Against Body Policing: Get That Tattoo!

Kate Leth's Ink for Beginners
A snippet of my back piece, including the labyrinth.
A snippet of my back piece, including the labyrinth.

I got my first tattoo when I was 22. Initially, I thought ensuring my tattoo had some kind of “deep meaning” was the most important part, so I spent a year mulling over the design and what each piece of it meant until I had a mini speech about its symbolism memorized. Before and immediately after I got the tattoo, I would recite this speech to others as if I was explaining why my tattoo was different from other people’s, because they hadn’t thought theirs through. Like many ideas you have in your early twenties, this was pretty terrible.

Almost two years later, I planned a second tattoo —a labyrinth in the center of my upper back. When I woke up on Tattoo Day, I was seized by nerves. I immediately dragged my laptop into bed and began hunting for comforting articles on the internet, but instead was assaulted by “this is a bad choice” body policing rhetoric. Frustrated, I swapped my generic keyword search for one that included the word “women,” and from there, I got a little closer to what I was looking for. However, I never quite found the comfort that I needed, so this is my attempt to create that space.

Because the way we feel about our body mods can be both nebulous and deeply personal, I paired up several WWAC writers to talk to each other about tattoos. We had been swapping stories and advice more casually, and I was intrigued by the nature of our discussion. Much of the usual tattoo 101 advice was being passed around, but we were also dipping our toes into a conversation about how our ink affects us on a more emotional level. The common thread of these conversations was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a desire to regain control over our bodies.

Image courtesy Anna Tschetter.
Anna with a friend, showing off their tats.

There are dozens of circumstances that can cause someone to feel such a loss of control. One that came up multiple times in our discussions was pain. Chronic pain, and any pain that comes from a medical condition, can trigger a sense of betrayal. My own first experience of feeling I’d lost control over my body is tied to injury; I dislocated my knee when I was sixteen and discovered I had a genetic knee issue that causes it to ache at random, nonsensical times. Tattoos give us an opportunity to take our bodies back by choosing a kind of pain that we can control and connecting the experience of hurt to positive emotions. For example, Jamie Kingston has wings on her shoulders to aid with pain management because “…I carry tension there, and it helps to focus on the pain of getting the tattoo. Forces the muscles to relax.”

Another loss of control comes from body policing. Body policing is very specific; women are expected to be skinny or athletic, and we often have negative feelings about the parts of our bodies that don’t meet those standards. Placement plays a big role here, because we can use tattoos to proclaim that we love the pieces of ourselves that don’t fit the norm or to highlight the pieces of ourselves that we just happen to love! My favorite example of this comes from Anna Tschetter’s conversation with Kat Overland. Anna has a tattoo of an anchor on her calf with a heart in the middle that says, “Hope sustains me.” She sent Kat a picture of herself and a friend who also has a calf tattoo, showing off their ink. You can almost hear them saying, “This part of me, I love it!”

Kat, resident badass, taking her rad tats underwater.
Kat, resident badass, taking her rad tats underwater.

Tattoos can also help us gain control over particular experiences, or make those experiences uniquely ours. Wendy Browne has a scorpion that, in her own words, “defines my sexuality and defies the gods that allowed a grapefruit-sized cyst to develop on my ovary.” Kat grew up in Texas and, upon deciding to move away, got a Texas tattoo to capture the positive experiences from her time there. I’ve timed most of my tattoos to line up with important life events; one year after coming out to my parents and a month after Korra and Asami stepped into a spirit portal for their first couple’s gaycation*, I got the four nations symbols tattooed on my right inner forearm. Ginnis Tonik explained to me why tattoos have a magical ability to give us narrative power over these moments: they capture kairos.

Kairos and chronos are ancient Greek words that refer to time. Chronos is recognizable from “chronological.” It refers to time as it moves forward in a linear sequence. Kairos, however, is “a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens” according to Wikipedia. Ginnis said it best: “You do all this planning in this sort of linear, sequential way (chronos), but ultimately that moment when you get your tattoo, when you have that commitment to getting this moment permanently etched into your skin, it’s all about kairos —the supreme moment.”

Wendy also has a beautiful tattoo of her mother's handwriting.
Wendy also has a beautiful tattoo of her mother’s handwriting.

I view kairos as also referring to the experience that we transform through the act of getting tattooed. For Wendy, that’s a cyst that became a scorpion, for Jamie, chronic pain that became wings, or for Kat, a happy growing experience that became a state symbol. Meg Downey, in some ways, has taken a lifelong experience and impacted it into her tattoos. She explained to Christa Seeley that “I’ve struggled with self image my whole life … so in my head, tattoos are a kind of way for me to wage war against that. My genetics dictated that my skin is really bad, and there’s nothing I can really do about that part, but I CAN definitely try to cover it up with as much art as I can.” We take a normal, linear experience and turn it into a beautiful, permanent piece of art. That is magic; that is kairos.

If I could hop back a few years and give myself some comfort before getting that labyrinth tattoo, I’d tell myself about kairos. Back then, I had a vague sense that I needed to do something in order to be in control of the chaotic pieces of my life—the constant feeling that I was in the wrong place even though I liked my job, the painful internalized biphobia that was wrecking my self-image, and my inability to let myself simply be where I was and learn from the journey.  I can’t go back to that moment of self-doubt, but I can pass this on to you: don’t second-guess your decision. Get your tattoo, because it will help you take control of your life, and carry your hardest learned lessons with you.

If you’re considering a tattoo or have a story to tell, put it in the comments! We would love to hear from you.

*I do not want my snarky use of the term “gaycation” to be misleading; Korra and Asami are queer and/or bi women! Obviously, the identities of fictional characters who haven’t self-identified are complicated, but I am not here for bi-erasure.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.