tattoo grief

Are Tattoos and Body Dysmorphia (aka Tattoo Dysphoria) a Thing? What I Learned After Getting a Neck Tattoo

tattoo dysphoria

My tattoo grief article has gotten so much attention and I have been both healed and heartbroken by the people I have heard from about this article and their feelings about their tattoos.

For some, the panic over their new ink is temporary and goes away with time. For others, it becomes a life-changing event they can’t come back from.

I myself have experienced the feelings of panic, disassociation, and fear that come with getting new tattoos as well as with those that have been there for years. For me, most of my feelings have happened in the first couple years that I started getting visible tattoos, but even now, I still have moments where I mourn the skin that was lost and the person I will never be now that I am tattooed.

The most recent one happened when I got my neck tattoo, which I had been planning for several years and was beyond excited to get.

People who have not experienced these feelings or do not know someone who has these experiences often have trouble grasping just how much a tattoo can affect our daily lives. It’s my belief that, for some, tattoos can ignite body dysmorphia, a disorder where people feel very upset about the appearance of their bodies, so much so that they have trouble functioning in everyday life.

Some people also refer to this feeling or experience as tattoo dysphoria.

So are tattoos and body dysmorphia (aka tattoo dysphoria) a thing? Here’s what I learned after getting a neck tattoo.

Tattoos Alter Our Sense of Our Bodies (and Selves)

I usually argue that our bodies are not our actual selves—our self, or being, is something so much deeper and vaster than could ever be contained in a physical body (I love this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn: “If you think that I am only this body, you have not truly seen me.”)

That being said, it does seem we are temporarily trapped in our bodies while we are on this planet. And that comes with some pretty big costs.

It’s difficult not to identify with our bodies, even if our body is just a shell of who we really are. So when we alter our body in any way—whether it be with a piercing, surgery, haircut, or tattoo—it can induce an odd sense of panic and disassociation that we are suddenly not who we were.

When I got my neck tattoo, I was so excited. The artist and I worked together to plan the piece during my appointment and had multiple discussions about what we thought looked good and why, what the piece would represent, etc. When we came up with the final design, it felt right to me.

I had a positive experience getting the tattoo. It didn’t even hurt very much, which was not what I expected. It actually felt nice, and the process of creating this piece and getting tattooed by the artist was all in all a very pleasant experience.

But it did not take long for me to panic after getting the piece. That night in the hotel room, I startled when I saw myself in the mirror and suddenly saw what I didn’t see in the tattoo studio—that my entire being appeared different.

Suddenly, my neck looked fatter. My shirt often cut off the tattoo at the neck, so you couldn’t see the whole thing. I began to feel that I had made a massive mistake, not just with the design, but with even getting the neck piece in the first place.

I went to bed that night in a panic that I had completely ruined my body and that this thing that I was so excited about having was a huge mistake. I felt mildly better the next morning, but the tattoo dysphoria did not subside completely.

It took a while, but I came to realize that while the tattoo did absolutely alter my body itself, the appearance of my body, and my relationship with my body, it did not actually alter my self. But thing is, it DID alter my sense of myself—and this is something that’s difficult to explain to people who have not actually experienced it.

We Are Not the Same People We Were Before the Tattoo

I have heard this a lot but did not personally experience it until I got my throat tattoo.

I am not the same person I was before I got my throat tattoo. And it’s not because of the pain, because it didn’t hurt that much. It’s because my sense of self and my body is altered, and I had trouble coping with it.

I felt depressed and angry. I was grieving the skin I had before I got the tattoo, which I didn’t even appreciate while it was there because I wanted my throat piece for so long and had been planning it for years. I just wanted the tattoo gone. I wished that I could go back and not get it, or get something different, or at least cherish my neck skin before it was “gone” forever.

The focus I had on my tattoo for those first few days sent me into a panic that was accelerated whenever I undressed, as I didn’t like the way the tattoo looked without clothes on (it looked like it was “floating” or something on my neck).

I felt like a different person. I felt like a tattooed person, not a person with tattoos. Like the tattoo defined me and I was no longer myself.

In reality, there was this whole space around the tattoo that I couldn’t see because all I could see was the tattoo. My neck skin was still there. My body was still there. I felt different, but I was still in the same body and the same life. It just felt like I was on a different path now, and I couldn’t go back—and that is always a sobering experience.

Getting Stuck in the Panic and Depression of Tattoo Dysphoria

For some people, the panic and depression that comes with tattoo dysphoria goes away with time. This could be a few days, weeks, months, or years.

For me, my tattoo dysphoria with my large thigh piece (that I originally wrote my 5 Stages of Grief and Your New Tattoo article about) went away within a few days. For my throat piece, it still hasn’t gone away (at the time of posting this article, it’s been less than a year since I got my throat tattooed and less than two months since I got it altered).

The first few days were the worst. Every night when I went to sleep, I felt like I was almost physically choking—like I could feel the tattoo on my neck and could feel that it would never go away. It was a heavy, pressing feeling.

Every morning when I woke up and saw the tattoo, my thoughts would begin again: I seriously did this to myself, why on earth did I do that, it looks bad, I’ll never look the same again, my body is ruined. And on and on.

After about a week, the dysphoria started to lift a tiny bit. I started to see myself in the mirror and not the tattoo. About 10 days after I got the tattoo, I told my husband that I was starting to feel better. “You know what, it doesn’t matter that I did this, because my body is already ruined, and it’s not because of the tattoo.”

“That’s the spirit,” he responded. My husband, hilarious.

While I didn’t feel happy and excited about the tattoo at that point, I didn’t feel the crushing grief, depression, and panic that I had felt initially.

My husband said that he didn’t even notice the tattoo anymore and that he felt like it was already part of me and my body. Which, for better or for worse, is what it is.

However, I never did come to love my tattoo and still felt dysphoric whenever I saw it until I got it fixed, although those initial “panic” feelings went away after about 10 days.

Some people with tattoo dysphoria never get to this stage. They are not able to move past the panic and depression they first experienced with the tattoo—it’s something that never really goes away.

Therapy, medication, and mindfulness can help take the edge off these feelings as you inch toward acceptance, but it’s not an easy process. Some people also choose to have their tattoo removed or altered, although these processes are not guaranteed to make the feelings go away.

If you are stuck in the dysphoric feelings that can come with getting a tattoo, know that you are not alone. Others have been there and continue to be there.

So What Did I Do to Help My Tattoo Dysphoria?

I always advise those who have a new tattoo and hate it to wait. It’s so tempting to want the tattoo gone, to want to change it, to cover it up. But many people have found that lasering or cover-up tattoos don’t help. In some cases, they can even make the dysphoria worse.

However, I found with my throat tattoo that I had trouble following my own advice.

After the tattoo settled in, I decided that I was not happy with it and would not be happy with it, and so I decided to change it. This was about two months into my new tattoo, so I came up with a new design that would incorporate the existing tattoo and had my husband photoshop the design on.

I put these pictures on my desktop and looked at them every day for months. It felt like the right decision, so I emailed my artist to make an appointment.

And so, over seven months after I got my neck tattoo, I got my tattoo altered. This was as long as I felt comfortable waiting given my dysphoria, and I felt that changing it was the right decision—there was little doubt for me there.

To help my tattoo dysphoria while I waited for the appointment, these are some things that helped me:

  • I didn’t wear shirts that exposed the whole tattoo, as this is when I felt most dysphoric (this was easy to do for the most part).
  • I didn’t give myself a lot of time to see the tattoo in its entirety, which is when I found myself feeling most dysphoric and anxious.
  • I reminded myself that my life here (and, consequently, this body I’m in) is temporary.
  • I reminded myself that while I can make the best possible choices, ultimately, I am not in control of the outcome of my tattoo or my life (this may seem an odd mindset to have, but it’s absolutely true. We cannot control everything about our lives, no matter how hard we try).

Did Altering My Tattoo Change My Dysphoria?

Yes—and no.

I did feel better about the tattoo in general—I felt it looked better and the design went well with my other tattoos, both the size and the actual content of the tattoo.

But I still had tattoo regret about getting my neck (and now chest) tattooed in the first place. The piece had morphed into something I did not intend it to be, and now instead of being a smaller tattoo, it was a big one, one that I could not easily alter or cover up.

I also felt much more tattooed. I felt like I went from being a person with tattoos to a tattooed person after getting my neck and chest done.

I don’t feel there’s much I could have done to prevent this from happening outside of waiting longer to have my neck tattooed. I got my neck tattooed during an intense time of grieving and I feel I made some poor decisions about my body art during that time. I should never have gotten tattooed during that time (I recommend waiting about a year after a significant loss in your life before getting tattooed if you can).

Making the decision to remove or fix a tattoo as the result of dysphoria is rarely an easy decision to make, and its outcomes can be mixed. Regardless of what you are experiencing right now, know that you’re not alone!

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