Why Dying My Hair and Tattooing My Body Are Forms of Self-Harm


I first went on medication for anxiety and depression when I was 13 years old.

I first dyed my hair blue the next summer before starting high school.

I was first hospitalized for depression when I was 16 years old.

I got my first tattoo the next year when I was 17 years old.

Over the last 17 years, as my list of diagnoses grew, my tattoo collection and hair colors achieved grew proportionately.

While there has not been a tattoo to mark every trauma or a hair color change to go along with every surgery or hospitalization, there is undoubtedly a connection between my body modification and my mental health.

For some people, the constant chemicals of hair dying and the extreme permanent change of tattoos are the opposite of what you think of when you think “self-care.” Few people equate needles and bleach with self-care for completely real and valid reasons. My tattoos and hair color have led to anything from rolled eyes to a stranger asking me, “But why would you want to ruin your body like that?” They have also, of course, led to compliments, questions and great conversations.

But ultimately, choosing to use my body as a canvas isn’t for them, it’s for me. It’s one of the ways (sometimes the only way) I can battle depression, grief and anxiety. Here are a few ways they contribute to my journey towards wellness.

1. Self-expression

The most obvious way my body modifications are a way to battle the sometimes overwhelming catalog of depression and company is that by having unicorn hair and body art, I feel like the truest, freest version of myself. It’s not about being “edgy.” It’s about expressing curiosity and spirt despite feeling heavy and hopeless sometimes. I am more than a list of mental and physical health challenges. I am more than grief and trauma. I am, quite literally, a work in progress. Changing, evolving and never quite finished.

2. Control

Having tattoos and experimental hair is one of the few things I can control about my body. I can control what flannel shirt I put on in the morning, I can decide to take my medication and vitamins and drink enough water, I can (on good days) haul myself out of bed and to the gym. But there is so very much outside of my control. I can be in therapy, do yoga and practice meditation and my body and brain can still rebel against me and I can still have a panic attack. I can eat well and exercise and still experience pain from endometriosis or fibromyalgia. I will sometimes wake up with kidney stones or a migraine or both just because those are fun things my body likes to do every once in a while. Having purple hair or an owl on my foot gives me a measure of certainty in a very uncertain life.

3. Reminders

When my mom died when I was 18, I got a tattoo in remembrance of her. I have several tattoos that are specific to anxiety — the words “no day but today” from RENT and the phrase “bird by bird” by Anne Lamott, both to help remind me to be present and mindful. I have the equation that represents the first law of thermodynamics as a tattoo on my ribcage to remind myself that energy can’t be destroyed, only changed. My vintage bouquet of flowers tattoo, my geometric cat tattoo and my royal blue hair are because I think these things are bold, bright and beautiful — things I feel like my life is lacking sometimes.

When you often feel like your body and brain are working against you or when you feel displaced by grief and loss, these physical reminders of beauty, courage or inspiration are not insignificant. They are the things that make me feel safe.

4. Distraction and Celebration

At the most practical, basic level, when I am spending hours getting a tattoo or processing and dying my hair, it’s time I’m not spending obsessively thinking, worrying, being angry or spiraling into self-loathing and shame, which are just the occasional realities of a life lived with mental and physical illness. It’s also how I celebrate mental health wins and physically pain-free days.

Like many forms of self-care – Netflix binges, baths, candles, meditation, writing or napping – my many skin and hair modifications are just for me. They are the thing I choose to do to show myself respect, love and remind myself I am worthy of time spent on myself. There is no wrong way to show care and love to ourselves — there are only the things that give us hope, help us heal or bring us closer to happiness.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via Rawpixel Ltd


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