Buying In or Breaking Out? women and visible tattoos

 I’ve just booked in to get my second tattoo, with the wonderful Amanda Cain at Green Lotus. Strangely, I’ve been more nervous this time around than the first. All the apprehension I had when I went in for the last time – questions of pain, regret, family approval – were, I think, pretty standard first time things you feel mildly obliged to worry about. It has taken me far longer to figure out what exactly has been getting to me this time around.

The difference between the two tattoos is this: one is on my back; the other will be on my upper arm. That is, pretty clearly visible, especially on formal occasions (which come up a bit at my work). I knew, after I got my first tattoo, that I loved it, and the tattoo aesthetic. I knew that I wanted more. I had – or have – rarely been so certain of things that can’t be taken back. So why do I have a problem with people seeing them?

I’ve been thinking about it recently, and I think it very much ties into issues of gender and perception. 

It can be hard for a woman to assert ownership of her body. We grow up in a world in which our bodies are battlegrounds: politically, religiously, ideologically, and to differing extents all over the world. I think we become aware very early on that there are people out there who dispute our claim to have control over our own bodies, concerning everything from our right to choose, to how we present ourselves in public, to our sexual habits and inclinations.

I don’t mean to compare hesitation to get a tattoo with the struggle for reproductive rights, suffrage, freedom from violence, or any of the other (far more pressing) concerns for women around the world. But I do mean to suggest that they are in some small way connected, through the sometimes unconscious processes of socialisation.

It is not surprising, after all, that this millennia old struggle for control should inform our ideas of what is beautiful and desirable, and that this should filter through media, advertising and art to us. Tattoos, I would argue, are a small stand against the dominant aesthetic paradigm which equates femininity to emptiness.

Besides tattoos, think of the many circumstances in which filled (or positive) space equates to masculinity, and empty (or negative) space equates to femininity. Scars, for example; a scar on a man is sexy: it speaks of experience, survival, strength. On a woman, it equates to damage, carelessness, and victimhood.

Think, even, of the aesthetics of the cosmetics industry: flawless skin and hairless bodies. No stretch marks, wrinkles, moles, or body hair. No signs of aging or experience, please. It’s also no co-incidence that the traditional Western wedding (and debutant) dress is white: it symbolises not only purity, but vacancy.

The traditional aesthetic and rituals of such ceremonies suggests that we do not define ourselves; we present ourselves, and through the course of our lives are defined according to and within tightly controlled and constructed social occasions.

Upon thinking about this, I realised that there was some part of me that bought into this idea. That wanted to maintain the idea of myself as a blank slate, and a space for someone else’s projections. Not ‘the girl with tattoos’, but ‘the girl who could be anything you want’. Is that a healthy impulse? I don’t think so. Why do I care more about preserving the non-existent tabula rasa of my body than asserting my individuality in a way that makes me happy?

It hasn’t been until now that I feel comfortable saying: I don’t.  In this context, there’s something wonderfully revolutionary about tattoos. They are a small flag which says, this is mine. This body, which I have a fleeting possession over for too few decades, is wholly mine and all I am: complete and sovereign.

3 thoughts on “Buying In or Breaking Out? women and visible tattoos

  1. “No co-incidence that the … wedding… dress is white.” Yeah, it kind of is. White only became a popular wedding dress colour after Queen Victoria wore it. At a guess, she wore white because it’s expensive, hard to keep clean, and the colour that lace traditionally comes in. The purity/ innocence connotations were read in later.

    But congratulations on the article – an interesting and thought provoking one.

    • Hi Clare,
      Thanks for bringing that up, although I personally think that the connections between white as a popular wedding dress colour and purity is a little more complicated than the popularisation by Queen Victoria.
      White has been connected with purity and worship for far longer and Queen Victoria would have been aware of this. White was used in rennaissance portraiture of young women to indicate purity and virginity, white animals are considered sacred and pure by many cultures and the colour white in feng shui symbolises purity and cleanliness. Queen Victoria may have started the trend but I think Tara is right in saying that it is no co-incidence. The continued tradition has a lot to do with the need for women to be pure and virginal when they enter a marriage.

      Thanks for your comments!

  2. Awesome article Tara!

    As a tattoo fan and gender studies major, I have often noticed the differences in the responses people have toward tattoos on men versus on women. More accurately, there seems to be almost no response to men with tattoos at all. There’s still often some stigma associated with tattoos generally, but I’ve never witnessed anyone broach the subject with a tattooed man outside of the casual “Where do you get your tatts done?” conversation. I find when people (who are almost always men) comment on my tattoos, it’s framed in a way that implies I need to justify myself. Sometimes I’m outright told “just don’t get any more”, or physically grabbed and turned around like I’m some sort of revolving sunglasses display stand. I have had countless people stare at me with utter confusion, seemingly trying to work out why I would do this to myself. Sometimes the only words people can seem to conjure up is “You have a lot of tattoos.”… Yes.. I did already know that though..

    I’ve even had a doctor write a report for a referral, that opens with “Tess is a heavily tattooed 30 year-old woman”, which was unusual because my tattoos were not even remotely related to the content of the report. Perhaps it was just a safety measure to ensure my medical records were not released to the wrong patient.

    But I digress.. great article! 😀 ❤

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