I remember witnessing a baffling phenomenon when I was a teen in the mid-1970s. An enterprising California advertising man marketed and sold what he called “the perfect pet”—the Pet Rock. Packaged in a small cardboard carton perforated with breathing holes, an ordinary rock was nestled in straw. Each came with a “birth certificate” for the rock—and a training manual, The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock, containing instructions for teaching the rock to “stay” or “roll over” or “play dead.”
Pet Rocks became wildly popular in the latter months of 1975, making their creator a millionaire, but the craze had run its course by early 1976 when sales dramatically fell off.
Such is the pattern of a fad, which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) defines as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.” This definition accurately describes many other practices that ride a wave of popularity, but eventually lose their momentum.
The truth is, fads occur all the time. As hard as it is to believe, there are currently popular entertainment artists, fashion trends and television shows that will someday be out of style. At the time Pet Rocks were selling, I was wearing four-inch platform shoes and a polyester leisure suit with a gold chain around my neck! I can assure you that I no longer wear such clothing.
Another truth about fads is that some, such as Pet Rocks and leisure suits, have no lasting negative consequences. Sadly, however, some fads have long-term effects that can stay with us for the rest of our lives, even bringing lasting regret to those who participated in them.
Consider the recent surge of interest in the ancient practice of tattooing. For many years, tattoos carried a negative stigma, as they were commonly associated with sailors, bikers and gang members. More recently, however, a 2012 poll found that as many as one in five (21 percent) adults in the United States have at least one tattoo—that is a sharp increase from the 14 percent reported in 2008 (The Harris Poll, February 23, 2012). Inking has become so commonplace that it is not uncommon to see grandmothers sporting tattoos! And instead of subtle, easily hidden markings, many today make multiple trips to the parlor to cover large portions of their bodies with intricate and complex “body art.”
Marking the skin has been practiced in many different civilizations, going back at least as far as 3000bc (“Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History,” Smithsonian.com, January 1, 2007). People’s reasons for getting tattoos appear to be as varied as their cultures, as ways “to place protective or therapeutic symbols upon the body, then as a means of marking people out into appropriate social, political or religious groups, or simply as a form of self-expression or fashion statement” (ibid.).
Today, the inked often say their tattoos make them feel sexy, attractive, strong or spiritual (The Harris Poll, February 23, 2012). However, there remains an element of cultural defiance associated with tattoos. This same poll reports that 25 percent of the respondents say they feel rebellious wearing tattoos—and half of those without a tattoo view people with tattoos as more rebellious.
These findings lead to an important personal question for those who are thinking of going under the needle: “What is my motivation?” People are great at rationalizing their desires, and they offer many reasons for wanting tattoos. But are their desires really their own, or are they giving in to peer pressure to “fit in” with the crowd or “be cool” by wearing a tattoo?
Richard Sawdon Smith, a professor in the Arts and Media Department at London Southbank University—and a tattoo-wearer himself—gets right to the point in explaining why many people have tattoos: “This is actually a kind of way of empowering myself by saying, ‘This is my body, and I’m in control of it’” (“Would you hire a tattooed employee?,” BBC Newsnight, September 4, 2013).
Yes, tattoos are a powerful personal statement, and they proclaim a “me first” attitude that does not mind getting “in your face” to show off one’s pride in his or her own body, for all to see. Yet, for those who follow God, the approach of “pleasing myself first” is the exact opposite of the outflowing concern for other people that defines God’s love. The Apostle Paul wrote that “love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). That kind of love is not what most people associate with a tattoo!
And this is not just a New Testament perspective. Long ago, God commanded His people, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). As the designer of the human body, God proclaimed it as “very good” after creating man and woman—without tattoos (Genesis 1:31)!
Not long ago, a man came to me in tears as he described his regret about the tattoos that covered both of his arms. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, ashamed to show me what he called the “evil” markings he once had thought were “awesome.” He was much younger when he got his tattoos, and had recently had a change of heart. He had investigated tattoo removal services, but the cost would be thousands of dollars and not completely effective. This dilemma was the reason for his tears.
Many who get tattoos when they are young find out later that they cannot easily find a good job, since many employers do not want to hire employees with obvious tattoos. Some people can afford the cost and the pain of tattoo removal, but others have no choice but to live with the visible evidence of a decision they have come to regret (“Teenagers get rid of their tattoos—and start a new life,” BBC News, August 14, 2013).
Thankfully, this is all unnecessary for those who are wise enough to look past the present popularity of a fad and project forward to their future: “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished” (Proverbs 22:3).