by TARA CARTLAND
I was far more nervous about my second tattoo than my first, and it took me a long time to figure out why. All the apprehension I had when I went in for the first time – questions of pain, regret, family approval – were, I think, pretty standard things you feel mildly obliged to worry about; and they all faded away as soon as my tattoo artist started, never to return. I thought the lead up to my second would be anxiety free.
The difference between the two tattoos is this: the first is on my back; the second on my upper arm. That is, pretty clearly visible, especially on formal occasions (which come up a bit at my work). I knew, after I got my first tattoo, that I loved it and I loved the tattoo aesthetic. I knew that I wanted more. I had – or have – rarely been so certain of things that can’t be taken back. But there was some part of me didn’t want other people to know that.
It can be hard for a woman to assert ownership of her body. We grow up in a world in which our bodies are battlegrounds: politically, religiously, ideologically, and to differing extents all over the world. I think we become aware very early on that there are people out there who dispute our claim to have control over our own bodies, concerning everything from our right to choose, to how we present ourselves in public, to our sexual habits and inclinations.
I don’t mean to compare hesitation to get a tattoo with the struggle for reproductive rights, suffrage, freedom from violence, or any of the other (far more pressing) concerns for women around the world. But I do mean to suggest that they are in some small way connected, through the sometimes unconscious processes of socialisation.
It is not surprising, after all, that this millennia old struggle for control should inform our ideas of what is beautiful and desirable, and that this should filter through media, advertising and art to us. Tattoos, I would argue, are a small stand against the dominant aesthetic paradigm which equates femininity to emptiness.
Besides tattoos, think of the many circumstances in which filled (or positive) space equates to masculinity, and empty (or negative) space equates to femininity. Scars, for example; a scar on a man is sexy: it speaks of experience, survival, strength. On a woman, it equates to damage, carelessness, and victimhood.
Think, even, of the aesthetics of the cosmetics industry: flawless skin and hairless bodies. No stretch marks, wrinkles, moles, or body hair. No signs of aging or experience, please. It’s also no co-incidence that the traditional Western wedding (and debutant) dress is white: it symbolises not only purity, but vacancy.
Even the traditional rituals of such ceremonies suggests that we do not define ourselves; we present ourselves to other people, and through the course of our lives are defined according to and within tightly controlled and constructed social occasions.
Upon thinking about this, I realised that there was some part of me that bought into this idea. That wanted to maintain the idea of myself as a blank slate, and a space for someone else’s projections. Not ‘the girl with tattoos’, but ‘the girl who could be anything you want’. Is that a healthy impulse? I don’t think so. Why do I care more about preserving the non-existent tabula rasa of my body than asserting my individuality in a way that makes me happy?
It was a while before I was comfortable saying: I don’t.
And I love my new tattoo: a black ink sketch of Charles Darwin’s predicted moth, its wings spread and its unlikely, long proboscis arcing up my arm. It’s a tribute to the ideas that have shaped me – literally and intellectually. It gets its fair share of comments; most are overwhelmingly positive, and some are not. It turns out visible tattoos are an excellent litmus test for awful people: “I can’t believe,” a stranger, male, said to me one night without the slightest hint of irony, “that a girl knows about science.” I was happy to have proved him wrong.
In the context of our modern femininity and our ongoing battles, I think there’s something wonderfully revolutionary about tattoos. They are a small flag which says, this is mine. This body, which I have a fleeting possession over for too few decades, is wholly mine and all I am: complete and sovereign.
If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo some time soon, here’s a little celeb inspiration.
Angelina Jolie's back tattoos
Tara Cartland is a fiction and non-fiction writer whose work has appeared in Voiceworks and The Big Issue. You can find her on twitter @tara_skye and contributing to Feminaust.org, who first published an earlier version of this piece.
Do you have a tattoo? Does it have a meaning? If your don’t have a tattoo – would you ever get one? If so – what would it be?