In my hazy maternity-leave brain fog, I was going to write a response to the Guardian article published this week. I whole heartedly agree with this response and am sure it reflects many others’ feelings too….
I’m now in the writing-up stage of my part-time PhD. I’m struggling, I’m really struggling. I found the empirical research process really rewarding, easy to pick up, easy to put down – it’s the practical side of doing a PhD and because of that, I found it easier to dip in and out of. I conducted my interviews via email, and looked forward to receiving responses, and in turn sending out more questions and conversation. Writing is not like that, you need to immerse yourself in it, your head needs to be 100% focused and if you haven’t looked at it for a day or two, it takes a loooooong time to get back into it.
I juggle my PhD with working 3 days a week in the voluntary sector, as a domestic abuse outreach worker. Something far, far removed from my PhD topic – which is good, because my academic life is a welcome distraction from what is quite a draining, emotionally charged job. But making that switch at the end of a Wednesday, from outreach worker, to PhD student, is extremely difficult and something that I find even harder now I’m writing up.
My job is tiring, and sometimes distressing. Because I have worked in the voluntary sector for over 10 years in various roles, I have learnt to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day – but it still uses up a lot of physical and emotional energy. After a day thinking about safety plans, risk assessments and child protection, I would love to come home and contemplate Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, however I really do lack the brain power.
So Thursday comes around and I’m excited and relieved that it’s PhD day. I know that I have until school-run time to get some significant work done. However, it takes a while to get back into the swing of things – especially now I’m writing-up, I’m sure this didn’t happen when I was actually conducting the research. And because time is so limited, the pressure to be productive is at times over-whelming, and sometimes a really negative and unhelpful force.
The other really prevalent issue for me is language. When I’m conversing with my clients, or social workers, police officers, health workers – I am professional, passionate, empathic, determined, knowledgeable – but not academic. I write endless case notes, supporting letters, conference reports – they are well written, but not academic. Converting back to thesis writing and academic language is therefore something I am finding increasingly difficult. I’m finding it a struggle to find my voice within my thesis – probably because my voice is so deeply entrenched and well versed within my working life. I feel like I’ve lost my academic brain to the voluntary sector. And I really wish I hadn’t.
This project caught my eye this week. A positive, forward-thinking, empowering project for ex-prisoners, enabling them to gain those extra steps to finding employment and a fresh start. How refreshing!
The Project offers cover-ups of old prison tattoos – not removal of the tattoos – but cover-ups; developing the old tattoo into something bigger, beautiful and positive. I like that the project isn’t insisting that to find employment, these tattoos (or any tattoo) needs to be removed, or out of site to the general public/employer. I like that the project offers to turn unwanted prison tattoos into “professional, socially well-perceived artistic tattoos” – it unashamedly and without doubt, tells us that tattoos can and should be socially acceptable works of art. I like that the project acknowledges that prison tattoos, however badly executed, were at the time, done for a reason. Like any tattoo that we later regret; at the time, we thought it was a good idea – it meant something, it marked something, we thought it’d be funny. Whatever the reason, there was one. By covering the tattoo rather than removing it, the project encourages the wearer to think of the transformation as progressive rather than an erasing of the past. This is how the tattoo was, this is how the tattoo is now. This is how you were, this is how you are now.
What I am about to say is going to sound like the most obvious piece of advice given in the history of giving advice. Sometimes though, it’s the most obvious pieces of advice that we need reminding of, maybe the most easy to forget, but often the most useful.
I have emerged from a recent PhD slump, and am glad to say I feel reinvigorated, re-motivated and pretty excited by my research again. I put this down to two things:
- Talking to fellow academics about my research, and
- Reading other PhD theses.
See, obvious when I say it, hey? But I had completely forgotten how important these two things are when you’re studying for your PhD.
The PhD process can be a very isolating experience – I live about an hours drive away from campus, which isn’t a lot, but I have to factor in the school run and part-time work and therefore I rarely get on to campus – even less so now teaching has finished for the year. So I very rarely have any contact with the people in my department.
Conversations with your supervisor can be at times, unequally balanced in terms of the power dynamic, and often I find myself listening, nodding, agreeing – but not asking any questions, and not answering any either.
I am lucky enough to have had two really useful invaluable conversations recently – one with an academic friend and ex-colleague and one with a very close friend who has recently made it (very successfully) through the PhD process. These conversations meant that I was answering questions about my research, the what’s, where’s, why’s and sometimes “so what’s”. It meant that I was thinking critically about my work, was able to ‘bounce’ ideas off somebody who knows me, who knows how I work and is not afraid to be honest with me (I think!). It meant I was moving beyond the descriptive stage – the stage where somebody outside of academia asks what your PhD is about and you mumble a sentence that doesn’t really encompass what your research is about, but it’ll do.
At first, both of these conversations threw me into some kind of “I can’t do this” panic – I doubted the stage I was at, doubted my research and doubted my capabilities. However, since having these conversations, my motivation has rocketed and because of this, my work output has increased and improved and I have a much, much clearer idea of where my research is going.
Talking allows your thoughts to move from an isolated space into a conversational space, and eventually, into a much clearer textual space.
So what about reading? Whilst doing your PhD, you spend most of your ‘spare’ time reading and I have this awful problem where I spent my (procrastination) time searching for and downloading ALL the journal articles that I probably won’t ever have time to read. Yesterday however, I thought I would browse some sociology theses in the Uni archives as I thought, it may help me in the writing up process. How right I was, really right, more right than I ever imagined. It was really inspiring.
The thesis could be from your department – not necessarily a completely related topic, but the structure and possibly the theoretical framework may mirror your own work; it could be from a different department/discipline but have a similar focus, and therefore maybe the literature might be something you can relate to, or it could be written by somebody who writes in a similar style to you, or has used similar research methods and methodology.
Often with so many other texts to digest, reading other theses may be pushed aside for more ‘important’ reading, but it really is as important as any other texts in your pile.
During reading the thesis yesterday, I was not only enthralled and excited by the research subject, but it also triggered a lot of reflexive thought, which I was able to scribble down to be used in my methodology chapter. I also found the bibliography really helpful, and the overall structure of the work – I could finally see how my own work would look. Again, with the PhD process being so isolated, it’s imperative to utilize this outside inspiration.
So, two very obvious pieces of advice, but two tasks most likely to be pushed to the bottom of a very extensive PhD priority list.
Prioritize them! Especially if like me, you need a helping hand out of what seems like a very steep slump.
… but then again, too few to mention.
Anybody who follows tattoo-related news will have by now seen Bidisha’s Guardian article – a self-confessional opinion piece expressing the regret she feels over her choice of sleeve she acquired in the 90s.
This article annoyed me more than most anti-tattoo articles. Offensive Daily Mail pieces written by non-tattooed journalists are so common now that we have come to expect them; it’s no surprise that the same people who hate anything other than white, middle class mainstream are going to take a dislike to tattoos. Even the comments from readers, albeit incredibly judgemental, are nothing new.
However, to read a piece of confessional journalism by somebody who regrets their tattoos and now thinks that every other tattooed person is an idiot, was at best, disappointing and at worst, offensive.
The article was written with an over-riding air of sarcastic, sanctimonious judgement – a voice that implied she is annoyed at her own bad choices, is annoyed at the increasing popularity of tattoos, and now she’s annoyed that she shares something in common with people she rather she didn’t.
Bidisha ensures through her writing that she distances herself from numerous social groups – she suggests tattoos have become a “hipster habit” and berates anyone who chooses to become tattooed for purely aesthetic reasons. The “hipster” tends to get blamed for many recent misdemeanours and I’m not entirely sure who or what a hipster is, or indeed if “the hipster” really can be considered as one homogenous group.
I am also unclear as to where the “it must mean something” mantra came from, but surely aesthetic value is reason enough?
Then comes the classism. First, footballers:
“Four players have had the mental acuity to pick up on the sleeve trend just five years after it first peaked, inspired by David Beckham”
A scathing comment alluding to footballers and their presumed lack of intelligence. Not many people have many complimentary things to say about footballers (this may be a bad-timed comment after last night’s World Cup performance), but I think we can afford them the autonomy to make their own decisions about their own bodies. They are young men with huge amounts of disposable income, with access to the best artists in the world and employers who don’t discriminate against body art – why wouldn’t they become heavily tattooed?
Footballers are often rolled out as examples to illustrate the rise in tattoo popularity and just how awful this is. We are never presented with photos of heavily tattooed athletes (of which there are many). Footballers are easy targets for class-related prejudices – unlike our heroic, middle class (tattooed) athletes, providing positive role-modeling for our children; footballers are seen as tasteless ‘chavs’ of the lower classes – and certainly somebody Bidisha wants to dissociate from it seems.
Next, people who holiday in Magaluf:
“You can stumble into a Magaluf tat parlour in a drunken stupor and have Snoopy inked on your minge”.
And herein lies another reason why Bidisha doesn’t like tattoos anymore – because the awful people who holiday in awful Magaluf have easy access to awful tattoo studios, willing to tattoo snoopy on their lady bits, without much prior thought or consideration.
So really, aren’t they only doing what Bidisha did in the 90s, only on an easier-to-hide body part?
Also, who the hell calls it a “Tat Parlour”?!
Bidisha demonstrates an out-dated knowledge of the industry – with comments such “unartistic body art” and “a postmodern mash-up of badly translated Chinese words, bungled Latin quotes, dolphins, roses, anchors, faces of favoured children or pets, and Japanese wallpaper designs”, again, condemning anyone who chooses to have any of these designs but also refusing to acknowledge the artistic talent and aesthetic quality of much of the tattoo work we see today – and much of it, ironically, in the “hipster sleeves” she loathes so much.
Her comparison of how heavily tattooed women are perceived by society now, and in the 90s, is also problematic;
“Women with full sleeves are common now, as in plentiful. In my day we were common as in trashy”
To me, this suggests that Bidisha might sympathise with the “women with tattoos are trashy” camp – very unhelpful coming from a tattooed woman. Tattooed women are still hugely stigmatised in society (as Bidisha will know from experience) and comments such as this merely serve to reinforce and legitimise this negative attitude.
She is distancing herself from a subculture that she once, I presume, wanted to be a part of. And rather than quietly sliding away from the it, (like we may all do at some point in our lives, with whatever subculture we dabbled in), she chooses to mock and demean it instead. She made some bad tattoo choices and now feels she needs to berate, belittle and patronise anybody who chooses to become tattooed – whether it be a full sleeve or a minge-sized snoopy.
Bidisha indulges in many a tattoo-hating trope: the “you’ll-regret-it-when-you’re-70”, the “tattoos-are-working-class-and-the-working-class-are-scum” and “it-has-to-mean-something” being her favourites.
These were her choices, not the artist, not the industry, not other tattooed individuals.
Admitting your tattoo regrets is fair-enough, sharing your experiences with the readers of a national newspaper is fine; but adopting a self-righteous attitude and dragging down every other tattooed person whilst you do it, is inexcusable.
After a long time in the reading, planning and thinking phase, I’m now in the early stages of my empirical research – I have been in contact with a small number of tattoo artists via email, and have had some amazing and interesting responses to my questions, inciting some exciting discussion and dialogue.
I am always really humbled when I receive responses within my research – people giving up their time to write to me, or talk to me about their experiences and sharing personal stories and opinions never ceases to inspire me and I am forever grateful.
The most recent response really stood out to me – this artist was the first artist to self identify herself as a feminist (in her email); and within her response it is clear that her feminism is really important to her, and a huge part of her identity. My next set of questions to her will be about her feminism, and how (if) it intersects with her art, her professional identity as a tattooer and her personal identity as a tattooed gender-queer (self identified) woman.
I was really excited by this for many reasons, but mainly I think because I too identify as a feminist and this is a huge part of whom I am, and what my research is about. But until now, I haven’t thought about talking directly to the participants about if they identify as feminists, and if they do, how this might affect their work as tattoo artists, and them as tattooed women.
When I think about this, it seems like a completely obvious subject to broach within my research and I’ve began contemplating why I haven’t thought about this before.
Surely feminism and tattoos lend themselves to one another? Reclaiming the body, subverting beauty norms, taking ownership, and creating an alternative identity – all feminist issues and ideals, right?
I myself am a feminist, carrying out ‘feminist research’ – I endeavor to ensure my research methodologies are feminist, so why aren’t I capturing this in the empirical research and the subject matter itself? Many of the participants talk about setting up women-friendly spaces, or all-women studios and negative attitudes to women tattooers. So why aren’t I asking a direct question about feminism and whether the artists think of these practices as Feminist?
One of my key themes within my research and literature review will be a discussion on feminist aesthetics and so my subsequent analysis of the data will no doubt include a link between these seemingly feminist practices carried out by the artists and feminism/feminist aesthetics. It now seems like a ludicrous and glaringly obvious omission to not ask the participants about feminism.
Perhaps I was avoiding the subject?
Perhaps I was avoiding the F word?
I wonder if I felt that striding on in there with the big ‘Are You A Feminist’ question might put people off taking part in my research? Not that I think it should, but more that I think there is a risk of this happening. Especially when you are conducting research via email – it is much more difficult to convey what you mean in a succinct and clear fashion. Talking face-to-face is easier in many respects and I hope to broaden my research with face-to-face interviews soon.
Are people put off by the word Feminist still? Or am I making presumptions because of personal experiences, recent media reports and comments in public on-line spaces?
Maybe my initial concerns were about ‘putting people off’ – but as a feminist, conducting feminist research, I should be embracing this challenge and striving to redress this issue within my work.
I am so inspired and relieved (!) to have received the latest participant email; the artist, in effect has given me ‘permission’ to talk directly about feminism with the research participants and I’m looking forward to the discussions ahead….
Please get in touch with your tales of feminism and tattoos!
When I started to write my PhD research proposal, I knew I wanted my research to focus upon “heavily tattooed” women. So I wrote this into my proposal, and knew that there would come a time where I would have to actually quantify what I meant by ‘heavily tattooed’ – did I mean 50% body coverage? 60% 70%? Or did I mean visible ink? It was a difficult decision to make, and one that I avoided thinking about.
Last week I was lucky enough to be put in touch with somebody who might want to take part in my research – I was told by our mutual contact that she was heavily tattooed. When I met with the possible respondent, she laughed that she had been deemed heavily tattooed and told me she didn’t consider herself to be. I don’t know if I would deem her to be heavily tattooed, I didn’t see any of her tattoos – we just talked about ideas and some brief experiences of being a tattooed woman, and it really wasn’t necessary for us to share our ink on any kind of visible level.
This got me thinking about the term ‘heavily tattooed’ and my difficulty in quantifying what it is, and what it isn’t. One person’s heavily tattooed is not another person’s heavily tattooed. One person’s minimally tattooed, is not another person’s minimally tattooed. I don’t know if there is a difference between how tattooed people categorize fellow tattooed people, and whether non-tattooed people categorize tattooed people differently. I just don’t know.
As a researcher, do I have the right to categorize the level of body coverage somebody has and to deem her heavily tattooed or not?
I’ve decided to include this question/issue/dilemma in the actual research process – I’ll pose it as a question within the focus groups and interviews. Do you consider yourself to be heavily tattooed? What is heavily tattooed?
I think it might spark some interesting discussion around how people categorize themselves, and others. It also allows the participants to categorize themselves for the benefit of my research – which goes someway to empowering the respondent within the research process, I hope.