Though tattoos have become increasingly common and more visible in recent years, stigmas still exist around the female body and “acceptable” body art. As the popularity among the Millennial and Gen X generations has increased, especially among women, social perceptions have yet to fully catch up. Tattoos that fail to embody customary concepts of femininity are viewed negatively and even with a measure of hostility. Women who sport visible and large tattoos that embrace traditionally masculine symbols, such as skulls, knives, webbing, guns, motorcycles, tribal art, winged creatures, and winding snakes, are singled-out as rebellious, part of the fringe, and unprofessional. If it isn’t a flower, butterfly or coy fish that isn’t small and tucked away then it doesn’t belong on the female body.
In a direct repudiation many women are pushing back and embracing body art at an unprecedented rate, utilizing social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (check out @tattooedgirls), and personal websites to empower themselves, their message, and women around the world letting them know that their body is theirs alone to do with as they want. What’s the saying – we want what we’re told we can’t have?
In a recently published study, Pew Research found that as of 2015 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo; 40% of which are adults between the ages 26 to 40. 2012 was reported as the first year in which more women than men had “one or more tattoos” in the United States. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Millennial and Gen X populations are the ones leading the movement in body empowerment. For many, the commitment to permanent, public displays of self-expression is about taking back control over their bodies. When tattoos are applied, covering the curves of backs, breasts, and necks women are reclaiming the parts of themselves that have become objects of public sexualization and censure.
As a whole, American perception of tattoos has taken a drastically positive turn in the past decade. While celebrities like Janis Joplin and tattoo pioneers Kat Von D brought the subject of female body art into the mainstream, the acceptance of body art didn’t really start to take off until much more recently. Reality TV programs, such as Ink Master, the Ink series (LA Ink, London Ink, Miami Ink, and NY Ink), Inked, and Tattoo Nightmares have helped break apart the taboos predicating tattoo culture. No longer is the tattoo parlor a dark and scary place open to the select few bikers and ex-cons. By bringing tattoo culture out of the shadows and into mainstream media, making the journey behind a person’s tattoo something exciting and informative, long gone are the viewpoints that tattoos should be reserved only for society’s most deviant and rebellious.
And yet women still experience a higher level of scrutiny and criticism than men for visible, non-conforming body art. Similar to legislation being put forth to regulate women’s reproductive choices, so too have politicians sought to limit body art and modification; to keep it hidden from public view. In 2013 a bill was put forth in Arkansas that sought to ban scarification and dermal implants. The language was vague and conservative lawmakers backing the bill had little evidence to back up their health scare claims. Opponents took particular offense with the definition of dermal implants as “insertion of an object under the skin of a lice human being for ornamentation or decoration.” They argued that the language would effectively ban certain tattoo practices as well as body piercings, which is extremely popular with women. Despite expert testimonies by health and medical professionals and tattoo and body modification artists disputing the claims put forth the bill (SB 387) passed the state Senate on a 26 to 4 vote in favor. The Governor signed it into law in April 2013, becoming Act 597.
The obsession with conservative lawmakers and public regarding the regulation of the female body and suppression of any type of self-expression that doesn’t fit with their narrowly constructed views of femininity. Thankfully, with the prevalence of tattoos in mainstream culture becoming more common and celebrated so too has there been an emergence of literature dedicated to the study of tattoo culture and the female body.
In her recently released book Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body, author and assistant professor of sociology Beverly Thompson takes an in depth look at the lives and experiences of heavily tattooed women. Thompson notes that similar to the way strangers reach out to touch a pregnant woman’s belly without asking permission so too do people feel the right to reach out and touch heavily tattooed women; often asking invasive, personal questions and feeling the need to provide commentary when none is requested.
Margot Mifflin’s reissued Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo looks at the history of tattooing in the West from a female perspective. Dating back to the 19th century, Bodies of Subversion explores the intimacy and empowerment behind female body art starting with the first documented tattooed woman Olive Oatman through the 1920s fade and up to present day in which tattoos are used as “emblems of empowerment” by abortion rights activists, rape and cancer survivors, and . Her book provides vivid photographs of intricately detailed and beautiful body art. One image of a woman post-mastectomy who chose to have a tattoos embroidered across her chest instead of having reconstructive surgery is especially powerful.
At the root of this movement is the growing belief that true beauty and female empowerment comes from self-expression and the strength in being true to yourself, regardless of what others may think. For those contemplating taking that first step toward being inked or expanding their current canvass, all you have to do is look around you for inspiration.