On Ownership, Marking the Body, and Tattooing As A Feminist Act

I was recently having lunch with my father, who is not a big fan of my tattoos, when the topic of my tattoos came up. It seems to be a quarterly event; I think that he’s really trying to grasp them, and an aspect of myself he didn’t knew existed, by exploring them, and he doesn’t really mean to be heinously offensive when he does it, but he often ends up making really problematic comments which occasionally turn into fodder for discussion on this website. I have to give him credit for trying, and my conversations with him often remind me of discussions with people who have just been introduced to an entirely new concept, like, say, the idea that women can do science too, of which they were previously ignorant. Not that ignorance is necessarily an excuse, but those people are genuinely amazed and they are scrambling to fit this information into the framework of information which formerly governed their lives.

At any rate, he said something along the lines of “I’ve never understood why you got tattoos. You seem like such an individualist, and everyone seems to have them. If you’d been in my house, I never would have allowed it. I wouldn’t have given my permission.”

And the comment raised two separate issues for me: assumptions that people make about tattooing and tattooed people, and the intersection of feminism and tattooing.

Numerous people seem to labour under the assumption that people get tattoos to be unique and individualistic, and are thereby really just sheep following the other people who are getting tattoos to be unique and individualistic: therefore, someone with tattoos is actually a conformist. But that’s a false assumption. People get tattooed for many, many reasons, and while some people may view them as a mark of individualism or nonconformity, others do not, or don’t get them for those reasons. My reasons for choosing to be tattooed have nothing to do with individualism or lack thereof, and I can’t help but find it intriguing that people often try to denigrate tattooed people by attacking them on the basis of their individualized street cred.

The thing is, everyone does not have tattoos. In 1936, an estimated six percent of the population was tattooed; around 70 years later numbers suggested that 16% of Americans have one or more tattoos (source).  That’s hardly everyone, though my age demographic in particular tends to be heavily tattooed. Even fewer people have tattoos above the neck, as I do. Tattooed people are certainly more visible, thanks to changing social trends, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that everyone has tattoos, or that all tattoos are the same. There’s also a huge gradation between people with small flash pieces in discreet locations, and people with elaborate custom work which is highly visible.

I’ve always believed that you don’t need to mark yourself (with clothing, jewelry, or anything else) to prove or demonstrate that you are an individualist, but conversely, being marked doesn’t mean that you aren’t an individualist. After all, I wear shoes in restaurants; does that mean I never go barefoot? I like potato chips; does that mean I can never be anti-American? I would argue that the tendency to evaluate people by their outward appearance is pretty anti-individualist, as is the tendency to believe that you can/should/will be evaluated by outward appearance, and therefore that you must choose the right individualist markings so that you can be readily identified.

Perhaps it’s really that I think that the mark of the true individualist is in not caring about whether people perceive you as an individualist or conformist. If your feelings are hurt because someone says you’re acting conformist, you’re probably not an individualist. People can read me any way they want, and that’s their affair. I can’t speak for all tattooed people, of course, but it seems unlikely to me that many are choosing to get tattooed as an act of individualism or rebellion.

My father’s comment brought up two separate issues: the control of underage bodies by their parents, and particularly of teen girls by their fathers, and the control of women’s bodies in general. As a society, we collectively believe that parents have ultimate autonomy over the bodies of their children, that parents inherently know what is best for their children, and that children do not have the right to exert control of their own bodies, even if it’s clear that a parent is making a bad choice.

There’s a huge area of overlap between tattooing and feminism, and a lot of people, including feminists, aren’t discussing that. Women are less likely than men to be tattooed; it’s hard to pin down accurate statistics on this level, but evidence generally suggests that men are more tattooed than women, and that individual tattooed men tend to have more tattoos than individual tattooed women.

Women are generally taught that tattooing and piercing are not ladylike. They are repeatedly reminded that tattoos on women are not socially acceptable, that women who want careers or want to be taken seriously need to think carefully before they get a tattoo. There’s even a special term, “tramp stamp,” to describe a particular tattoo location which is commonly associated with women. The term feeds into the idea that tattooed women are slutty, easy, less pure than their un-inked counterparts.

Women, in other words, are not supposed to mark themselves, or to stake out their bodies as their own property. There’s a clear commonality here between the treatment of women’s bodies in general and the acceptance of tattooed women. Women’s bodies are public property, commodities which are owned collectively by society, which means that society is allowed to determine what is and what is not appropriate for the female body. Women who choose to tattoo themselves are deliberately stepping outside of that framework; they may be “disfiguring” themselves in the eyes of society, but they are also alerting the world to the fact that they are not public property, and this is what makes tattooed women offensive, because they are daring to assert themselves.

This becomes especially complicated in the context of the relationship between teen girls and their fathers; fathers are expected to keep their daughters pure for the consumption of future men. The assumption is that men must work harder to exercise control over their daughters, to keep them from going astray either by accident or deliberately. Failure to do so is not just a failure to protect a daughter from impurity, but a failure to be a man. Since tattooing is associated with impurity and it involves exercising control over your own body, it stands to reason that fathers must therefore feel social pressure to avoid the shame of having a tattooed daughter. After all, everyone knows that tattooing is tantamount to sluthood, and no one wants a slutty daughter.

His comment also spoke to the general social belief that other people have the right to comment on women’s bodies because they own them. Even though my father is a fairly feminist man, although his brand of feminism is very different from mine, he has absorbed the idea that women’s bodies are owned by society. Taking control of your body is an affront not just to society, but to individuals who believe that they own your body, by virtue of being male and members of society. Much like women who choose to shave their heads as a deliberate social act, tattooed women are thumbing their noses at the idea that society is allowed to tell them what they can and cannot do. Tattooed women are exerting control over themselves, and society finds this largely infuriating, just as it finds women who control their own sexuality infuriating, which is why a woman who chooses to have sex is a slut or a whore, and a woman who turns down a man is a frigid bitch, and a tattooed women is easy.

For men, who regard their bodies as personal property over which they have complete control and have never had the experience of living in a female body, I think it’s difficult to understand how empowering the experience of being tattooed is for many women. Whether you’re a 50 year old bank teller getting a flower on your ankle or a 20 year old queer getting flaming lotuses on your arms, you are taking control of something which society has repeatedly told you, for your entire life, that you cannot control and that you do not have the right to control.

4 Comments on On Ownership, Marking the Body, and Tattooing As A Feminist Act

  1. I would like to register my dissatisfaction with the implications of the parallel structure in the sentence “Whether you’re a 50 year old bank teller getting a flower on your ankle or a 20 year old queer getting flaming lotuses on your arms…”

    50yo –> 20yo (ages)
    bank teller –> queer (…is “bank teller” an orientation or “queer” a job?)

  2. meloukhia // 19 August, 2009 at 3:27 pm //

    I think you’re totally misunderstanding the point of that sentence and drawing a completely false analogy. Comprehension fail. Just because a sentence resembles something you learned about in English class doesn’t mean it is something you learned about in English class, and yes, I am being snarky, because this is important: you are reading assumptions which were not there into this text by being a grammar prescriptivist, and I will not stand for it.

    This is a case of two contrasting examples. The first reference, a 50 year old bank teller, is exactly the kind of women whom people do not expect to see tattooed, whereas a 20 year queer is exactly the kind of woman whom society does expect to see tattooed. Both examples play on very well-established stereotypes about women and tattooing. Point being that, no matter who she is, being tattooed can be empowering for a woman because she is exerting ownership and control over her body.

    “Queer” is, of course, not a job title. But it’s also not a sexual orientation; it’s about a lot more than that, although sexual orientation can be a part of queer identity, and it’s very simplistic to refer to “queer” in the same sense as “gay” or “heterosexual.” “Bank teller” is obviously not a sexual orientation either. Both “bank teller” and “queer” are aspects of identity which are used by people to draw conclusions about others, and I used these contrasting examples because I knew that readers were very familiar with both stereotypes and would immediately understand the inclusive inference I was making.

    Evidently, I was wrong, although no one else has managed to totally misconstrue this statement in the way that you have.

    [Edited to explain why I am so irritable about this.]

  3. …er, I object to being called a grammar prescriptivist? On the grounds that I was talking about implications, and took pains to make that clear. (And besides — to add in a bit of pickiness, as if this conversation needed any more of it! — I’m pretty sure parallel structure is a stylistic device, which has little to do with prescriptivism’s realm.) It’s obvious what you meant to say, certainly, and I don’t disagree with it. I only wanted to point out the Unfortunate Implications, which are often not meant on any level at all.

    I debated with myself about posting my original comment, because there’s few people who wouldn’t take such a comment personally, but in the end I decided that you might not.

    Anyway, if you did, please don’t take it personally! I’m not attacking you, or the ideas in this post, or… really anything at all. Apologies if I chose my words poorly >.>

  4. meloukhia // 19 August, 2009 at 4:39 pm //

    Ok, fine, I’ll call you a plain ole prescriptivist instead, happy?

    The issue here is that, to use your word, I’m not sure that you fully read the implications within that sentence. You’re right that, on the surface, it sounds as though an analogy is being drawn between a job and (in your words) an orientation; the first fundamental flaw in reading is the assumption that “queer” is a sexual orientation, but if we’re just talking about a surface reading, it’s probably safe to say that this assumption would be made. But this, as we know, is not a website for surface readers. If you read more deeply into the sentence, you see two classic tropes being used: older bank teller (conservative/staid) and younger queer (liberal/rebellious) with the goal of implicating a broad spectrum of individuals.

    Is it an unintended unfortunate implication? I say no, because I thought very carefully about the associations with both tropes before using them, and the sentence was intended to be read on a deeper level. I make the (fair, in my estimation) assumption that most of my readers read beyond the surface layer, and that a superficially problematic framing would resolve itself when people pondered it for a moment.

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