Body art is a rather controversial topic. Tattoos, piercings and subdermal implants are a way of self-expression to some, but a form of mutilation to others. Most people would agree, however, that adults have a right to cosmetically modify their appearance. But what about teenagers and young children? Here, opinions divide.
Even more disputed is the idea of moms and dads making these kinds of decisions for their kids. Would it be okay for parents to have their 5-year-old tattooed before their child is old enough to give their reasoned consent? What about encouraging a 3-year-old girl to have her ears pierced? Not surprisingly, many parents have very strong feelings about these matters.
For example, some parents maintain they have the right to make these choices on behalf of their children until they are 18. Other insist, however, that body art is something that cannot be undone. Therefore, they believe it is unfair to make unalterable choices like these for children.
Mother sparks controversy on social media
Recently, the debate on body art and personal autonomy was renewed when a mother named Enedina Vance posted a picture of her smiling infant daughter purportedly sporting a diamond stud in her dimple to Facebook.
In fact, the image was photoshopped — the young girl’s cheek had not been pierced — but the post proved highly controversial and elicited a furious reaction among many parents. “How dare a mom do that to her infant daughter” was a typical reaction.
Ironically, Enedina Vance’s post was something of a protest stunt. The mother is actually a vociferous opponent of allowing juveniles to get pierced or circumcised, which she likens to forms of mutilation.
In fact, Vance hoped the seemingly self-centered comments she made beneath the photo would be read as a form of ridicule. She even posted the photo under the hashtag #sarcasm. However, the idea that the picture was some kind of protest parody was lost on most people.
Indeed, as Vance later noted, many viewers who saw the photo “[threatened] to beat me to death, call child protective services and take away my children.”
Body art and minors
Vance’s stunt certainly has called attention to the issue — her post got 13,000 shares and counting on Facebook. But as a society, we are still a long way from a consensus on the issue. Most states allow minors to get tattoos or piercings only if they have parental consent. But a few states, like Idaho, have gone further by making it illegal to perform piercings or tattoos on anyone under the age of 14.
Social norms are continually evolving and will vary from region to region and culture to culture. By and large, however, piercings are a rite of passage for many girls in the United States. Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson suggests that “if you want your child to make her own decision about ear piercing, it’s best to wait until she’s around 10 or so to have that discussion.” After all, “The older the child, the more likely she’ll be able to take responsibility for keeping her ears and her new studs clean.”
Ear piercings at an early age are far more socially acceptable in Latino communities. But parents need to be aware that piercings come with the risk of infections. Experts agree that that kind of procedure is not recommended for infants less than six months old.
What’s in a child’s best interests
Ideally, parents will value the individuality of their children and not impose unalterable cosmetic choices on their kids without regard for their future autonomy. Of course, to some extent parents inevitably make decisions on behalf of their children that will have a lifetime impact.
Circumcision, for example, is a cosmetic-type procedure that is routinely performed without the affected individual’s consent. However, it provides numerous health benefits and is far riskier if performed in adulthood.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to cosmetic surgery and young people. One can only hope that parents act thoughtfully while keeping the best interests in mind of the unique individuals they are responsible for raising.
— Scott O’Reilly