Self-concept is how people perceive their behaviors, abilities, and unique characteristics. For example, beliefs such as “I am a good friend” or “I am a kind person” are part of an overall (positive) self-concept. These perceptions of oneself are important because they affect motivations, attitudes, and behaviors. Self-concept also impacts how people feel about who they think they are, including perceived competence and self-worth.
Low self-worth is having a generally negative overall opinion of oneself, judging (or evaluating) oneself critically, and placing a generally negative value on oneself as a person.
Self-esteem is a similar concept to self-worth but with a small (although important) difference: self-esteem is what we think, feel, and believe about ourselves, while self-worth is the more global recognition that we are valuable human beings worthy of love (Hibbert, 2013). People with low self-confidence tend to have low self-esteem and vice versa.
Some of the most common characteristics of low self-esteem—of which there are many—also appear in those with low self-worth:
Feelings of inadequacy
Extreme focus on clothing, makeup, grooming, etc., because of a belief that self worth comes from exterior appearance
Feeling like a burden to other people
Criticize their appearance and personality regularly in their head and out loud
Feeling a lack of control in life
Negative social comparison
Worry and self-doubt
Not trying things out of fear of failure
Neglect of their own needs, particularly emotional ones
Guilt over self-care
(E.g., you feel guilty buying things because you feel you don’t deserve them.)
Some of these characteristics have an obvious effect on how a person interacts with others.
Avoiding social situations
Trouble accepting positive feedback
Afraid to talk in a conversation, and belief that no one listens when they do
Sensitive to any criticism and obsessing about it for weeks if not months
Apologize when other people bump into them
Problems asking for what they need
Fear of leaving the house to avoid anything out of their comfort zone
Questioning how a romantic partner could possibly love them
Always needing everyone’s agreement
Needing constant validation from others
Constantly comparing themselves to other people
Treating Feel other people are more important
Belief that other people don’t actually enjoy your company and are just being polite
Some of these characteristics may affect how a person interacts with others in less obvious ways.
Frequent anger and irritability
Difficulty making decisions because of worry about making the wrong one
Needing to be perfect 100% of the time
Over-achieving in general
Overly accepting or not accepting flaws in others
Tendency to criticize other people to make oneself feel better
Jealousy of other peoples accomplishments, instead of being happy for them
Shifting blame to others because they think it is unacceptable to make the slightest mistake
How Did This Happen?
Causes of low self-esteem can include:
Disapproval from authority figures or parents
Emotionally distant parents
Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
Contentious divorce between parents
Bullying with no parent protection
Guilt associated with religion
Social beauty standards
Unrealistic goal setting
Does It Have To Be This Way?
If these sound all too familiar to you personally, don’t panic! You can retrain your brain and start to replace all the negative things you told yourself with positive things.
Several ways in which one can improve self-esteem:
Low self esteem can lead to anger, depression and anxiety, and generally a miserable life. Therefore, it’s important it is to work on it—and to keep working on it. If you have never worked on your self esteem before, positive affirmations for confidence are a good place to start.
Bottom line: You can identify low self-worth (in yourself and/or others) and portray it in your characters without an explicit label.
Of course, humans are driven by a lot more than two motivations. Various levels of deprivation (of all sorts of needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, sexual release, and much more) can motivate behavior in specific situations. Those are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I’m focusing on two powerful motives that tend to shape behavior across numerous situations and often whole lifetimes.
I’m talking about the need for achievement and the fear of failure.
In the simplest terms (according to me) the difference is striving to be the best versus trying to be good enough.
Need for Achievement
Need for achievement is the desire to obtain excellent results by setting high standards and striving to accomplish them. It is a consistent concern with doing things better.
People with high need for achievement often undertake tasks in which there is a high probability of success and avoid tasks that are either too easy (because of lack of challenge) or too difficult (because of fear of failure).
An example of the latter would be a 5-ft-tall basketball player with poor leaping ability, ball handling abilities, and passing skills. Such a person high in n-Ach is unlikely to try out for the team!
Studies have shown that feeling a sense of accomplishment is an important element in students developing positive wellbeing over time.
Research also shows that people with a strong sense of purpose, persistence, and accomplishment perform better at work.
People high in need for achievement present as ambitious, driven, successful … and insecure. The need for achievement drives behavior in school, work settings, even recreational activities. In case it isn’t obvious, this trait can cause problems:
Driven to achieve the task—any and every task
Fails to differentiate “urgent” from merely “important”
Has difficulty delegating
Struggles with producer-to-supervisor transition when promoted
Obsesses about getting the job done at all costs
No doubt about it, people high in n-Ach put themselves under a lot of pressure. At first glance, it might seem that such people should relax, take it easy, and be happy doing well enough.
Fearing failure in a particular endeavor is experienced by most people, including high n-Ach people, sometimes. Think a new situation or task, or one that’s just being learned. Think public performances. There are times when just not humiliating oneself is success.
Fear of Failure
But the fear of failure, more generally, is an irrational and persistent fear of failing.
(FYI, irrational and extreme fear of failing or facing uncertainty is a phobia known as atychiphobia.)
Sometimes fearing failure might be triggered in only one specific situation/task. Sometimes it’s more generalized. And sometimes it’s related to another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
In any case, the fear of failure varies in level of severity from mild to extreme. Here are a few ways it’s commonly exhibited:
A sense of hopelessness about the future
Chronic (versus occasional or limited) worry
Worry about what other people will think about you if you fail or don’t do well
High distractibility, being pulled off task by irrelevant or unimportant things
Avoiding tasks or people associated with a project or general goal
Physical symptoms (fatigue, headaches, digestive troubles, joint or muscle pain) that prevent working toward a goal
Believing that you don’t have the skills or knowledge to achieve something
Feeling like you won’t be able to achieve your goals
Procrastinating to the point that it affects your performance or ability to finish on time
Telling people that you will probably fail so that expectations remain low
Underestimating your own abilities to avoid feeling let down
Worrying that imperfections or shortcomings will make other people think less of you
Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire
Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you
Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are
Failing makes you worry about disappointing people whose opinions you value (especially family/friends)
You tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations
Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed
You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation
You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time
You tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately, as a way of protecting your belief in your ability to have done it
Bottom line: Two people may exhibit the same behavior, even turn in the same objective performance, but their reasons for doing so can vary dramatically.
Food that isn’t part of a regular meal, usually a small amount.
In fact, dictionary definitions specify a small amount. However, eating more than a quart of ice cream can be a snack without being small. (For some of the most popular snack foods, see last week’s blog.)
Any time, day or night. Or habitually, the same time every day and/or every night
Wherever you watch TV
At sports events
On fishing trips
In front of the refrigerator
In class (not recommended)
Hospital waiting room
Virtually any kind of party
Duh! Who needs a reason? But let me list a few.
Too hungry to wait for a meal
Too busy to stop for a meal
Too tired to cook a meal
Need to gain weight
Need to lose weight
To maintain blood sugar levels
To explore when traveling
It’s a favorite food, so it’s the pleasure principle
It’s right there
When you see it, you eat it, the convenience factor
To be polite when someone offers food
In many cultures, it is considered rude to refuse an offer of food, particularly from a host
Well established that people snack more with alcohol
You always eat leftovers
The waste-not principle
You need an energy boost
You feel like celebrating
You’re feeling down or depressed
You want to reward yourself
It’s a habit
You always have a bite to eat at a particular time
Other people are snacking
Psychology has documented that people who’ve stopped snacking when alone in a room start eating again when someone else comes in and starts eating
Bottom line: Snacking is ubiquitous. What can we learn about ourselves and/or our characters based on what, when, where, and why we snack?
February is National Snack Food Month. It was started in 1989 to “to increase consumption and build awareness of snacks during a month when snack food consumption was traditionally low” according to the Fooducate wellness community. February 15th is a particularly good day to stock up on chocolate!
According to Oxford Languages, a snack is a small amount of food eaten between meals. Snacks often differ from main meals in what they contain, portion size, consumption time, and place as well as why they`re eaten So, theoretically, it can be anything. But certain foods are more likely to be chosen than others. My personal observations—totally not scientific—is that people tend to be primarily salty snackers OR sweet snackers.
Salty or Sweet?
You can find favorite junk food by state, but these are the nation’s most popular snacks, as measured by consumer opinion.
Jif. (peanut butter)
And sometimes, one is not enough: according to a OnePoll survey of 2000 snackers, 60% said snacks taste better when they’re paired together.
Cookies and cream 39 percent
Chocolate and nuts 37 percent
Popcorn and chocolate 35 percent
Chocolate and marshmallow 34 percent
Chocolate and fruit 33 percent
Peanut butter and jelly 32 percent
Peanut butter and apples 30 percent
Cheese and crackers 27 percent
Chips and salsa 26 percent
Chocolate and peanut butter 26 percent
Modern Snack Trends
According to an article by Bridget Goldschmidt (progressivegrocer.com), Americans are snacking between meals more than ever, and eating snack foods with meals grew by 5% over the ten-year period from 2010 to 2020. She cited several conclusions.
NPD (a national research group) also found that snacking follows a daily pattern in most U.S. households: better-for-you snacks such as fruit or yogurt are eaten in the morning; snacks like potato chips or tortilla chips are likely eaten at lunch; and sweeter snacks like chocolate candy and cookies in the evening.
What drives snacking?
Satiety (how full the eater is)
How easy a food is to eat
Time of day (health-driven motivation gives way to satiety as the day goes on)
The COVID-19 pandemic ramped up snacking. (How surprising is that? Not.) The NPD study cited in the article found that having enough snack foods available during the pandemic is important to 37% of consumers. These consumers’ homes are well stocked with salty snacks and frozen sweets more than other items.
In many cases, the more snack food packages in the home, the more often the item is eaten, which tends to be particularly true of certain kinds of snack foods, such as salty snacks.
According to the survey of 2,000 American snackers mentioned above:
71 percent of all those surveyed consider themselves “snackers”
66 percent said snacking brings them great joy
67 percent said snacking is one of their favorite forms of stress relief
(No wonder snacking is up during the pandemic!)
Snacks? What Snacks?
48 percent of surveyed Americans have stashed their favorite treats in hidden spots around the house (often with no plans to share!).
46 percent of those who had hidden snacks said they simply “don’t want to share”
53 percent said the people they live with would “eat them all” if they knew where to look
Of respondents who have ever hidden snacks, 69 percent said they’re currently doing so!
72 percent said their snack stash has been discovered by someone else
The average person has moved a snack stash four times to try to keep it a secret.
71 percent of the time partners and kids were the finders of respondents’ “snackpiles”
Only 6 percent of respondents have never been caught
A few creative snack hiding places:
Behind the washing machine
Inside oatmeal containers
Behind books on a bookshelf
In the freezer, behind the broccoli
Under yarn piles in a knitting basket
On a top shelf, out of sight
Among cleaning supplies
At the bottom of the diaper bag
Taped to the underside of the fish tank lid
Behind the butter churn
Suspended from the ceiling, above the ceiling fan
In the wall, behind the vents or outlet covers
And the average respondent believes they could survive almost FIVE full months on their stockpile of snacks alone.
Really? I’d be pressed to live 5 months on my pantry, 2 refrigerators, and a freezer! Surely that was 5 full months of snacks.
BOTTOM LINE: In the U.S., you now know the what of snacking, and a bit of the when.
STAY TUNED: Next week I’ll delve into where and why!
Even without pausing to think, people can easily describe their sleep habits. What does your character think and feel about about his or her own ? Is sleep a welcome respite or a necessary evil? What’s necessary for your character to fall asleep—and stay there? Is insomnia a chronic condition, or only within the plot situation? Does your character sleep as an escape mechanism? Does your character take sleep aids? Self-medicate with alcohol? Does sleep feel like a waste of time?
Deviating From Eight Hours
By now, pretty much everyone knows that, on average, people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Anything that time-consuming must impinge on people’s (characters’) awareness.
It turns out most people sleep about 7 hours a night, so that would be “normal.” Fewer than 6 hours a night means one is a short sleeper, and more than 8 hours a night is a long sleeper. Does it matter?
People tend to perceive short sleepers as high-energy, productive, and on top of things. Long sleepers are often perceived as lazy, or at least not hard workers.
What is your character’s sleep duration? Is s/he happy with with it? Smug? Defensive? Self-conscious?
Sleeping longer is better for physical health. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled Sleep Duration and Survival Percentiles Across Categories of Physical Activity says sleep duration affects physical health: Those who get less than six hours of sleep are at increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and early death even if they’re active and exercise regularly.
But can one sleep too much? Not if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity. (Inactive long sleepers also die earlier, usually from cardiovascular problems.)
Keep this in mind when creating realistic characters.
Early Birds vs. Night Owls
Early birds tend to get up early without setting an alarm, and even on the weekend. Mornings are the most productive times. And activity trackers indicate that early birds actually move 60-90 more minutes per day. They fade in the evening, often in bed by 10:00.
There is a middle group: Day people sleep a little later and are most effective in the afternoon.
Night owls sleep as late as possible and are up well past nightfall, into the wee hours of the morning. Night owls tend to sit more and move less, even when researchers factored for education and health conditions—so need to make an effort to move more for health reasons! And because this pattern doesn’t fit the world at large, making appointments for doctors, etc., can be problematic. Robo-calls while still in bed are especially annoying!
Stereotypes favor early risers for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. On the other time, creative types often report that their best work hours are evening/wee hours of the mornings.
NB: sleep patterns can change naturally over the lifespan. Infants sleep almost constantly; teenagers seem to sleep only while in a classroom setting.
What is your character’s sleep rhythm? Is it felt to be a blessing, a burden, or relatively irrelevant fact of life? Does s/he struggle against the “natural” rhythm? If so, why? Does your character push the limits for staying awake and then “catch-up” later?
Some people doze off while sitting in a chair; some settle into a recliner and nap intentionally; and yet others can only nap in their own beds, often with shoes off and tight clothes loosened.
Some take “power naps” for 15 minutes or so during the work day; others nap for an hour or more at a time.
Napping offers several benefits for healthy adults, including
Extended functioning hours later
Improved performance, including quicker reaction time and better memory
Napping can also have negative effects, such as
Sleep inertia: feeling groggy and disoriented after waking up from a nap.
Nighttime sleep problems.
Short naps generally don’t affect nighttime sleep quality.
People who experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might worsen these problems.
Insomniacs often have trouble napping at all because it takes longer to fall asleep than the allotted duration of the nap!
Does your character nap? Where? Why? And is s/he okay with that?
Does your character claim not to dream? If so, s/he is mistaken. People team an average of 7 times a night during so-called REM sleep. These dream periods get longer as the night’s sleep progresses. Chances are, your dream denier simply doesn’t wake up within ten minutes of dreams ending.
Are dreams important to your character? Some people mine dreams for clues to their inner lives, creative insight, and even hints of the future. Some people treasure dreams as raisers of awareness of non-conscious problems or conflicts. Some believe internal conflicts actually get solved during dreams. Some dreams are erotic and can lead to sexual release. And some people keep dream journals for later review and inspiration for creative works.
Like other dreams, nightmares often include elements of real life: anxiety, fears, failures, embarrassments, or trauma. People do not wake up happy from nightmares. Because nightmares are a disruption of the REM cycle rather than a part of it, a sleeper with nightmares wake up less refreshed than before. (Nightmares are not the same as night terrors.)
Lucid dreaming is less well-known than other sorts of dreams. According to Psychology Today, “During lucid dreaming, which most commonly occurs during late-stage REM sleep, a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within their dreams, to some extent.” Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There are communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive. Still, that doesn’t mean your character can’t be a dedicated lucid dreamer!
Research indicates that dreaming is crucial to intellectual functioning, memory consolidation, and mood regulation. A sleeper who is allowed to undergo every part of the REM cycle except dreaming will eventually develop the same problems as severe sleep deprivation, including hallucinations and strokes!
What is your character’s dream scape? Are dreams remembered? Are they amusing, irritating, or sources of unease? Does your character talk about his/her dreams? If so, to whom?
Bottom line: sleep—and everything associated with it—can make your plot richer and your character more realistic.
A while back (March 10, 2020, to be exact) I wrote a blog Sleeping Alone and Together, about gender and personality reflected in sleep positions.
Grief, deep sorrow at the loss of someone/something important, comes to everyone in one form or another, at some time or another. According to healthline.com, grief is personal, not necessarily linear, and doesn’t follow timelines or schedules. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.
People usually recognize when someone is grieving the death of a loved one. But other deaths—other losses—any change that alters life as one knows it—can cause grief. What might cause your character(s) to grieve? Loss of . . .
A love relationship
Loss of child custody
A pet (or pet custody)
A close friend
How Would Your Character(s) Grieve?
In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying, based on her years of work with terminally ill people. Subsequently, it was applied to other losses as well. Because grief is so complex and personal, various numbers of stages—from two to seven—have been posited. The original model had five stages:
Models with seven stages include the following three after depression:
Reconstruction and working through
Acceptance and hope
Important to note: Stages can vary in order, can overlap, or can be skipped altogether. The duration of any given stage can vary widely, from days to months to years.
What Would Your Character(s) Grief Cycle Look Like?
Bowl of spaghetti?
Expressions of Grief Reflect One’s Personality
For example, people who express anger physically will continue to do so while grieving, very different from those who express anger verbally. Grieving can be self-destructive, triggering harmful eating, drinking, or risk-taking behaviors. Some might grieve by intellectualizing (finding out everything possible about the causes, prognosis, etc.) or compartmentalizing (confining conscious grieving to certain times or places).
BOTTOM LINE: What causes feelings of loss and how your character(s) respond are rich sources of adding depth and feeling to your plot.
There is an abundance of on-line information about the meaning of prison tattoos, and it’s generally consistent. But keep in mind, there are varied meanings, and context is important. One example here would be playing cards, typically found on the knuckles. In Russian prisons, the suit chosen have meanings. In other settings, this type of tattoo may indicate someone who likes to gamble, or who sees life as a gamble. (See below.)
The Nature of Prison Tattoos
Overall, prison tattoos tend to look dark and crude. Inmates tattoo each other using whatever equipment they can gather, such as staples, ballpoint pens, paper-clips, improvised needles, molten rubber, styrofoam, etc.
Sometimes the “artist” will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner’s body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. When prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, they can jury-rig a tattooing machine.
Ink is hard to come by, so for dye, they can use pen ink. Also, they can burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner’s urine – a practice superstitiously believed to reduce the chance of infection. Research has revealed a connection between tattoos and high rates of hepatitis C among prisoners.
Tattooing is typically slow and nearly always painful. Conditions are inevitably far from sterile, so infections and complications are common. Suffice it to say that what prison tattoos convey is important to the wearer.
Not All Tattoos are Voluntary
The most famous instance would be during the Holocaust when concentration camp inmates were tattooed with an identification number. Also see the section on gender below. Any tattoo that stigmatizes a prisoner, or invites abuse by other inmates, is likely to have been applied involuntarily.
White Supremacist Gang Tattoos
Arian Brotherhood (AB)
Family Affiliated Irish Mafia (FAIM)
General white supremacist symbols
For example 1488 (or 14 or 88) found anywhere on the body identifies white supremacists/Nazi inmates. There are a variety of tattoos associated with the Arian Brotherhood, important to identify, for they make up 1% of the prison population but commit 20% of inmate murders.
FAIM members sometimes wear a shamrock as well, signifying affiliation with the AB—but this is only allowed with permission of the AB
Russian Prison Tattoos
In the Soviet Union, particularly during Joseph Stalin’s time, non-political prisoners (thieves, murderers, arsonists, etc.) in the Gulag system were often given preferential treatment by prison guards. Tattoos told the guards as well as other prisoners how to treat a prisoner, including what labor assignments they got and whether to assign prisoners as enforcers. Eventually, non-political prisoners gained so much power within the Gulags that the Vor v Zakony (Thieves in Law) essentially ran many of the prison camps. Today, the Vory is one of the most powerful mafia organizations in the world. In many areas within the former Soviet Union, anyone with visible tattoos is assumed to be affiliated with the Vory or pretending to be.
Birds on horizon
Symbol of the cross
Crowns and rings
A cat tattoo represents a thief.
One cat = the prisoner worked alone
Multiple cats = the prisoner was part of a gang of thieves
A cat tattoo (think stealthy as a cat) is considered good luck for a thief
If worn on the chest, it also signals a dangerous criminal who hates law enforcement
Playing card suits carry specific meanings: spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general, diamonds label stoolpigeons and informants – and was probably applied by force—and hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.
The knife through the neck tattoo, in Russian prisons, means the bearer is a murderer—and proud of it. Much has been written about Russian prison tattoos. If interested, you can find information specific to Japan, Australia, France, Italy, etc.
Street/Prison Gang Tattoos
Mara Salvatrucha 13
Black Guerrilla Family
Red Blood Dragon
Almighty Latin King Nations
18th Street Gang
Texas Chicano Brotherhood
Laotian Boyz (LB)
Angel of death
A spiderweb, typically representing a lengthy incarceration, is commonly found on the elbow or neck.
Teardrops can mean a lengthy prison sentence, that the wearer has committed murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and the tattooed one is seeking revenge.
According to corrections1.com, “One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos, the teardrop’s meaning varies geographically. In some places, the tattoo can mean a lengthy prison sentence, while in others it signifies that the wearer has committed murder. If the teardrop is just an outline, it can symbolize an attempted murder. It can also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. The teardrop has been popularized recently by rappers and other celebrities, but still remains a staple in prisons. Those who are newbies behind bars with a teardrop tattoo will make a lot of enemies, fast.”
Alternatively, Mental Floss says, “There are many stories about why a prisoner would have this tattoo, but the most common is that an unfilled teardrop might symbolize the death of a loved one, while an opaque one might show that the death has been avenged.
Three dots representing “my crazy life” (vida loca) refers to the gang lifestyle, but no particular gang; typically applied at the corner of the eye or between the thumb and index finger. Sometimes three dots, like three crosses, represents the holy trinity of Christianity.
Five dots between the thumb and forefinger represents time done in prison. It’s found internationally. Located elsewhere on the body, this design may mean association with the People Nation gang.
A clock with no hands represents doing time and a lot of it. Ditto watch without hands or an hourglass.
Barbed wire tattoos are fairly common and many have no specific meaning. Sometimes each barb represents a year served in prison. On the forehead, such tattoos typically mean serving a life sentence.
Laughing and crying clown faces/masks often means “Laugh now, cry later” attitude of the gang lifestyle.
Gender As a Factor in Prison/Gang Tattoos
Although there is much online discussion of convict tattoos in general, most of the images shown feature men. From this, with an overlay of gender stereotypes, one might conclude that tattoos among female inmates are rare. But I found one research paper to the contrary.
“This study confirmed that there is a high frequency of tattoos among female offenders, but disproved the hypothesis that the frequency would be higher and more aggressive among violent offenders in comparison to non-violent offenders. Based on these findings, non-violent female offenders were more likely than violent female offenders to have a tattoo or tattoos, to have multiple tattoos, and to have aggressive or masculine tattoos. However, offenders convicted of violent crimes like robbery and assault or battery had the most visible tattoos, primarily located on the hands, face, fingers, and wrists.”
I found no indication that the images and/or their meanings differ by gender.
And according to Wikipedia, “Forced and enslaved prostitutes are often tattooed or branded with a mark of their owners. Women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will may have their boss’ name or gang symbol inked or branded with a hot iron on their skin. In some organizations involved with the trafficking of women and girls, like the mafias, nearly all prostitutes are marked. Some pimps and organizations use their name or well-known logo, while others use secret signs. Some years ago, the branding mark was usually small, only recognized by other pimps, and sometimes hidden between the labia minora, but today some “owners” write their names in big letters all upon the body of the victim.”
Bottom line: Tattoos can carry a lot of meaning. When deciphering that meaning, tread carefully.
Last week, a woman said to me (approximately), “People think permanent make-up is a new thing, but Cleopatra’s famous eyes were tattooed on. Soot was applied with knives.” I’d never heard such a thing, and I’ve actually been to Egypt. I always assumed her face was painted. As with anything that pricks my curiosity, I googled it. Lo and behold, it’s a much more complicated topic than I ever considered.
Basically, any time an indelible design is created by inserting pigment under the epidermis, the result is a tattoo. Tattooing has been practiced in various cultures over centuries.
How Many Centuries?
As for bodily evidence of tattoos, for a long time the oldest known examples were Egyptian mummies, dated about 2000 BCE. However, Ötzi the Iceman, found on the Italian-Australian border in 1991, pushed that back. His mummified skin has at least 60 tattoos and was carbon dated a thousand years earlier, making him 5,200 years old.
If one considers non-body evidence such as figurines and and paintings, then tattooing was practiced in Egypt in the Predynastic period, around 3100 BCE.
Tattooing Was Everywhere
The word tattoo started as the Polynesian word ta, meaning to strike. It evolved into the Tahitian word tatatau, meaning to mark something. As seen in the animated film Moana, these traditional tattoos were applied by means of rapidly striking a bamboo rod to drive an inked thorn into the skin.
In nearly every ancient culture, such as those in Greece and Rome to Native Americans, Japanese, sub-Saharan African, Australian Aboriginal, and Innuit, evidence has shown that tattooing was and most modern cultures tattoos were and are everywhere.
But Why Tattoo?
A cultic symbol dedicating the wearer to a specific god or belief
For example, Amunet was a priestess of the goddess Hathor.
As a brand signifying servitude/slavery/shame
For example adulterers marked with an A, T for thief, etc.
As a professional identification (e.g., prostitute, priestess)
As a permanent amulet seeking protection
Sailors having anchor tattoos or miners with lamps tattooed on their foreheads were trying to bring good luck.
The patterns of tattoos on Egyptian women’s abdomens and thighs seem to have been for fertility and for protection during pregnancy and childbirth.
Tattoos may have been a therapeutic tool, similar to acupuncture.
The Ice Man had tattoos on his hands, lower back, and feet in areas that showed signs of stress damage.
As a declaration of group membership (think Marines, college fraternities, or Nazis)
As a visible means of intimidating the enemy (think Maori warriors) or showing bravery or success in battle
As a personal symbol of a meaningful event (e.g., birth of a child) or belief (sayings of Jesus or Buddha), or tribute to a beloved person
And, of course, as pure body art/decoration
Tattoos used by gang members and prisoners are often extraordinarily complex and will be covered in a separate blog post of their own.
The tattoos used by the Nazis in concentration camps were a form of branding, not in the same class as voluntary markings prisoners have chosen to put on their bodies for various reasons.
Tattoos to repair or restore
Today, plastic surgeons often work with tattoo artists to cover scars, burns, the effects of alopecia or vitiligo.
Many women get tattoos on their breasts after cancer surgery.
Along with her other artistic work, Amy Black (Pink Ink Fund) is a tattoo artist well known in the Richmond, VA area, for creating realistic-looking nipples or other art for women who have had cancer surgery.
Permanent Make-Up, the Daughter of General Tattooing
The goal is to look natural, or like externally applied makeup, enhancing colors on the face, lips, eyebrows, and eyelids. This type of tattooing (also known as cosmetic tattooing, dermapigmentation, micropigmentation) is also older than one might think.
The first documented permanent makeup artist was Sutherland MacDonald, in the U.K. in 1902! His specialty was “all-year-round delicate pink complexion”—i.e., rouged cheeks. By the 1920s, it was popular in the U.S. The tattooist George Burchett wrote about beauty salons that tattooed women using vegetable dyes without their knowledge under the rise of “complexion treatment.” (Personally, I can only imagine that those women were willfully ignorant, given that tattooing is generally an uncomfortable procedure with visible aftereffects, such as temporary scabbing.)
As with all matters of fashion, popularity varies over time. During the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of tattoos took a sharp uptick. According to one article (the guardian.com) in 2016, a US poll revealed that 29% of people had a tattoo, up from 21% four years earlier. Of people born between 1982 and 2004, 47% have at least one.
Do multiple tattoos create a different impression from a single one? And if so, in what way? What difference does the reason for the tattoo make? What about the nature/content of the tattoo?
But Back to Cleopatra
According to accepted academic evidence, in Egypt—unlike most cultures—only women were tattooed. The tattoos most often seemed related to fertility and childbirth, or identifying the woman as high ranking. However, I found nothing specific to Cleopatra’s face. Bummer.
Permanent body decoration serves psychological and/or practical purposes for the tattooed one. In addition, body decorations send out a range of social signals—intentional or not. Think about it.
Like other accouterments of our lives—housing, clothing, pets—how we get from Point A to Point B communicates to those around us—and not everyone draws the same conclusions! The following observations are some of the most common (or loudest) I’ve come across; different countries and time periods have had varied observations about modes of transportation. Like most stereotypes and public perceptions, the following are of varying degrees of truth.
As general background: when users have to decide which mode of transport to use (private car, public transport, cycling, walking, etc.) gender is often a more robust determinant than age or income!
Shank’s Mare (A.K.A. walking): the Oldest Mode
Seldom chosen as the primary or only way to get around
People on long pilgrimages (Hajj to Mecca, walking cross country to raise awareness for a cause, Gandhi’s march to the Sea)
Depending on other info, may indicate poverty or health awareness
Bicycle: Impressions Depend on Model, Condition, Etc.
Bicycles, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles are almost always two-wheeled vehicles driven and steered by one rider. The distinctions are, like almost everything else, varied around the world and prone to blurring. A bicycle is powered entirely by the rider pedaling; a moped has a small motor attached to assist with pedaling in especially difficult environments. Bicycles are relatively easily modified for people with physical limitations, compared to cars and motorcycles.
People are in the best mood when riding bicycles
Can be inexpensive or very expensive, depending on type of bicycle and riding gear
Difficult to park securely in many places
Primarily for physical fitness
In fact, the vast majority of regular bicyclists in the US ride for transportation as they cannot afford a car and do not have access to public transit
Limited passenger capacity
Not as limited as most in the U.S. assume.
In Copenhagen, “’Cargo-bike moms’ are gentrifying the Netherlands.”
Scooters are powered entirely by an engine, with a foot well for the seated rider’s legs. Unlike a car, all engine controls are in the handles.
Easy to drive
Cheaper and slower than a motorcycle
No safer than motorcycles
Popular on very rural country rides for teenagers
More popular abroad than in the U.S.
Easier to maneuver and store in crowded areas
Driving permit requirements are often different from those of a car or motorcycle
Many areas don’t require permits at all
Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are questioning whether scooters fall under the same laws forbidding women to drive
Motorcycle Rider Stereotypes
Motorcycles and scooters are very similar, but a motorcyclist sits astride the seat. The engine of a motorcycle is generally more powerful than that of a scooter.
Harley riders are elitist and only care about brand; Other riders are effeminate
Stunt hooligans on the road
Prone to road-rage
Have a death wish
Emergency Response personnel sometimes refer to motorcycle riders as “Organ Donors,” but that is more because of the lack of safety gear than specific behavior patterns
All young riders prefer sports bikes
Physically tough appearance
Men have long, unkempt beards
Tattoos are common
Women dress provocatively
Lots of black leather, chains, spikes, gang markings, etc.
Gear is chosen to look tough rather than for practicality
Many of these perceptions are based on Hell’s Angels and other “outlaw motorcycle clubs”
Multi-Passenger Public Transportation
Public transport is much safer than automobiles (the above photo is an exception). For example, bus and rail travelers are 20 times less likely to die en route than drivers. Even if self-driving and safety technology could reduce car by 90%, fatalities per passenger mile would still be twice as high in private automobiles.
World-wide, the largest share of public transportation users are women
Bus and train riders experience the most negative emotions
Bus: poor people who cannot afford a vehicle/gas;
homeless/mentally ill people seeking temporary shelter from the elements.
Train: long-distance commuters;
More common in Europe and Asia, where train systems are much more comprehensive
Plane: long-distance (business or pleasure) travelers of means
The second happiest people are car passengers, followed by car drivers
Carpoolers: cut down air pollution
Lessen expenses of gas/parking
Renting a limousine or similar
Driver alone: not sociality responsible
Selfish or ego-centric
Taxi/Lyft/Uber: short distance trips for those valuing convenience
People who cannot drive for whatever reason (inebriation, tourist, moving larger than normal cargo, etc.)
Consider the possible conflicts between traditional taxi services and Lyft or Uber style companies, or even the conflict between drivers and management within those companies
Car drivers are so common that to dig into assumptions, it’s necessary to get into make and model
Other methods of transportation are more common outside the US. Extreme climates, different resources, and distance have made what we might see as extraordinary into the everyday.
Dog sled, snow mobile, cross-country skiing
Tuktuk, marsrhutka, or any other kind of informal minibus system run by individual drivers
Horseback or horse-drawn vehicle (or donkey, mule, camel, etc.)
Canoe or kayak
BOTTOM LINE for writers: consider your choice and the reason for it!
Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.
How much money? These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.
Lower middle class
Upper middle class
*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.
Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.
Begging or panhandling
Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
By the job/ piecework
Having multiple jobs
Salary plus bonuses
Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.
Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.
Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)
Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.
Always more where that came from
Easy come, easy go
Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
Always live below your means
Clips coupons and shops sales
Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
Buy quality, not quantity
Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid
Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.
Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
Income disparity causing conflict
Where the money goes:
Whatever strikes one’s fancy
Luxuries, with or without guilt
Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
Supporting family or friends who need a hand
Back into a business
Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
How money is handled:
Charge everything possible
Pay by debit card whenever possible
Pay bills as soon as one arrives
Have bills paid by bank debit
Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
Tip lavishly or stingily?
Needing to take payday or title loans
If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?
Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?