Girl Talk: Life As A Tattooed Lady

I live in New York City, where every third person on the street has some kind of ink. So it’s easy for me to forget that tattoos often have a whole different set of connotations in that wide swath of country between the East and West coasts.

Luckily, the internet never hesitates to remind me. Since I started starring in a weekly web series, I’ve been called everything from a “tattooed longshoreman” to a “goblin.” (The goblin comment was probably unrelated to my tattoos, but it was still super mean.) And when a piece I wrote on weight loss for The Frisky ended up being featured on, the photo featuring my tattooed arms quickly overshadowed the article’s content.

My tattoos are an external indicator of my toughness in the face of pain both internal and external. They also make me feel a sense of control over and acceptance of a body I have struggled with for my whole life.

“What a shame, she loses all that weight and then permanently scars her body and looks more masculine than ever,” wrote one commenter. Typed another, “The ink makes her uglier than her excess fat and it is permanent, no way to remove it.” And another, “I can’t figure some women out. She busts her butt to lose weight (great job by the way) and look nice and then she covers her body with tramp stamps and changes her hair so now instead of being fat she looks like a tramp.”

For the record, I don’t have a “tramp stamp,” which usually refers to a lower back tattoo, but I do have seven prominent tats on my arms and legs, including the floral half-sleeve and leopard-print shoulder cap that were visible in the CNN article. None of my tattoos are cheap impulse buys or drunken mistakes — in my opinion, each one is beautiful and well-done, custom-designed by the extremely talented Virginia Elwood at upscale shop NY Adorned. One one level, my reasons for getting them are extremely simple – I think they’re pretty and I like the way they make me look. Plus, as an extremely uncool child and adolescent, I always yearned for bad girl glamour – I wanted to look like Courtney Love, not Courteney Cox.

If pressed for a deeper reason, I’d tell you that my life has not been a necessarily easy one, and my tattoos are an external indicator of my toughness in the face of pain both internal and external. They also make me feel a sense of control over and acceptance of a body I have struggled with for my whole life. But while I love them, attracting mean comments on the internet isn’t the only thing that sometimes blows about life as a tattooed woman.

I’ve learned to always carry a light sweater with me, because my tattoos can be a magnet for unwanted attention. On the subway or in other public spaces, they seem to have the same effect as I’ve seen pregnancy have — making strangers believe they have a free pass to strike up a conversation even while I’m reading or listening to my iPod, make comments about my appearance, or even touch me without asking .

I’m sure some would say I asked for the attention when I chose to modify my body. But while you probably choose your clothing partly because you want people to notice them, you still might get tired of daily answering questions about where you got them, how much they cost, and what they mean to you. Some of the most common questions I’ve grown tired of answering are:

  • “Did That Hurt?” They shoved needles into my arm repeatedly for hours at a time, of course it hurt.
  • “How much did that cost?” Already a personal question, it’s made even worse when followed by someone telling me they know where I could have gotten it done for, like, 50 bucks. I’m really not interested in bargain shopping for something that’s going on my body forever.
  • “What does it mean?” This one always kind of blows my mind — my tattoos are things like flowers, bows, a bird, a heart. What could they possibly mean? I just think they look cute.

Still, everything that gets said to my face is fairly nice. The comments online have a totally different and much more vitriolic message, the crux of which seems to be: How dare you do something to make yourself less sexually attractive to me? As another delightful CNN commenter put it, “She managed to win the hearts of those who do not like fatty girls, now she lose the hearts of those who hate tattoos … Back to square one.”

Uh yeah, I’m back to square one … if the purpose of my life is to be sexually attractive to as many members of the male population as possible. I’m well aware that some men aren’t attracted to women with tattoos, but I didn’t spend thousands of dollars and sit through hours of intense pain because I was hoping to date those guys. Other women I know who are basically inked from the neck down report that “What about your wedding day?” is a common reaction from both snickering 14-year-old mean girls and their mothers alike.

I understand that tattoos aren’t for everyone, but the amount of anger and disgust they can inspire makes me suspicious about what the real issue is. After all, my tattoos aren’t hurting anyone – except maybe some people’s very narrowly defined ideas about what a woman should look like … and who she should look that way for. Is it possible that what really bothers some people so deeply about a woman’s choice to get tattooed is that it means we’re not spending enough time worrying about what men think of us?

Photo: Bonnie Biess