Are Tattoos Among Women Really More Acceptable?

In a conversation with my landlord recently, he mentioned that he’d read a factoid in Harper’s claiming that one in two women in the US under the age of 35 have a tattoo, in contrast with one in four men in the same age group. He didn’t have a specific source on that statistic and it’s a hard one to gauge, but we speculated more generally on what was behind those numbers, and the social acceptability of tattoos, and tattoos in society in general.

He posited that tattoos are more acceptable on women these days, and that’s why they’re more common, but I’m not so sure. For starters, the statistic didn’t indicate whether the tattoos were visible, and I know many, many tattooed women with tattoos that are not easily found. They have work on their backs, thighs, ankles, or upper arms, in places where it won’t be seen unless they are nude or deliberately choosing to reveal their tattoos.

That speaks to a desire for concealment, and women with hidden tattoos express that desire verbally, as well. This would seem to suggest that tattoos are not as acceptable on women as some might think. Many tattooed women I know choose to hide their ink at work, and have been encouraged to think carefully about placement if they want to advance in their careers. Tattooed professionals like attorneys do exist, but their work is usually well hidden – or they’re so well-placed and well-paid that they can afford to flout convention. Even then, men are more likely to have visible work, as women have much higher professional appearance standards.

Tattoos are routinely cited in appearance codes for women in corporate settings as well as those working in education, child services, and other public welfare settings. To be a woman in any of those careers is to adhere to very strict appearance standards, and to be prepared to wrap your body up, hiding it from the public. This includes the obvious impropriety of having visible tattoos, which marks your body as Other and creates the suggestion that you have autonomy and the ability to decide what you do with your body, independent of the people around you.

Women with visible tattoos, meanwhile, continue to face a social stigma. It starts quietly, with smaller, more modest tattoos. The occasional frown or comment, the discrimination in employment, the censure, and it grows over time. As your tattoos become more prominent, so, too, does the judgment of society around you.

Tattooed women are easy, they’re sluts, they don’t have respect for their bodies, they don’t respect themselves, they’re pretending to be rebellious but really they’re just conforming with society, they’ll never get jobs, they’re ruining their skin, won’t they think of what they’ll look like when they’re 80, don’t they know no one wants to look at that. The judgments made about tattooed women often revolve around their appearance as sex objects and their role as pretty things for men to look at – and men can be vicious about tattooed women.

There are, of course, professions (outside the tattoo studio) where visible ink is common and considered perfectly acceptable for people of all genders. Kitchens are one example, where chefs commonly have tattoos. Likewise, members of the military, hearkening back to an ancient tradition, are frequently tattooed. Among musicians and artists, along with writers, it’s more commonplace to see tattoos in general, along with tattooed women, and there’s less judgment and commentary about it – in fact, tattoos are respected as a legitimate art form and they become a source of discussion and commentary as art, rather than something people find gross or unacceptable.

But as someone with very visible tattoos who’s read as a woman, I’ve had people make nasty comments about my body. I’ve had people cross to the other side of the street to avoid me. I’ve had people try to refuse service to me. This on the relatively progressive West Coast, where tattoos are extremely common, especially in the places I live – I’d actually bet that the rate of tattooing in Oakland is much higher than the one in two believed to be the national average.

I’ve also, of course, received many compliments on my work, especially from fellow tattooed people. (We are, by and large, a friendly lot, something that seems to surprise people when they find out.)

And I’d be curious to know if there are statistics breaking down that information about tattooed women. I’d like to know what percentage of tattooed women have hidden or easily-hidden tattoos (back, thighs, ankles, upper arms), versus visible or hard to hide tattoos (calves, neck, chest, lower arms). While women under 35 may be living in a society that is much more permissive about tattoos than it used to be, things haven’t gotten completely easy for tattooed women, and those who choose to get tattooed know this – especially when they are taking the plunge into visible tattooing.

The moment the needle buzzes against your wrist, or along your neck, you know you’re taking an irreversible step. That’s especially true for large, prominent tattoos, which are effectively impossible to conceal. No matter where you go in the future, your tattoos will go with you. You may love them, and they may mean a great deal to you, but you also live in the awareness that other people have their own thoughts about them, and those thoughts are not necessarily friendly.

Image: rose and cactus outline, Alice Carrier, Flickr.