Girl Talk: Finding Body Acceptance At The Tattoo Parlor

When I think of locales that are likely to offer me an onslaught of body-related judgment, I think of the beach, the bar, and the gym. I mean, body judgment is incredibly pervasive, but all three of those places are renowned breeding grounds for intense figure scrutiny, comparisons, and body-snarking. Recently, I discovered that my doctor’s office should be added to the list. Doctors are supposed to support and encourage us as we attempt to balance healthy lifestyle decisions with actual life events and pressures. But our country’s current obsession with obesity as the big, bad, magically all-encompassing factor in good health means that doctors feel perfectly comfortable judging patients based on weight alone. As someone who sits right on the BMI border of normal-overweight, I can tell you that when I cross over, I get lectured. Even if my crossover is a mere pound. No fooling.

It irks me to feel evaluated based on my body’s shape and size at the beach, the bar, and the gym. But it infuriates me to feel evaluated based on my body’s shape and size at the doctor’s office because I’m being evaluated by someone who actually knows more about my body and its overall health than the average casual observer. And I started to wonder if there are ANY places and situations that feel completely free of body judgment. 

My tattoo artist was downstairs getting coffee when I arrived for my appointment yesterday. He took a few minutes to get situated at his station, then called me back. We reviewed the art, made some changes, and I clambered up onto the big black bench. The design was a spread of 17 stars across my shoulders, so I had to peel down my tank top and tuck my bra straps into my cups to give him proper access. I could’ve taken everything off, but since I was going to be face-down on a vinyl bench for several hours the prospect of going braless held little appeal. Despite being in a wide-open room full of burly dudes and an assortment of other customers, I disrobed without a moment’s hesitation.

Nobody cares about your cellulite at the tattoo parlor. Nobody cares if you’re hairy or disproportionate or scarred. The customers want to know what kind of art you’re getting, and why, and how big it’ll be. They want to get excited about it with you, and swap stories about their own tattoos. The artists may evaluate your body, but only as it concerns the process: If you’re scarred somewhere, it will affect how the ink goes down. If you’re hairy in a certain spot, that might affect how the art looks when it’s done and healed. Their concerns are purely pragmatic and aesthetic, never socially reinforced or sexually driven.

And yes, some of that is about money. A tattoo artist looks at a customer’s body and sees an opportunity to make some dough. But as I pressed my face into the black vinyl, my nose tucked into my own armpit, and listened to my artist talk about “Game of Thrones” and his kids and the pressures of owning his own business, I felt certain that he was mainly interested in setting some lasting, meaningful art between my shoulder blades. I wasn’t a sexual object to him, or a cash cow, or an imperfect form to be judged and scorned. I was a canvas.

Body judgment isn’t confined to the bar, the beach, the gym, or the doctor’s office. It’s ubiquitous and can feel impossible to avoid. So I was surprised and delighted to find a little pocket of body acceptance in a location that’s all about bodies. And it made my two and a half hours under the needle a little easier to bear.

Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based blogger, freelance writer, and communications professional who writes the daily style and body image blog Already Pretty.