How Tattoos Helped Me Reclaim My Body

Illustration: Noopur Goel
Tattoos: Corrina Rose

At a party, I had the misfortune of hearing another girl say, “Yeah, some girls can look good with a lot of tattoos, but in a really slutty kind of way.” Sadly, this is not the first time I have heard some variation of this statement.

Despite tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body modification becoming increasingly more popular, there are still many misconceptions I hear on a daily basis.

In addition to virtually everyone in my family, I have several tattoos. My sister has full sleeve tattoos, and I have witnessed her being profiled as a “suspicious character” when trying to re-enter the country after a vacation. And while it is no secret that those with tattoos are often stereotyped as criminal, rebellious, or mischievous, women in particular are also linked with promiscuity.

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I grew up hearing the slang “tramp stamp. Meant to indicate a tattoo on a woman’s lower back and thereby define her as sexually promiscuous, this term is still thrown around today. Needless to say, this “classifier” is both a ridiculous notion and irrelevant in the first place (but that’s another article entirely).

The newer term,skank flank, referring to a tattoo on a woman’s rib cage, infuriates me even more. It reduces women to “flank,” as if we are all pieces of meat and not human beings.

These terms are almost exclusively used for women and I can’t help but wonder why.

So in my curiosity, I decided to Google “women with tattoos” and was very dismayed by my findings.

The topic of many discussion boards and blogs was discussing whether or not girls with tattoos are attractive, trashy, or some other variation of physical description. The fact that there is so much debate surrounding women’s appearances is problematic on its own.

An argument against tattoos is that skin is beautiful and tattoos are a part of somefeminist agenda to “deface” the female body. This mentality has a lot to do with infantilizing women. A child-like youthful appearance (which would be associated with non-tattooed/modified skin) is sexualized and seen as feminine and attractive. Thus, an opinion in much debate is that women who do not adhere to this infantilized appearance are not “beautiful.”

The opposite side of the debate, highly-fetishizes women with tattoos—this is also known as hypersexualizing tattooed girls. This perception of tattooed women derives from the same sort of thinking: Women with tattoos are rebellious and even promiscuous because they are not adhering to social standards of femininity and beauty.

And then, there are the people in the middle—the ones who don’t mind if someone has tattoos as long as “they have meaning.” I hate hearing this argument, and for whatever reason, I feel as if I encounter it on a daily basis.

What does that even mean? Who’s to say or dictate which tattoos are “worthy” or “meaningful” and which ones aren’t? Why are we so obsessed with categorizing and defining every single thing we all do?

Lastly, there is the recurring Facebook status of, “Having tattoos is like putting a bumper sticker on a Porsche.” A human being cannot be compared to machinery! We are not cars or objects; we are living and breathing entities. We are not defaced or “lose value” because of our personal decisions that affect no one but ourselves.

We must stop this judgmental preoccupation and harness our energy and time with something more important than chastising how one chooses to express themselves.

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I can’t even count how many times strangers have stopped me to ask, “What do your tattoos say” or “How much did it cost.” And of course, I try not to mind, because when I got my tattoos, I knew their visibility would create comments. However, it still baffles me how comfortable people feel to ask such personal questions.

Strangers have even come up and touched my tattoos. My skin and body are not public property. I try to appreciate compliments and well-intentioned people, but my body is still mine and only mine. We should not be told to only get “hidden” tattoos to be responsible for the actions of others.

Some major points that my sister has helped me realize: Yes, tattoos hurt. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, some of them have meaning and some of them don’t­—but either way, I don’t owe anyone an explanation. No, my tattoos or piercings do not define my sexuality. No, you cannot touch them. I know what they will look like when I am eighty. And I’m pretty sure I’ll have bigger fish to fry in my later years than what my tattoos will look like.

 Tattoos have given me the power to reclaim my body as my own in a society that is constantly objectifying and exploiting the female form.

Some may not like or agree with my tattoos and others may like them in a “really slutty kind of way,”­ but the difference between me and them is that I do not judge them based on their absence of tattoos in ways that they judge me because I proudly wear them.

I do not get tattoos for the approval or attention of others; I get them to remind myself of moments, times, or people that inspired me, gave me hope or strength, made me laugh or smile. We are approaching a day where how we choose to express ourselves will not dictate how others perceive us.

The merit of my character, thoughts, and feelings will surpass my physicality. My body will not always be here­, but hopefully, my ideas and the impression I leave on those around me will live on. And since we are only here for such a short period of time, I choose to decorate myself.

I have reclaimed ownership and autonomy over my own body by making myself the sole decision maker in how I present myself. I defy the constructions of what is “normal” or “professional” or “acceptable.”

One day, our tattoos will not determine our “purity” nor will they constantly be hypersexualized. They will only make us more colorful with stories and words etched on our skin, so we never forget who we are or what we believe in.

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