More Than Skin Deep
February 2001

“More Than Skin Deep,” New Era, Feb. 2001, 44

More Than Skin Deep

Many fads are fairly harmless. But this one leaves people marked—or mutilated—for life.

When Sara was 16, she got a tattoo. It was a small flower on her back, where no one would ever see it except when she wore her swimming suit. She did it without her parents’ permission, and they were upset when they found out. She and her girlfriends had gone together to get tattoos at the same time. They had talked each other into it. They thought it was kind of cool.

Sara started regretting her decision shortly after. But she became truly heartsick five years later, when she was getting ready to go to the temple to be married to a wonderful young man. She was worthy in every way to attend the temple, but she wished more than anything that she did not have that mark, that foolish tattoo, on her body. It had come to represent a childish, silly wish to follow the crowd, an attitude that she had left behind long ago. The only thing that couldn’t be left behind so easily was the tattoo itself. Now as newlyweds, with both Sara and her new husband still trying to finish their educations, they are not financially in a position for her to undergo the laser treatments necessary to remove her tattoo. She just wishes that she had never had it done.

Fads and fashions come and go. Recently, practices like tattooing and body piercing have become popular. The trends of tattooing and body piercing, as with other worldly fashions, are not long lasting, although the marks or scars they leave on the body are often permanent. These worldly fads are practices that members of the Church should choose to avoid because they don’t complement an attitude of respect toward our earthly bodies as the scriptures and prophets teach. Of course, those who have had tattoos prior to joining the Church have no need to feel embarrassed.

Correct Principles

The Prophet Joseph Smith was once asked by a visitor to the city of Nauvoo how it was that he governed so many people who lived in such peace and prosperity. The Prophet said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves” (Journal of Discourses, 10:57–58).

This same advice would apply to the changing fads and fashions of the world. It is neither possible nor proper for Church leaders to comment on how members should react to every fad that comes along. What may be appropriate for members in one area of the world may be inappropriate for members in another culture. Tattooing may have leadership significance in Pacific island cultures that it does not have in North American cultures. For much of the world, tattooing has become a fashion fad or a gang-related imprint. The best guide in deciding how to respond to such enticements is to look to the underlying principle of the gospel as taught by the scriptures and the prophets.

Our bodies are precious and should be respected in every way. The Apostle Paul said, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:16–17). In addition to knowing about the body- and soul-destroying sins of immorality, drug use, and abuse, we need to know also that our bodies are precious gifts from a loving God. That knowledge will help guide us in our decisions about how we treat our bodies.

An Attitude of Rebellion

As a pediatrician, Dr. Ray Thomas of Salt Lake City must treat his young patients who have medical problems that result from tattooing and body piercing. “When I was in medical school I had the assignment to surgically remove tattoos of any young people who came through the county hospital and wanted them removed. Almost universally, it seemed, they got them as a whim. I found that within three years of getting a tattoo, people universally wanted them off. The exception was people in the Cook Islands, where I served my mission. There it was a symbol that the chiefs had put on.”

Dr. Thomas also sees some body piercing. He asks these patients the reasons they decided to follow this fashion. “Most of the time it is a rebellion statement,” says Dr. Thomas. “Sometimes it is an attention-getter because of a lack of self-confidence. Sometimes they are not happy with their physical selves.”

Medical Complications

In his practice, Dr. Thomas treats injuries that occur when a piercing is accidentally caught and torn out. “The problem is sewing that type of laceration. Underneath is the healed part of the skin where the ring has been. It doesn’t heal well and leaves quite a bit of scarring.” This type of scarring, known as keloid, is difficult to control or remove.

Tattooing or body piercing also introduces foreign bodies that can cause either infection or allergic reaction. “Sometimes people develop an allergic reaction to metal,” says Dr. Thomas. “They not only have to avoid piercing, but they also cannot wear the same kind of metal on a watchband, a wedding ring, or anything else. It is a sensitivity that is a lifelong plague for them.”

Dr. Thomas has also treated patients who have accidentally inhaled pieces of metal from tongue and lip piercings, and those who have developed infections. “I’ve had a patient with a lymph gland that had swollen in the side of his neck due to a tongue ring that caused infection. A foreign body will cause bacteria to filter into the lymph system and make it swell.”

The Spiritual Consequences

Dr. Mark Taylor, a dermatologist in Salt Lake City, sees patients who want to have tattoos removed. Dr. Taylor indicates that the laser process is expensive and that certain tattoo colors cannot be removed very easily. He finds it unfortunate that something done on a whim, almost like doodling, now costs time, money, energy, and pain to remove. “Tattoos connote, in my opinion,” says Dr. Taylor, “a lack of judgment, lack of forethought, lack of being able to see into the future and understand consequences.”

As a member of the Church, Dr. Taylor is concerned about the spiritual consequences his patients have had to face. “If you wear anything on your body that discourages the presence of the Spirit, that conveys a message of disobedience or rebellion,” says Dr. Taylor, “it becomes discouraging to spirituality.”

Having a tattoo or body piercing can also be offensive to others. Employers may not want an employee representing his business who has tattoos or body piercings.

As members of the Church, we are instructed not to give offense. “People taunt others by these outward acts,” says Dr. Taylor. “A pure body, unmarked, is not offensive.”

Some members of a congregation may be distracted from the reverent feelings they come to church services to gain, by the piercings or tattoos of those called upon to bless or pass the sacrament or participate in the program.

Dr. Taylor has come up with two questions that are good to ask before undertaking any sort of fad. “Will it make me feel differently or negatively about myself? Will it make other people feel differently about me? If the answer is yes to either question, then it’s probably not a good idea to do it. For example, a woman having pierced ears does not make me think differently of her. However, for men, it makes me feel differently about them if I see them with pierced ears.”

The Biggest Danger

The biggest danger from body piercing or tattoos may not be the object itself. The biggest danger is where these things can lead. Will this pull you into situations that you should avoid? Will it introduce you to a circle of friends that are better left alone, such as a gang? Is your attitude toward spiritual things changed? Does it open up opportunities for other types of more serious rebellion?

When asked about the reasons for his gauged ears and pierced tongue, one young man says, “I was just curious. Now, it’s my play toy,” referring to his habit of clicking the barbell through his tongue against his teeth. His tongue piercing, however, has also affected his speech.

When pressed a little more, he admits his piercings convey an inaccurate image of what he is really like. “My teachers confronted me and said I was quite a surprise. They said I wasn’t anything like the way I look. They had been expecting the worst. Some people assumed I didn’t want to graduate.”

His body piercings have affected his relationship with some friends and their parents as well as his ability to get jobs. “My friend’s dad asked me, ‘Why the change of heart?’ He won’t let me hang around with his son, my friend, as much. We were supposed to room together at college, but his dad won’t let him.”

This young man has also been turned down for jobs he has applied for, and he knows that there are certain places of business that won’t even accept his application.

Why make things more difficult for himself? This young man just shrugs off the idea that his choice has affected his life, although he does not have a difficult time listing the areas in which his choice has actually made things harder.

Your Body Is a Gift

Your Heavenly Father has given you the opportunity to have your spirit and mortal body united at birth. It is a great gift, essential to your progression. Just knowing that should make you want to care for your body and avoid drugs, other harmful substances, immorality, and abuse or neglect. Part of that attitude of caring for our bodies should be to recognize that tattoos and body piercing are driven by the whims of fashion.

President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed the fads of tattooing and piercing in our last general conference:

“Now comes the craze of tattooing one’s body. I cannot understand why any young man—or young woman, for that matter—would wish to undergo the painful process of disfiguring the skin with various multicolored representations of people, animals, and various symbols. With tattoos, the process is permanent, unless there is another painful and costly undertaking to remove it. … A tattoo is graffiti on the temple of the body.

“Likewise the piercing of the body for multiple rings in the ears, in the nose, even in the tongue. Can they possibly think that is beautiful? It is a passing fancy, but its effects can be permanent. Some have gone to such extremes that the ring had to be removed by surgery. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have declared that we discourage tattoos and also ‘the piercing of the body for other than medical purposes.’ We do not, however, take any position ‘on the minimal piercing of the ears by women for one pair of earrings’” (Ensign, Nov. 2000, 52).

Since “by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets” (1 Ne. 22:2), we should trust in their wisdom and counsel concerning the sacred nature of our bodies and avoid potentially harmful side effects and future regrets. Equally as important, our personal spirituality will flourish if we make such far-reaching decisions based on true principles and not the pull of fleeting fashions of the world.

Photography by John Luke. Posed by models