I got my first tattoo when I was 25 years old, but I had been more or less obsessed with the idea of getting one since I was in middle school. So what held me back for the seven years between when I could legally let someone inject ink into my skin to permanently mark my flesh and when I actually did it?
There are two answers. One was other people’s opinions, and the other was discomfort in my body.
My mother is in many ways a liberal woman, but on the subject of tattoos, her views are old-fashioned: basically, she views them as something sailors and members of biker gangs get. While I was in awe of the artistry of some of the tattoos I saw, I knew that it was something she wouldn’t understand. And even though I disagreed with her, my mom was one of the smartest people I knew, someone I looked up to and respected, and someone whose opinion mattered to me, even when we disagreed.
Then, too, there were the questions people always seem to ask about tattoos: how will you get a job with that? What will it look like when you’re older?
I worried about prospective employers judging me for my tattoos, even though I also knew logically that I could get them in places that I could cover up easily. And as I struggled to be comfortable with my own body, its shape, and the space it took up, I easily bought into the logic that any artwork drawn on my skin would warp into something ugly over time.
After college, I dated a girl with tattoos. I loved them, loved tracing my fingers or my lips over the swirling ink. But even she made me doubt myself when I talked about getting one, saying things like how she worried I would regret it later, basically implying I wasn’t decisive enough to know what I would want on my body. And maybe while I was with her I wasn’t.
But in the second year of my Master’s program, something finally clicked. I thought about the fact that we get to choose so little about what our bodies look like. So much is determined for us through genetics. And I thought about how we can’t control how other people will perceive our bodies.
I, and most people who are socialized as female, have wasted untold time and energy on others’ perceptions and have dealt with untold numbers of men who felt entitled to my body in some way. I have dealt with everything from strange men telling me to smile to them grabbing me to them following me down the street, making extremely detailed sexual threats.
I was tired of it, of moving through the world feeling like my body wasn’t entirely my own. And I was ready to decorate it in the way that felt good to me.
A good friend recommended a local artist to me. By then, I was dating a different partner, one who was as excited for my first tattoo as I was, and was also itching to get a new one for themself. We booked consults one right after the other, so we could go together.
Our artist was warm and welcoming to a first-time tattoo customer, and obsessive about making every tiny tweak to the design she drew to make sure it matched perfectly with my vision. A week later, I was lying facedown on a padded table, listening to the buzzing hum of the needle as hot, sharp pain bit into the back of my shoulder, eating the closest thing to eternity one can achieve onto the canvas of this corporeal form I inhabit.
It hurt, and for a minute when the pain was the worst I wondered why on earth I, or any person in their right mind, would do this to themselves.
Then I looked at my tattoo, and all I wanted was to dive back under the needle again. Because it’s mine, a design dreamed in my mind and brought to fruition on my skin, and it is a proclamation of my ownership of this body. No matter how I am feeling on any given day, seeing it boosts my mood, as does the second tattoo I got a little over a year later. And not a day goes by that I’m not thinking of the next one I want.