Feminism under my skin?

I love when an article with a headline like “What’s the real reason for women getting tattoos?” or “Painted ladies: Why women get tattoos” shows up in my Twitter feed. I always click on them snarkily (can you click snarkily?), thinking, “oh goody, someone will FINALLY explain to me why I have this thing on my back!”


This shot took like five tries and it’s STILL off-center. I give up.

Now, OBVIOUSLY the people writing the articles aren’t claiming that they’ll explain every woman’s tattoo ever, but it does irritate me when an entire gender (or class, or race, or religion) gets lumped together like that, especially by someone claiming to know the “real” reason for something. It’s not that far from saying “What’s the real reason for people getting tattoos?” You’d never even PRETEND to explain that in a neat little article – the reasons are far too varied.

Some people get tattoos to stand out, others to fit in. Some get tattoos with meaning, some get them to be sexy, some just like them. And there’s a hierarchy of getting tattoos – it’s acceptable to get a tattoo to remember a deceased loved one, but questionable to get one that is “cliche” or that bears the name of a current lover.

However, both of those articles took a look at the ways in which people are more critical of women’s tattoos than of men. While this could just be a result of people being more critical of ANY decision a woman makes about her appearance, I like their take on the potential feminist implications of tattoos as a way for women to mark their bodies as “mine”.

In the first article, the author makes a solid point about criticism of female celebrities who choose to get visible tattoos. She says: “When your image and body are considered public property, when complete strangers queue up to tell you what you can wear and how you can dance” a tattoo can act as a reminder to anyone who looks at your body that it is there for you, and not for them.

The second article takes that idea a step further and talks about people who comment on how a woman’s tattoos make her less sexy, or people who are disgusted when female celebrities get visible tattoos. Ashworth addresses those ideas when she asks, “why is women’s skin still considered public property she has no right to alter?”

I’d never thought about that, but there is this definite questioning of tattoos on a woman – about what they’re going to look like when you age, if you’re going to regret them, if they’re “attractive” – that doesn’t happen to men.

There also seems to be a particular pressure on women for their tattoo to be “meaningful” – to be a symbol of overcoming adversity or commemoration – as if women need a REALLY GOOD reason to defend their decision to alter their bodies. In college, people always asked what my tattoo “means” – I doubt they were asking the same thing of the frat boys with “tribal” tattoos around their upper arms (oh, the late 90s!). I still don’t have a good answer for that – “Um, it’s Irish? And I’m Irish? And the knot represents like, eternal love and loyalty and stuff?”

Furthermore, if someone asked me “what’s the real reason you got your tattoo?” I don’t think I’d be able to answer that one either. It wasn’t rebellion; both of my parents have tattoos, and my mom came with me to sign the paperwork for mine since I was only 17 at the time. It wasn’t so that people would think I was cool; I’d given up on THAT a long time ago, and I didn’t tell anyone when I got it. So when people ask why I got it, my answer is usually a shrug and “I dunno, I just wanted one.” And it makes me cranky that I feel like that answer isn’t sufficient.

I always click on links to collections of tattoo photos, and I like reading the comments. People talk about tattoos that they regret, and others refuse to regret a tattoo (since, regardless of what it is, it’s a symbol of who they were at the time, and perhaps a reminder of how far they’ve come). Women get tattoos when they overcome an eating disorder, escape an abusive relationship, or have a child. They get them on a whim, when they find a design they really like, or as a way to express themselves.

One thing I do notice in those comments, though, is judgment other people’s tattoos (particularly women’s). Let’s stop that, k? If you have a gorgeous sleeve of meaningful tattoos that you and your tattoo artist collaborated on over the course of years, that’s AWESOME (and please post pictures in the comments). But that’s no reason to look down on the girl who got a butterfly on her hip on spring break, or the girl who got a finger tattoo because they’re trendy. You might not agree with the idea of tattooing a girlfriend or boyfriend’s name on your skin, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to deride someone who does. You might feel that it’s anti-feminist or stupid for someone to get a tattoo because to impress someone else or to be seen as sexier, but it’s still that person’s choice (although if you know someone thinking of getting one for that reason, it might be worth trying to have a NON-JUDGMENTAL conversation about the decision and motivations behind it). And don’t even get me STARTED on the phrase “tramp stamp.” Stop saying that. Now.

So what do you think? Are people more critical of women’s tattoos? Do you think a tattoo can be an expression of ownership over your body? Do you have a tattoo? What was your reason for getting it?

10 responses to “Feminism under my skin?

  1. This was really interesting 🙂

    I have four tattoos currently, and will probably get at least two more this year. For me, it was partly that I always liked the look of tattoos, and perhaps the rebellious connotations, but when an important relationship broke down I went to south america, got three tattoos and shaved the side of my head – cliche much? For me it was at least partly to do with the fact that I’d had boyfriends for 6 years (since aged 15) and I think I’d subconsciously moulded my appearance and opinions to suit them, so when I was single for the first time ever, I went to the extreme.

    I have a feminist symbol on my arm. It’s the least aesthetically pleasing – my mother constantly tells me it’s “brute ugly” and “militant”. I have a fondness for it though – it reminds me of being in Peru and I do think it was a reclamation of my skin at the time. I think I’ll probably add some stuff to it though as it’s unsymmetrical and has blue-ish ink smudges around it. Haha. I did not research.

    The next two are a Picasso quote on my shoulder and a Peruvian Nasca-line up my back. I love them both, and I get complimented on them much more than the antagonistic feminist symbol.

    My most recent is the number 42 on my lower arm – from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This relates to my overall understanding of tattoos, which links to my general approach to life. As nihilistic as this sounds, I just think when it comes down to it, everything means nothing, and this world is so arbitrary and meaningless in a way. Of course I still think we should improve what we can within it, but really nothing has any inherent meaning. I know that sounds very depressing, but for me tattoos highlight that skin is just skin, and everything is temporary, and to be able to be expressive on it is something that I find quite liberating – maybe it’s the ability to control something small and immediate within a big chaotic world. And also I like the challenge that you can never get rid of it. You have to love it, and you have to accept it. So perhaps there are some gendered aspects to my approach.

    Anyway – great article 🙂


  2. It’s “la ensenanza academia de la belleza es falsa”, which means ‘the academic teaching of beauty is a lie’. I saw it on the wall at the Picasso museum in Malaga.

    “The academic teaching on beauty is false. We have been misled, but so completely misled that we can no longer find so much as a shadow of a truth again. The beauties of the Parthenon, the Venuses, the Nymphs, the Narcisusses, are so may lies. Art is not the application of a canon of beauty, but what the instinct and the brain can conceive independently of that canon.”

    The Spanish version is a bit nicer, it says that when you love someone you don’t measure them with lines and rulers, and you can’t apply a canon to love.



  3. I have a tattoo on my head. I have long hair now so nobody ever really sees it, but the reaction when I tell people is always this huge gasp! What made you do that??! Didn’t it hurrrt???! I very much doubt a man would get that reaction.

    I still love my head tattoo though – even if nobody sees it. I know it’s there and I like the feeling of having something a little different about me.


  4. I currently have 2 tattoos. One is a calla lily over the scar on my chest left from the portacath I used to have there. The other is a tree on my left shoulder (over my heart from the back side) My tree has 3 branches and each branch is made up of the letters that spell one of my kids names. I worked very hard on the design and when I had my consult with my artist at first she told me she would not do it. She claimed that my tree was too masculine and what I really wanted was a wispy tree with my kids names written along each branch. She said she’d draw something up for me and email it to me. I went home (devastated) and took another look at my design, it wasn’t masculine if anything it looked like a woman with her arms in the air. I replied to my artist and told her that I was really set on this design and that I didn’t want a flimsy tree that would blow in the wind I wanted a strong tree that was firmly rooted and unmovable to represent my family. She loved this and said she would design a tattoo to represent this. (I tried to share pictures of my original design and my tattoo but couldn’t.)


  5. Love this! The preoccupation with women with tattoos has always perplexed me. I especially identify with when you talk about the “meaning” of tattoos. Everyone is so quick to try and categorize and judge others and decide if they “support” my tattoos, when it’s no one else’s business!

    I absolutely hate commenting blogs with links, but I recently wrote an article that talks a little bit about what you’re saying, but focuses less on celebrities and more about the misconception that women with tattoos are linked with promiscuity. If you’re interested in taking a look, “How Tattoos Helped Me Reclaim My Body”: http://femmagazine.com/?p=6466

    Anyway, thanks for speaking out on this!


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