The (Tattooed) Beauty Myth

I have been pondering upon tattoos, women and gender performance for some time now.  I wanted the subject to feature heavily (if not exclusively) within my PhD research; through reading, thinking and a very recent personal experience, my thoughts have developed somewhat.

“Women… must always be seen as women and not as impressive Persons with definite presence”

Rosalind Coward, 1984.

This quote just about sums up my feelings around how heavily tattooed women are judged, perceived and regarded by some members of the non-tattooed community.  The quote isn’t actually written about tattooed women, but it really does, in my opinion, translate to the issue of women and tattoos.

Tattooed women are certainly ‘impressive persons with definite presence’ and this can be threatening to a society that wants it’s women to be ‘women’ – feminine, girly and adhering to the long-standing norms of what it is to be a Woman.

So how do heavily tattooed women feel they are perceived by society? How are heavily tattooed women perceived by society?

Are heavily tattooed women judged less harshly if it is visibly evident that they are adhering to other gender rules? After all, a woman refusing to conform to the dominant discourse is surely quite a threatening force. Could this be excused with the help of some ‘feminine’ make-up, a ‘feminine’ hair-do or a frock? Can a heavily tattooed woman get away with being tattooed if she proves that, she isn’t really that bad?

The levels of gender performance played out by heavily tattooed women in their everyday lives really interests me and will make up a substantial part of my project. As a fan of Judith Butler, I love the idea that we all perform gender to some extent each and every day. Gender is not something we are, but something we become through various acts and behaviors, rituals and repetitions. With this in mind, I want to explore what difference (if any) being heavily tattooed makes to this performance, and how (if at all) the performance is affected by being tattooed.

Do tattooed women feel they have to over-compensate to be accepted? Does this change day-to-day, or place-to-place? Is the supermarket performance different to the school run, or the night in’s performance different to the night out’s?

Of course, some heavily tattooed women, myself included, like the idea and indeed the aesthetics of how the tattooed skin looks against a back-drop of stereo-typical femininity. It’s the juxta-position of conformity and rebellion in one neat little package.  Subversion of the feminine ideal, shall we say? It is a well-known fact within body modification communities, and in feminist circles that many tattooed women began their tattooed journey with a wish to subvert and challenge societal norms and expectations: a big 2-fingers up to what women ‘should be’, maybe. So perhaps this gender performance includes a little sarcasm, and a little irony along the way. The combination of a full-sleeve and a pretty dress & make-up can work wonders in conveying the “I’m doing this my way, like it or lump it” message to the possibly judgmental majority.  As the French feminist & philosopher, Luce Irigaray suggests, to undo the effects of a phallocentric discourse, women need to ‘mime the mimes men have imposed on women’: we need to throw the images back, over-ride and out-do them (Tong, 1992).  Again, this was not originally spoken about tattoos, but my goodness, it sounds like a great basis for some serious subversion of the ideological feminine norm.

So, what part does the tattoo sub culture play in the presentation of heavily tattooed women? To begin with, this seemed a straightforward question to me – the tattoo community loves a heavily tattooed woman, and that’s that. But then I started to consider tattoo magazines, and the images of tattooed women they choose to portray.

I emailed a successful, widely available tattoo magazine to ask what somebody has to do to get featured in the publication. I explained that I am studying for my PhD and gave a brief over-view of my project & subject focus.

The editor replied, asking me to send photos of some of my tattoos and one that showed my face. The photos didn’t have to be of professional quality, just snap-shots.

No mention, at all, of my PhD.

Anyway, I sent some (not very good) photos off – showing most of my ink and one that clearly showed MY FACE.

I heard nothing back.

Before I continue, I don’t want this part of the post to sound like “they didn’t like my photo and therefore I am bitter and angry”.

I am not.

I am slightly concerned that my photos were received and laughed at – but that’s my insecurities playing out and I’m trying to quash them.

What I am a little disappointed about is that the editor of a tattoo magazine didn’t take the slightest bit of interest in my PhD subject. I thought that a tattooed academic ‘doing academia’ on tattoos may be of some interest? Maybe I am being a little naïve here – maybe the editor gets emails every other day about people writing their PhDs on body modification? Maybe it’s old news? Ok, I wasn’t expecting, “great, let’s do a whole feature on you and your studies” but I think I’d have quite liked, “oh, your PhD sounds interesting”.

Alas, tattooed academics are Just. Not. Sexy enough to sell magazines.

And this is when I started to question the role of the tattoo subculture, and in particular, tattoo magazines, in the representation of tattooed women. Yes, tattoo magazines feature A LOT of tattooed women, but which tattooed women? I look back on old, old copies of magazines that feature a wide range of tattooed individuals – women & men with differing style and image. I’m not sure if this can still be said of today’s editions.

Are (some) tattoo magazines merely reinforcing society’s attitude that says, “It’s ok to be a tattooed woman, as long as you’re pretty/sexy/stereo-typically feminine”?

I really hope not.  But it’s an interesting question, and one that I will be including in my research. For someone who has been buying tattoo magazines for the past 10 years, this is a question that makes me feel quite uncomfortable. It feels as though I doubt the sub culture and the things associated with the sub culture that I have grown to love, and actually, that are still an important part of my identity and me. Buying a tattoo magazine always makes me feel part of something, and re-affirms my place within a supportive and inclusive community.  Hopefully the tattooed women I come to interview will feel the same. I can’t wait to ask them….

Books referenced within this post:

Coward, R (1984) Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today, Paladin: London

Tong, R (1992) Feminist Thought, Routledge: London

*The photo above is of me, *performing* “Woman on her way to a Vegas-themed party”…

***UPDATE: For a response from Skin Deep Magazine to this post & your comments – please see my next post, “It’s Skin Deep” ***