Monday, April 6, 2015

The (Disappearing?) Stigma of Heavily Tattooed Women

The documentary about heavily tattooed women was very interesting to me. I enjoyed the many visuals of tattoos on the different subjects, from conventional flowers to skulls to family portraits. It was also interesting, though sometimes saddening, to see how these women's families, and especially their mothers, reacted to the tattoos. My sister (who, with close to twenty tattoos across her arms, legs, hands, sides, and neck easily qualifies as a "heavily tattooed woman") came home with her first tattoo a few months after she graduated high school and moved into her own apartment. For a while, we both tried to hide them from our parents. I remember that the first family event after she got her ink was my great-aunt's Christmas Eve party, and it was my job to warn her when her shirt began riding up and exposing her lower back tattoo. As it became impossible to hide her tattoos, my family inevitably found out. My mother took it the best (though she was far from approving); her attitude was (and is) wanting to know as little about them as possible. Likewise we managed to convince my Dad not to bring them up, since that would only lead to a fight. Because of generational differences, my grandmother has always been the most vocal about my sister's tattoos (and my cousins' nose rings, etc.), but as the years have gone by she's stopped bringing it up. She probably had a worse reaction when one of my uncles, a man in his forties, got a small Celtic band around his bicep; when his brother yanked up his sleeve at the family company in front of my grandmother, she reamed him like he was still sixteen. But thankfully, no one in my family has any serious religious or ethical objections to our relatives' tattoos. One factor, I think, must be the fact that all our family members grew up in America, where tattoos, if not always accepted, are much more visible than in other places.

For the women in the documentary whose families are less than supportive, the disapproval of their tattoos must feel like disapproval of their lifestyle and choices. Everyone has a right to their own opinion about tattoos, but I think that stigma plays an unfair role in the issue of tattooed women. The mothers we saw in the film all seemed extremely supportive of their daughters in every aspect except the ink, and I believe that the social perception of tattooed women as promiscuous plays into their disapproval. If it were only a matter of decorated skin, I don't think these mothers would have as difficult a time coming to terms with their daughters' tattoos, though it might not be easy; but wanting to protect their daughters from the stigma of tattooed women and the assumptions that go with it makes it more difficult for these mothers to accept their daughters' enthusiasm for tattoos.

The good news, I hope, is that this stigma is changing. As the author of the children's book pointed out in the film, a generation that embraces tattoos is beginning to have children, thus changing the stereotype of tattooed people. The image above comes from the "Lean In" collection, a batch of stock photos meant to portray women in diverse, stereotype-busting ways. This image of a tattooed women holding her baby isn't only progressive, but it's an increasingly common sight in the U.S., especially large cities. Mothers and daughters will always find something to fight about, but as our generation begins to start families, I hope that the stigma of tattoos won't be one of them.

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