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!”
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?