Sunday, June 29, 2014

The psychology behind the phenomenal rise in adorning oneself with tattoos in recent years

While approaching a young patient of mine who was sitting in the waiting area, I was struck by the extensive tattoos on his arms. One could barely see the skin for the lacework of  tattoos. The charm of the white skin was well hidden by the criss-crossing dark designs. 
Now this patient who suffers from obsessive compulsive neurosis avoids facing the world and uses his OCD rituals to accomplish that end. The compulsive senseless  movements of his arms and body not only divide his attention and detract him from noticing others in any depth,  others too are distracted from noticing him, the focus transfixed upon his motor restlessness instead of his total self.
His obsessive rituals made me wonder if the modern world en masse has now not been granted a socially sanctioned obsession that serves us the same purpose as his individualized private OCD - fiddling with Smartphones in public. Being tuned into Whats Up and Facebook enables us to avoid any deep emotional interactions with people we are in company of. Is modern world's tuning out of actual physical interaction with each other in favor of cyber interaction is a new world religion? A new mass obsessional neurosis?
Coming back to the patient.
As if these obsessive motor activities of his hands, fingers, legs and trunk are not enough, every now and then he cracks his knees, neck or finger joints. These cracking of joints, which are compulsive in nature, also give the impression of being another attempt to avoid social give and take which is what life is all about.
And the violence with which he cracks these joints, gives a distinct impression that the rituals are some kind of symbolic punishment meted out to his legs, neck and fingers - [for attempting to get out of bounds?] It appears as if since his whole self is under some form of hold (repression) the individual parts of his body want to  reach out and touch others and are being slapped on the wrist for doing so. For after all the raison d'etre for OCD lies in preventing one from sexually [and aggressively] touching others. Freud did say once that if the term obsessional neurosis had not been already coined, and so well accepted, he would have named this disorder the touch neurosis. The fear of touching others and getting [sexually] contaminated lies at the very heart of OCD.
And this compulsion to keep running away from others follows this patient in to his sleep. He also suffers from severe Restless Leg Syndrome.
He is undoubtedly a man on the run.
Now one would expect that someone who has such dread of the world will at least groom and dress himself well, put on jewelry and perfume, deck himself with other accessories to make up for his lack of self confidence. But he does nothing of the sort. He puts on sleeveless shirts, torn jeans, dilapidated sneakers and no socks. Majority of his skin remains exposed.
Or does it?
The tattoos block whatever parts of himself escape getting covered by clothes.
If his compulsions and joint cracking are ways to create a wall between him and others, do his tattoos serve the same function?
And at this point one recalls how motorbike club members adorn themselves with tattoos; uninviting, and hostile appearing monstrosities, etchings of skulls and daggers, cobras, scorpions, ghosts, ghouls and goblins, swastika and other wild creepy things.
But anybody, whose body exudes such aggression, at the core of his being must be a frightened soul. And since bikers are usually pussycats in isolation and feel sure footed only when feeding upon each others' swagger, one wonders if their tattoos serve them the same function, give them the bluff to face the world that they are so afraid of?
But this cannot be the whole explanation for why people today are so obsessed with tattoos.
For there is another class of tattoos which are distinctly inviting in nature, and it is not hard to guess which sex favors them. Roses, flowers, creepers, colorful designs, butterflies, ornate hearts, entwining patterns that remind one of lingerie, and other soft and cuddly objects, welcoming and aesthetically pleasing, also appear as tattoos.
So it appears that tattoos are another exaggerated display of our masculinity and femininity, props to enhance the active and passive aspects of our individuality.
But then why aren't we all tattooing ourselves? If it enhances our secondary sexual characteristics then why aren't we all rushing to do so? The great majority of us scoff at the idea.
Here we come across the phenomena of a great divide between those who have it and those who don't.
If the display of one's masculinity and femininity depends upon subtle cues, one's natural good looks and intelligence, one does not have to drum it up by adding on to oneself disparate extraneous objects.
Tattoos are a tacky enhancement of one's persona. No different than the plumes jutting out of the Indian Chief's head gear, the rows of ribbons and medals hanging from army brass's shirt, the shiny  jewellery and super-dyed hair of a homosexual, the endless acronyms of credentials following the name of a college professor. They are the bells and whistles of those who do not feel they are anybody unless they can display their trophies. It is a man who is not sure of his manhood and who has doubt if he can be effective with others through his natural pluck who shows swagger in the gait, gruffness in the voice, hostility in the muscle tone, and the gaudy display of sunglasses,  sport cars, and flashy jewellery. A naturally feminine woman, especially one who has natural good looks, far from using tattoos to enhance her femininity may prefer not to put any make-up on herself.
The expression of masculinity and femininity in more refined individuals is through modulated and untrammeled speech and rich personality. It is half filled vessel that spills its contents. Deep waters run still.
Has there been a decline in the masculinity of men and femininity of women in recent decades?
Is there any doubt about that? As our culture has become more androgynous there has been a surprising decline in sperm count of men and rise of polycystic ovaries in women. In behavior too more and more folks are practicing LGBT  than becoming the model representative of their anatomical sex. Thus when the need arises for us to emphasize ourselves in a heterosexual fashion we are often relying less upon our actual selves and more upon adorning ourselves with extraneous objects that emphasize our original sexual nature.
But there is another great transformation that has occurred in the last few decades. The sexual revolution of the Sixties has fundamentally changed the way people communicate.  All through history human behavior was highly ritualized. There was  a script for everything. It spelled out in magnificent detail what and how to speak with the opposite sex, the children, the elderly,  the postman, the milkman, the car mechanic, the handyman; who to be deferential with and who to boss around.  There were stock phrases, stock motor movements, stock greetings, stock goodbyes, and stock feelings and display of emotions all handed down by the previous generation ready made for for every occasion. Everything was predictable and based upon what we had observed from birth. Even the clothes we wore were predetermined - white collars for those in management, and there too higher the rank the more silky and fancy was the tie. Bow ties were reserved for the eccentric professorial type or those in corporate world who had castration issues. A blue collar worker occasionally wore tie too, but the coarseness or at least its dated design gave away his lower station in life.
All these moorings which allowed us to interact with others without feeling anxious, and often with  grace, granted modeled after somebody from one's past,  have evaporated, or at least greatly eroded, in the last few decades. In the aftermath of the two World Wars the flower children came upon the scene as if to make up for that orgy of violence and fundamentally changed the way we behave with each other. The television, computers and the Internet did the rest. Now every conceivable human behavior was available to model after at the click of a button. Differences in wealth and social privileges ceased to matter as well. No matter how poor, with cyber information available to all, the poor kid has same degree of access to cultural accessories as the rich one.
But there is a  catch when there is abundance of something. One may fail to take possession of any of it. As long as something is rare we value it. If something is available for the asking one may have no interest in permanently acquiring it. If you give a child few toys he will treasure them.  If you give him a whole roomful, he may develop no attachment to any. The idea of possessing the greater quantity of them may become more important than mastering a few. In olden days when finding somebody to marry was not that easy a task, with all financial and cultural hurdles, not to speak the elaborate wedding that one had to go through, one valued the woman one was paired with. For if you lost her, it was not that easy to replace her. But today when women are available to have sex with without any effort and as readily changeable as Kleenex, one often shows no appreciation for any one of them.
Hence we are growing up culturally denuded. While submerged in sea of information we are  growing up culturally thirsty. We know so much but we cannot translate it into words or behaviors. We can tell so little of ourselves to others with refined behavior that was taught to us in past generations with mother's milk. And hence we feel naked, inadequate and anxious in dealing with others.
Tattoos give us a protection from this nudity. It tells others who we are and how to behave with us and how to keep your distance. They have become our credentials, our substitute for cultured behavior.