Guest Post: Feminism & Tattoos: A Woman’s Right to Ink

When Janet approached me with this guest post topic, I was really interested.  I’ve always been intrigued by body modifications, particularly tattoos.  I have one myself (it’s small and on my foot), but stopped there, mostly because there is such a stigma about women with tattoos, and when I got mine I was a junior in college, still very worried about my job prospects.  I remember agonizing over the size and placement of the tattoo – it needed to be small enough and placed somewhere that was easily covered if I needed to cover it for a job interview.  I did cover it, too, frequently because I was worried about what people would think of me.

So, needless to say, I was really excited for this guest post, and when I read it, I was even more excited to share it with you!  I think Janet brings up some very interesting points here about women and their choices when it comes to their bodies.  And many of these points can be applied to other choices women have, as well, and other stigmas we face.

What do you think when you see a woman with a tattoo? This is not a question with a right or wrong answer; this is a question of perception. So I guess, the real question is, “How do you perceive a woman with a tattoo in society? Does it affect how you judge her?” Of course it does. As much as a woman’s blond hair or pretty face leads her to be judged. But a tattoo isn’t the result of DNA, it’s a choice, an assertion. But how did tattoos become taboo for women, and most importantly where can we go from here?

History

Thousands of years before Christ, women were getting tattooed. Evidence of body art has been found on the mummified female bodies of both Egyptians and Greeks. The designs and reasoning behind the tattoos vary from culture to culture but the existence of markings is common. Early theories postulated that mummies with these tattoos were marked as women of ill-repute, “dancing girls” or of a lower class. But there are other factors which poke holes in this belief. The nature of the art implies that it may have been done for spiritual and protective purposes. Also, many of these women were buried in close proximity to royals, which could indicate higher status. And at least one body which was initially believed to belong to a concubine was later determined to have more likely been a priestess.

Throughout history though, tattoos have been used to denote some less than reputable activities. In Ancient China, criminals, bandits and prisoners frequently possessed tattoos. In Japan and other countries women engaging in the oldest profession used tattoos to tacitly communicate their role. But while histories like these denote tattoos as an indication of lower class, in other cultures, like the Philippines, tattoos on women were considered a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, when tattoos became commonplace in western culture it was with predominantly negative connotations. Religious beliefs surrounding tattoos have also done little to elevate the status of ink. Judism, Muslim and Christianity all frown on body modification for both sexes. These pervasive religious beliefs, combined with the history of tattoos on women help us understand the origins of the negative stigma associated with women and tattoos.

Stigma

We’d like to think a lot has changed. But ancient stigmas have managed to find their way into modern culture even though tattoos have had a long history on women in the US. They were popular among women in the 20’s even the “higher class” women. In the 60’s tattoos ran rampant on women in hippie culture. Today, celebrities and public figures of all kinds are sporting different forms of body art. All around us tattoos are pervasive in our society and yet we find that there are still negative stigma’s attached to tattoos on women.

Perhaps the greatest indication of this truth is the most famously labeled female tattoo, “the tramp stamp”. This particular icon is identified as a tattoo of any kind on the small of a woman’s back sitting slightly above (or below) the line of her pants. Women who have this tattoo are often branded as sexually promiscuous. Is it a fair assumption that women with these tattoos have gotten them to entice men or to advertise their willingness to engage in sexual activity? No probably not. Sure, art on the lower back is easy to reveal by wearing crop tops or low-rise jeans, and yes there are probably some women who have chosen that tattoo because of its sexual overtones. But it is also a location which can be easily covered by typical work clothing and it is a place which is unlikely to be drastically affected by pregnancy or weight change. Unfortunately the practicalities associated with tattoos on this part of the body are ignored in favor of the more popular, and degrading stereotypes.

To Remove or Take a Stand

The fact is, even now women receive more negative reactions to their body art than men. Whether it is because of the historical connotations or the modern stigma that still remains attached to women with ink, the fact is it is yet another battle for free expression. Even in a world so vastly more conscious of equality, women must still fight for their rights in both overt and subtle ways. A woman’s right to ink remains one of the latter.

A recent study from Texas Tech suggests that women are much more inclined to seek tattoo removal at some point in their lives than men. They also found that in many cases the decision to do so came from outside influences. Women who got tattooed early in life are later attempting to undo them. The reasons vary, but they seem to be predominantly linked to careers and life changes, like marriage and children. But is this a sign of women acquiescing to a society that views tattoos as out of place on respectable women? Although to be fully fair, men do undergo some of the same job and family pressures to conform to a particular image that often does not include tattoos. Perhaps it only seems that women are under greater scrutiny for their body art. But when you consider the history of tattoos, and how frequently a woman’s character is judged by her ink it’s hard not see an imbalance.

Tattoos are, in their own right, yet another way for women to assert independence and their right to equality. It is our right to express ourselves in any way we choose, in voice, in writing and in art, including body art. We can only hope that someday a woman can freely get a tattoo, anywhere she wants without fear of social repercussions. Perhaps, one day we will. We can only hope that in that same day we will be able to wear what we please, earn equal wages for the jobs we perform and not fear that our credibility will be undermined by our looks. And that will be a very good day

Sources:

Tattoos and The History of Tattooing

Attitudes Toward Women with Tattoos

Tattoos: History and Archeology

Women Race to Get Tattoos Erased

Janet is a writer for New Look a Houston laser tattoo removal clinic. She hopes to help tattoo bearers of all genders to wear their art with pride.

This was a guest post in a series on feminism and ______. If you’d like to submit a guest post for this series, see the guidelines here and submit your post to samsanator(at)gmail(dot)com.

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Feminism & Tattoos: A Woman’s Right to Ink

  1. This really resonated with me. I don’t have any tattoos, but I have this desire to get a small one of a semicolon that wraps right under my left shoulder-blade. The reason is entirely geeky– the semicolon is my favorite form of punctuation because it grammatically sets us up for a continuation rather than finality. It brings together two sentences or clauses that could otherwise stand on their own, but work so much better when joined together. And that’s how I feel about all life decisions that lead you to the next, especially marriage.

    I like the discreetness of a semicolon tattoo right under my shoulder-blade, and the way it’s shaped, it would fit better around the bend of my left one. Plus, my left arm is a form of continuation for me. When a car accident permanently paralyzed my right (and dominant) hand at the age of 16, I had to learn to do everything all over again with my left hand. So my left side became my continuation, and even though I use it more than my right, the two co-exist in a body that’s so much better when all my muscle memory, no matter how limited some of may be, can join together rather than exist separately. My good hand and my bad hand can stand alone, but are so much better when joined together.

    My husband is a figurative artist, and so after making a career out of drawing and painting the nude female figure, is very purist about it and doesn’t care for tattoos at all. Contrary to popular belief amongst those who know him (he was part of hardcore punk and now exudes a certain time of well-aged hipsterness), he has no tattoos or piercings. He hasn’t said, “You can’t get one,” but he has asked me to think long and hard about it because he loves my body just the way it is now. My ears were pierced at six months (a cultural thing for Iranian girls), and I spent a majority of my high school and college years straightening my naturally kinky hair, so maybe I’m more sensitized to body alteration than he is? The desire and urge to get my semicolon tattoo hasn’t been strong enough to go do it just yet, but the idea still lingers.

    When I was engaged, I heard about a company that does semi-permanent tattoos as a bride’s “something blue.” I didn’t like any of their designs, and for a while, I was looking to see where I could go to get a semi-permanent blue semicolon tattoo to wear underneath my dress on my wedding day. It only made sense to me to grammatically wear a symbol of continuation on a day where life isn’t finalized, but continued from one phase to the next.

    • This is absolutely wonderful. As a writer, I prize the semi-colon almost as much as the em-dash, my favored continuation. You have gotten me to see the semi-colon in a whole new way, though, and have maybe even added a philosphical dimension to the things I have carefully used as valued tools since I was in sixth grade. (My second romantic connection began as a mutual enthusiasm over the same punctuation mark.)

      Thank you so much for this gift!

    • Safa – thanks for sharing that personal story… what a wonderful, transformative, powerful idea behind your upcoming tattoo!! I’ve been trying to figure out something for my 40th birthday tattoo -i’m now 43 – and you’ve given me some deep ideas to consider that may generate something good, finally!

  2. I have 4 tattoos. Generally, all 4 remain covered except in the summer, when one is visible (on my right shoulder). I, too, made sure that when thinking about tattoos they would all be covered easily. More interestingly, my most recent is a “tramp stamp” but not of the normal variety: I have a physics equation tattooed across my lower back. And believe me, that makes people ask a lot of questions.

    I don’t find that I get judged for them, except by my boyfriend’s parents (who are the sort who think any tattoo on anyone is undesirable). But I’ve never run into a situation where someone really thought my tat was disdainful or unladylike, but then again, i’m a little unladylike, so it might be all right.

  3. I waited until I was in my early fifties to get my first tattoos. At first I couldn’t afford it. Then my best friend and I were going to do it together, and we had to decide where and what, and she had to find an absolutely safe place to have it done. Four years ago I asked if we were actually going to do it, and she finally, honestly, said “no.” So I decided on my first design, a three loop spiral, and the area, my left forearm, near my elbow. (The first tenet of my personal philosophy of tattoos is that I have to be able to see it, or what’s the point? The second tenet is that it has to be on an area of my skin that won’t go south as I age.) I chose a simple, black line design because if it hurt too much, I didn’t want it to take too long or require return visits.

    I now have 7 tattoos, 3 on my right arm, four on my left. I’ll stop when my forearms are covered, unless I get really bold and have a sugar skull on one calf, because I *really* like sugar skulls. I’m contemplating the next two tattoos. All of them mean at least three different things to me, because if I’m going to have something permanent on my arms, I don’t want to be bored by them, and I bore easily (3rd tenet). All of them make me happy.

    There is a hitch. I’m a teen writer, and when I speak at schools and libraries, I wear long sleeves, even in the summer. I don’t want parents flipping out over my example, though my fans love my tatts. They usually see the tiny cat pawprints stick out from beneath my right sleeve anyway. If the parents beard me, I tell them, “Just say `when you are 50 years old you can have your first tattoo just like Tammy Pierce.'” Most of them laugh and the tension is over.

    A friend of mine got her first tattoo when she was sixty. Most of hers are tucked away. They’re line art, such as a Neolithic chalk horse, or a Malaysian dragon. Very classy.

    A long time ago, on a tv program about the subject, a tattoo artist said “Tattoos are like wearing your dreams on your skin.” That’s certainly the appeal for me. I don’t judge anyone with tattoos. I think it’s exciting to see unusual tattoos, or to see a woman blush with pride as she exhibits her dreams.

  4. When I turned 18 I told my dad I wanted a tattoo. He told me that it his day the only people who got tattoos were “fast women, sailors and criminals”. But he didn’t try to stop me.

    I don’t think he’s ever said thing one about any of them, even the visible one. I honestly get very little reaction on my tattoos – but I also have a lip piercing and a blonde stripe in my hair, so it’s probably clear to people that this is not a whitebread person.

  5. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I think that the trouble with “tramp stamps” is that they’re the female equivalent of a soul patch, which is to say, almost always really ugly.

    • Ashley on

      Dan, I really don’t think that’s the point here, and I’d like to urge future commenters to reconsider when saying things like this. The point of the article was not to discuss which tattoos are appropriate, but that a woman has the right to choose what to put on her body.

  6. Lindsey on

    I expect part of the reason a lot less men don’t get theirs removed is that men’s clothing is a lot less revealing (aside from the lack of pressure to be “gentleman-like”).

  7. I have five tattoos, four of which are in highly visible places (one on the top of each foot, one on the inside of each lower forearm) and plan to cover as much of my body as possible. The only real limitation I have when it comes to getting my ink is a financial one. Good quality ink is expensive, as it well should be. As I can afford it, I will get more and more.

    Believe it or not, I am a librarian. My workplace is accepting of my tattoos, so long as they are “tasteful” in visible areas (no swearing, no violence or gory bits, no nudity) but many people around me are not, despite the fact that I have highly feminine pieces. They are seen as “low class” or “rough”.

    I ceased to care some time ago. My body is MY body. What it looks like bears no relation on my capabilities, intelligence, ethics, skills, anything. I do have to work harder to prove this, which I believe I shouldn’t have to do, but I will do it to have the freedom to express myself and adorn MY body how I wish.

    Great post.

  8. my only tattoo is a “tramp stamp” of sorts – it’s a rococo scroll inlaid with jewels that goes hip to hip across my lower back… why? because it makes me feel good. is there really any other reason to have a tattoo? because it makes you feel SOMETHING… some do it for penance, some do it for grief, some for joy, some for remembrance… Can that possibly be bad?

    I’m by no means “counter-culture” or even “hip” for that matter… but a tattoo was something that i’d longed for since childhood. I don’t know why…

    this idea that it’s taboo for women is not one that i’ve experienced, personally… tho i don’t travel in very corporate circles or speak/teach in public. But even still… in this day and age, should whether you’ve spent time/energy/money/tears/pain/love deciding on and executing the application of a piece of art, that means something to you, onto your skin really be of any consequence to ANYONE ELSE?? what’s it to them? how could it possibly affect them??

    it’s not like the tattooed are out on the street with needles trying to ink every passerby…

    but i guess most of us here are preaching to the choir… :D

  9. To answer the initial question: I think we all “judge a book by it’s cover” so a tattoo on a woman can say a variety of things. I suppose it depends on a few things like, the tattoo design, placement and also to do with the woman too. Personally I think that a tattoo is great to have in a place where you can show it off and also hide it with ease so you have both options.

  10. Mishel on

    Im 33 and I have a full sleeve, a large quote on my shoulder blade, one on my lower back and plans for more. I’m gay so as someone who is attracted to girls, I would have to say that girls with tattoos are instantly sexier. Tattoos represent for me a woman who is bold, who doesn’t hide from who she is, who doesn’t appoligize for who she is. Especially tats that are visible. These are girls who don’t care what others think of them, they are true to themselves. And I love that in not only a woman, but in a person.

  11. Angelina on

    I have several tattoos and found this article very interesting. The stigma linking women with tattoos to promiscuity is not extended to men as well. I have always found this so troubling and explored this a lot recently.

    I recently wrote an article on How Tattoos Have Helped Me Reclaim My Body: “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.” (Feel free to take a look at the full article, if you are interested! http://femmagazine.com/?p=6466 )

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