to have various bracha’s (prayers) that have a personal meaning to them, tattooed on their arms, backs, legs and or chest. But the reality is that often these sorts of tattoos can also be seen as a cry for help, it’s not unlike any other form of self-mutilation.
One example is a teen who had the following Torah verses inked into her skin: “Hear oh Israel the L-rd is G-d the L-rd is one”, “Hashem shall bless you and watch over you. Hashem shall shine the light of His/her face upon you and make you favorable. Hashem shall raise his face towards you and make peace for you.”
There are places in the Torah where it says to “write these words on your heart”, but it is taken figuratively.
One of the dilemma’s survivors who are orthodox or are becoming observant face with these sorts of tattoos is the fact that according to Jewish law, the words on their bodies are not allowed in a bathroom, nor be in view of a naked body. One halachic advisor has told survivors to cover those areas of their bodies when going to the bathroom or taking a shower. Yet there’s times in which this is impossible to do, depending on where the tattoos are.
Growing up Jewish and being sexually abused as a child — especially in the frum world (ultra orthodox) can be extremely difficult, especially if no one believed the survivor or got them the necessary help from a qualified mental health provider who has the appropriate training and experience to work with those who have been sexually violated.
All too often when children who are sexually assaulted nothing is done. One of the major reasons is they feel so much shame they either don’t tell anyone or it takes years, and then all too often they are not believed. Most of these survivors have no ideas how to deal with or process the thoughts and emotions that go along with being sexually victimized. When a survivor lacks words or are disbelieved the emotional pain becomes intensified. All too often this group of survivors turn to drugs, food and self injury as a coping mechanism to anesthetize the pain. Especially one of the major “things” that caused them pain — their bodies.