“Doesn’t it hurt?”

I’ve just mentioned wanting another tattoo to the girl I’m partnered with on this project. She’s surprised to hear I have any: they’re not large and easily covered. She doesn’t ask what design, or where, or what ink I already have. She doesn’t even ask why I like it. She asks what most people who have no body art do when talking to those who do: “Doesn’t it hurt?”

Well, yeah, it does a little.


First of all, I’m a sexual masochist. I get off on pain. So I wouldn’t call the pain a drawback.

That’s hardly relevant though. The pain isn’t the reason I go for piercings and tattoos, but if I didn’t like pain it still wouldn’t be a reason not to get them. Pain is a side effect, usually fairly mild.

“But doesn’t it hurt?”

My partner plucks her eyebrows. She goes to the gym regularly. She’s lamented that a sunburn would be “so worth it, if I could just tan!” Pain for beauty is a transaction we widely accept. If someone believes the misery of yanking out eyebrows one by one every [however often one plucks eyebrows] for years on end is worth the result, surely they can understand that a single sitting followed by a brief recovery in exchange for a permanent desired modification is a better return on investment.

We do things that hurt. Not because we like the pain (though some of us do), but because we value what it brings us. Pain is a side effect.

“But doesn’t it hurt?” is a stupid question. Of course it hurts. If something breaks the skin and there’s zero pain you’re probably looking at some serious nerve damage. Anyone who asks already knows this. The question is really “what kind of person would endure pain for body art?” The question shows a certain idea about body modification: that it’s barbaric, disgusting. That (unlike a perfectly arched eyebrow), it has no value.

That’s actually okay. I don’t care if this girl, or my mother, or any number of other people think piercings and tattoos are worthless or shameful or otherwise problematic. That’s a conversation I’m willing to have. But “doesn’t it hurt?” can only be answered with a “yes,” and it’s in no way fair to use that yes as evidence against body modification as a practice. It really isn’t relevant.

Also, seriously? I beg folks to hit me with blunt objects until they can’t lift their arms anymore. I’m supposed to be scared of half a second with a piercing needle? Please.

5 thoughts on ““Doesn’t it hurt?””

  1. I’m fond of the phrase “you say that like it’s a bad thing” in response to that type of question/statement. Mostly for the Zen hint that there’s another way to look at everything.

    My guess has always been that the real underlying question is “doesn’t it hurt a lot“, rather than “doesn’t it hurt a bit”. But “a lot” is really hard to quantify. And besides, from what I know, the answer is always “it depends”. (Plus, you know, “not enough to put me off getting more” — in a context like you describe.)


    1. Even if the question is “doesn’t it hurt a lot?” if I’ve just expressed a desire for more, clearly it’s not enough to be off-putting. The expense of tattoos is a far greater barrier than any discomfort, but that’s mainly because I feel guilty about any spending that’s not strictly necessary.

      I don’t know, it’s a question I’ve heard hundreds of times (back when I had a bunch of facial piercings it was almost daily), but it still baffles me every time. Is pain really the first/only thing people who don’t have body mods think of when they see one? If so, why not the same question about pierced ears? “What do you like about body mod?” “Aren’t you worried about being employable?” “Why this tattoo, why there?” are all questions that I at least understand, but “doesn’t it hurt?” just doesn’t seem like a question that can lead to insight or conversation of any kind. It’s such a common question that I worry I’m missing something, though.

      1. I come from a ridiculously conservative culture where tattoos are synonymous with gang membership, and piercing is limited to one ethnic group’s once-a-year religious practices. So let me apologise in advance for the incredible parochialism of my perspective.

        What I would suggest is that this is not in fact the first question that tattoo innocents want to ask. They have in fact already considered and rejected a whole lot of less pleasant questions such as “But piercings are mutilation, why do you want to do that to yourself?” and “Aren’t you afraid the tattoo will be ugly when it fades?” The question they do end up asking is an attempt to find some middle ground between WINCE and empathy.

        As you know, I shut down emotionally for anything difficult. That’s my personal reaction to most tattoos and piercings – I try not to notice them, and in five minutes I succeed. But recently I found myself craning my neck while chatting with a friend to get a better look at a gorgeous design. When we realised what I was doing I worried that I was violating tattoo etiquette, but she assured me that it would only bother her if I grabbed her arm in order to stare at it better.

        And I am flinching HARD at the possibility that you will find this comment insulting and upsetting. But you asked the question, so I’ll try to remember that it’s your decision how to react.

        1. Oh dear, not insulted or upset.

          There are certainly ways in which body modification can be problematic, extremely so at times. Prison and gang tattoos can symbolize a dedication to violence. Ink can be racist, antisemitic, or culturally appropriative (confederate flags, iron cross or swastika, white folks getting Chinese or Japanese characters they don’t understand, etc). It’s always worth discussing actual issues.

          The issue with “doesn’t it hurt?” is that it frames the act of body modification, regardless of its meaning or content, as a problem. It’s all too often a cover for or precursor to “isn’t it self-harm?” (which has been suggested by family, professors, even a psychiatrist).

          Tattoos and piercings have a huge range of significance. They can be carefully planned and symbolic, or frivolous. They can signify belonging to a group–which may itself be positive, negative, or mixed. They are also in some circles specifically embraced by queer folks and sex-positive feminists. Body modification in these circles is often described as a reclamation of the body, an assertion of ownership of self, or a rejection of societal or bodily norms that exclude or restrict. In these cases, being asked “doesn’t it hurt?” can feel especially appalling. It carries a “why would you do this to yourself? You shouldn’t do this to yourself. Isn’t it self-harm?” And whether the asker has thought of it or not, the implication is that if it hurts, and you know it hurts, and you do it anyway, it is self-harm (despite the fact that going to the gym or dentist or plucking eyebrows or, y’know, life, hurt too). It reduces the meaning and context of the modification down to nothing but pain, and pathologizes it.

          I don’t object to questions about body mods, nor challenges, nor conversations. It’s the specific question (which I’ve been asked far too many times) that cuts off options for meaningful conversation that I find so objectionable. There’s so much to talk about when it comes to body mod, including cultural, religious, subcultural, and personal significance that just asking if it hurts seems like it shouldn’t even make the list.

          1. Blanket yes. I only wrote what I did because it sounded like you were honestly confused why people keep responding this way. And I don’t, but I know where they’re coming from.

            By the way, I don’t think they intend it as a conversation-stopper. If you say, “Yes, a tiny bit, but isn’t it worth it?” and transition into the conversation you meant to have, maybe they’d follow your lead? Though I wouldn’t know. Maybe I’m not a good representative of the non-tattooed. 🙂

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