The Effect of Low Self-esteem on Body Alterations
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
TWYMAN, S. L. (2001). The Effect of Low Self-esteem on Body Alterations. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 4. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Effect of Low Self-esteem on Body Alterations
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
The differences in self-esteem among people with body alterations and that of people without alterations of their bodies were investigated. The level of self-esteem was determined by using a statically sound self-esteem test. Questions concerning body alterations were also included at the end of the self-esteem scale. The results indicated that the people with body alterations had a level of self-esteem that was equivalent to the level of self-esteem for people without body alterations. Implications are discussed in the following paragraphs.

There have been numerous studies done on both the aspect of self-esteem and on that of body alterations, but no experiments done comparing the two, to my knowledge. I have done extensive research on both of these two variables and came to the conclusion that they do have something in common, a common link. Self-esteem has been defined as, the part of the self-concept (set of perceptions one holds of themselves) that involves evaluations of self-worth (Adler and Towne, 1999). In other words, how we see ourselves related to how we think others see us. Normally, self-esteem can be classified on two levels, a high level and a low level.People with low self-esteem possess certain personality traits that differ from those possessed by people with high self-esteem. Some of these traits, as found in Adler and Towne (1999) are, these people are likely to disapprove of others, they expect to be rejected, they evaluate their performances less favorably, and they tend to feel threatened by people whom they view as superior in some way.Self-esteem is a very powerful effect on the way we related to other people on an everyday basis. Many aspects in everyday life can cause low levels of self-esteem; one of these is by unfavorable criticism about one personal self. This leaves a person feeling that they are not as good as others or that they are lacking is some important area of their life. One of these areas could be their physical body and appearance.There are ways to compensate for a bad self-image that one perceives about themselves. One way is through body alterations, or tattoos and body piercing. Many people feel better about their image after engaging in a type of alteration of the body. In a study done by Allison, Drews, and Probst (2000), it found that tattooed males tended to rate themselves as more adventurous, creative, individualistic, and attractive than those with out tattoos. These perceived assumptions give a clear reason as to why a person with low self-esteem would consider engaging in the alteration of their bodies.As a rule, most people with low self-esteem see themselves as being inferior to everyone else. Lets say that they do decide to alter their body in some way, in hopes that it will cause someone to notice them. It may even be because they felt that they were just like everyone else in the world, but now they can be their own person and have their own identity. Body alterations could even cause a person to have a higher self-esteem than what they had before, all because now they can feel better about who they are, their place in this world, and who they have become. A survey on why people get tattoos and body piercing was conducted (Grief & Hewitt, 1999). This survey showed that 53% of its participants got tattoos because they saw it as a form of self-expression, while 17% saw their tattoos as a way of feeling unique. Participants surveyed on the reasons for engaging in body piercing said that it was also a way of showing self-expression (84%), while 21% got theirs for beauty reasons. Self-expression is a way of getting the point across to others, as to who you are not just on the outside but also who you are on the inside.Another reason of body alterations may even be that they are used as a means of calming anxiety. A study completed showed that self-mutilating behavior is an anxiolytic, or a way to sooth anxiety one feels (Waldon, 1998). Anxiety can be caused by feelings of aloneness, thoughts of failure, and by feeling you are not living up to someone else’s standards. All of these causes are related to feelings of low self-esteem. So, by combining this information with what we already know, we can assume that body alterations ease and lessen the feelings of anxiety, which in turn lessen those of low self-esteem.With this background information, I decided to conduct an experiment on the effects of low self-esteem on body alterations. For this experiment, my independent variable will be the level of self-esteem each participant possesses. This will be my treatment variable that I will use to observe its effect on the behavior, or my dependent variable. The dependent variable I will be using will be the number of body alterations the participants have engaged in or consider engaging in. I operationally defined what I am going to classify as body alterations in two types, tattoos and body piercing. I will exclude those body piercing that are placed in the earlobes. I will do this because, ear piercing in this area are entirely too common and I feel that if I use this information it could cause wrongful interpretation of the data.After analyzing the data on my participant’s sense of low self-esteem effect on body alterations, I hope to show a positive relationship between the two variables. The purpose of conducting this experiment was to hopefully find a reason as to why people go through the pain and permanent damage of altering their bodies and appearances. Another purpose is to use body alterations as a type if warning sign or “red flag”, which will aid in identification of a person who has low self-esteem levels. This could eventually lead to early detection or prevention of these feelings. Low levels of self-esteem can be dangerous to that person and to those around them. If there could be ways of detecting these levels earlier, why not find out how?


The participants in my study consisted of 39 subjects who attend Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, Missouri. The participants were haphazardly selected with no attention being paid to their age, gender, or race. The average age of participants was 24 years of age, and consisted of 14 males and 25 females.

A 21-item pencil and paper scale on self-esteem was given to the participants for completion. The scale also had six questions dealing with body alterations at the end of it. The scale was used to determine the participant’s level of self-esteem that they possess.

I collected data from random people who were on the Missouri Western State College campus during the week of November 5, 2001. They were each asked to complete the self-esteem scale that also included questions about body alterations. The participants were all thanked upon completion of the scale. All completed scales were then looked over to insure completion and were then put into an SPSS database where they were analyzed.

A 2 (body alteration) x 2 (gender) between subjects factorial ANOVA was calculated comparing the level of a person’s self-esteem to whether or not they have engaged in alterations of their bodies or what gender they were. The main effect for gender was not significant (F(1, 35) = .007, p = .935). Males and females had approximately the same level of self-esteem. The main effect for whether or not they had a body alteration was also not significant (F (1, 35) = .027, p = .871). The level of self-esteem of people with body alterations was approximately the same of that of those people without body alterations. Finally, the interaction was also not significant (F (1, 35) = .169, p = .684). Thus it appears that neither the gender nor whether or not they had an alteration of their body has any significant effect on their level of self-esteem.

In this experiment, I hoped to find that people with a lower level of self-esteem have more body alterations than a person with a higher level of self-esteem. This hypothesis was not supported by my data, nor was it significant. In a study by Allison, Drews, and Probst (2000), it was found that males who tattoo themselves, rate themselves as more attractive, individualistic, creative, and many more positive characteristics than men without tattoos. Upon analysis of my data, I found the opposite of this finding (Allison, Drews, and Probst, 2000). I found that males with body alterations have a lower self-esteem than that of females with body alterations. Although this finding was not significant, it was in support to my hypothesis in that males with body alterations tend to have a lower level of self-esteem. The limitations of my study were that I needed a wider range in the age of my participants, and my participants should have all been those who recently engaged in a body alteration. I will conclude that the body alteration gave the person a higher level of self-esteem than what they originally had before the alteration. This effect could be why I found little to no change in the self-esteem levels of people with and without alterations. The limitation of age was that with an older population I might have gotten the results I hypothesized. In today`s era, body alterations are "in style". Twenty years ago, tattoos and piercings were frowned upon and were associated only with bikers (DeMello, 1995). Now days more and more people are engaging in alterations and therefor making it a more acceptable action. By having the mean age of my subjects are age 24, I believe this aspect played a very big part in the outcome of my experiment. Generalibility also played a part in the out of this experiment. I am going to classify the fact that I feel a sample of older people would produce different results, under generalibility as well as under the limitations of this study. The same reasons apply here also. Another generalibiltiy may be that I should operationally define body alterations, not only as tattoos and piercings, but also as plastic surgery. I decided not to because I felt that not many people in this area would have either had it done or would admit to it. Adding this could have produced different data, therefore giving different results. My literature search found no similar experiments having been done on low self-esteem and its relationship to body alterations, so many aspects of my experiment could be changes. These changes could be to use subjects who have recently received an alteration of their body, to better determine their self-esteem level at the time of getting one. Also, one could include subjects of a wider age range, or not limiting the subjects to college students. Finally, more subjects could be used to better generalize about the population. These are a few suggestions that I would consider if I were to do this experiment again. These changes would improve the experiment and may even produce the results I hypothesized.

Adler, R. & Towne, N. (1999). Looking out / looking in. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 505.DeMello, M. (1995). Not just for bikers anymore: Popular representations of American tattooing. Journal of Popular Culture, 37, 52.Drews, D. R., Allison, C. K., & Probst, J. R. (2000). Behavioral and self-concept differences in tattooed and non-tattooed college students. Psychological Reports, 86, 481.Greif, J. & Hewitt, W. (1999). Tattooing and body piercing. Clinical Nursing Research, 8, 368.Waldon, T. (1998). Tattoos, body piercing are linked to psychiatric disorders in youth. Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 3, 14.

Please circle the answer that best fits how you feel.

1. In social situations, I have something interesting to say.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

2. Most people around me seem to be better off than I am.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

3. I like being myself and accept myself the way I am.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

4. I mess up everything I touch.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

5. To me, success is not imperative. The important thing is to try and do my best.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

6. I deserve to be loved and respected.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

7. Unlike others, I really have to go out of my way to make and keep a friend.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

8. If someone ever falls in love with me, I’d better do my best to prove worthy, because it may well never happen to me again.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

9. Being myself is a guarantee that people will dislike me.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

10. I am not sure I have done a good job unless someone else points it out.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

11. I am afraid of being rejected by my friends.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

12. If I don’t do as well as others, it means that I am an inferior person.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

13. I could disappear from the face of the earth, and no one would notice.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

14. I feel worthless and futile.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

15. I feel I can make mistakes without losing the love or respect of others.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

16. I let those who care about me down.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

17. I will never amount to anything significant.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

18. I don’t need other people’s approval in order to be happy and satisfied with myself.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

19. I have what it takes to socialize with other people.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

20. I see myself as someone special and worthy of other people’s attention and affection.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

21. How I feel about myself is more important than others’ opinions of me.Strongly disagree Disagree Somewhat agree Agree Strongly agree

Age______ Gender______

Tattoos:I have a tattoo? Yes / NoIf so, how many?_______I would consider getting one or another? Yes / No

Body piercing (Excluding the earlobes):I have piercings in my body? Yes / NoIf so, how many?_______ What type?________________________________I would consider a piercing…____ Ear Cartilage ____ Nose ____ Tongue____ Navel ____ Lip ____ Eyebrow____ Never ____ Other ____________________________________

Submitted 11/25/2001 11:53:38 AM
Last Edited 11/25/2001 12:12:21 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

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