I started small, noticing and ignoring body art. One girl with a small diamond stud in her nose had a huge diamond engagement band on her finger. We spent a lot of time discussing the enormity of her ring. No mention of the nose stud. Then came a girl from outside the city, a suburb so conservative that I’d imagined it as filled with horses. Her therapy was long and complicated, involving many family members. Somewhere during therapy she got a tattoo- the most popular sort at that time. Chinese characters were inscribed in black at the base of her spine. They showed only when you might bend over to give a customer change, or if you were scooping ice cream for a summer job.
Then an artist came to see me with forearms decorated like a Minoan snake goddess from Crete. We discussed the tattoos. The why, the when (a break-up), the choice of subject matter.
Later I saw a drug addict in remission- a girl with a straight spine and a pierced tongue which flicked like a snake, in and out as she talked. I had to ask. The piercing was unnerving to me. She had chosen to pierce the visible juncture between speech and silence. Not to ask her about this choice seemed like denying part of therapy. Then I began to ask more, much more. The foot covered with henna that looked like a fortuneteller’s palm.
The second recovered addict saved her money working retail to tattoo installments of Alice in Wonderland all over her body. Not somewhere subtle, the nape of her neck, a shoulder blade wing. She was writing on her body- the body as slate, the body as book. She said it was a constant reminder ” not to fall down the rabbit hole.”
All signs have meaning. If someone shifts and exhales- I ask. I shied away from discussing piercing and tattoos- though I had always asked directly if a patient cut or burned themselves. As the world spins on its axis the culture changes. I can make no assumptions. To assume that body art is culturally neutral is, itself, a convenient assumption. So I ask. Everyone wants to be known. What they inscribe, what they cut, what they pierce, needs translation. Use your words, we teach our children.
Make no assumptions. Do no harm.
The oath of the psychologist.