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” ***


33 thoughts on “The (Tattooed) Beauty Myth

  1. Lori Smith says:

    I’ve not purchased a tattoo magazine myself, but have looked through a few and remember that any women featured (other than just for close-ups of their ink) were indeed of the Suicide Girls type. In fact, that website is a classic example as, for all their announcements of “we feature the types of women you don’t see elsewhere”, most Suicide Girls skinny and white. OK, so it’s a pin up site and they have to be attractive (however you rate that), but tattoo mags can’t say the same. It should be all about the ink, and it is… unless you’re a girl.

    • emmacbeckett says:

      I agree, and I’m sure tattoo magazines didn’t used to be like this… I’m not sure if it’s because the pin-up look is very ‘popular’ at the moment, or whether tattoo magazines are actually sliding down the slippery slope of more mainstream publications.

    • emmacbeckett says:

      I absolutely agree with “ALL heavily tattooed people are looked upon unkindly by mainstream society” – when my partner and I walk down the street, we *both* get stared at/talked about/pointed at – however, my *personal* experience is that I get judged a little more than he does, because he’s a big burly bloke you perhaps looks like he *should* have tattoos – it’s not as much as a surprise, I guess.
      I’m not sure if I pin-pointed this as a ‘feminist issue’, but the fact that all heavily tattooed people get judged makes this a feminist issue – feminism is about (amongst other things, obviously) challenging discrimination against all genders and minorities, not just “women”.

      • emmacbeckett says:

        I do acknowledge in my work that all heavy tattooed people are judged as ‘deviant’ by society. But I needed a specific focus for my PhD, gender performance interests me & therefore I settled upon the gender performance of heavily tattooed women 🙂

  2. Little Ershin says:

    Tattoo mags depress me a little. It’s like they go out of their way to pick the ‘Suicide Girl’ looking women (skinny, white, made-up, traditionally pretty) it’s as if the mentality that tattoos are an exclusively masculine pursuit is still alive and well, and therefore the female examples they choose to display are chosen to cater to the male audience….

  3. crimsonlocks says:

    I really am interested to hear more about your study and I like that it’s based on gender performance. That’s something I’m very interested in in all aspects of life. As for tattoos, I just have one so far, and me being considered a somewhat conservative Christian, it’s a hard thing for a lot of people to accept. My mom especially. lol

    Even with being tattooed myself, I still tend to discriminate in my mind against some people with tattoos. I don’t want to be that way, but I think it has to do with the tattoo itself. If the tattoos are tasteful and you can tell that the person really did their research to get a good artist, then I think they’re beautiful. But you can usually tell a cheap tattoo that someone has gotten just to be “cool” or whatever, and to me it just makes them look cheap. Also, if someone has a tattoo purely for shock value or to just rebel against society, that bothers me too. If someone gets their tattoos purely for their own personal enjoyment, and they love the art form and put a lot of thoughts into their designs, then that’s beautiful.

    I may have just made myself sound really bad, but I’m just being honest. Right now I’m living in CA where everybody and their dog has a tattoo, so there’s nothing really special about them to me. I got my tattoo in Oklahoma, where it’s kinda rare to see tattoos, especially on girls. And usually the girls you see with them have really beautiful and well thought out designs. I put a lot of thought into mine and did research to find just the right artist. My tattoo holds very special meaning to me, and me alone. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks of it. But yeah, I’m a good person too. :o)

    Looking forward to hearing more from you!

    • emmacbeckett says:

      Hey, you didn’t make yourself sound bad at all! I appreciate your honesty, and your comments.
      I think we *all* judge people to some extent, tattooed or not – we all make that initial judgment, ‘oh, he/she looks like I’d get on with them’ (or not) etc. I do think even within the tattoo community there is what I call a tattoo hierarchy – like you say, the cheap, possibly badly done tattoos are often judged by people with better quality tattoos….
      It’s also, obviously, a matter of taste (linking in to Bourdieu here for anyone wanting theoretical stuff!). Not all tattooed people are going to like all tattoos, just because it’s a tattoo!
      Tattoos cross such a wide-range of subcultures too – you can be a ‘member’ of the tattoo subculture but be an active member of another at the same time: think metal, punk, rockabilly, bikers, hippies etc (eek, I am annoying myself now with labeling at categorizing, but for the sake of the point….!) – tattoos feature hugely in all of these subcultures and form what is deemed ‘cultural capital’, but the tattoo chosen may be totally different from one person to the next (obvious point, sorry).

      It’s really interesting that you say you don’t buy tattoo magazines because of the images of women – I’m hoping to capture this point within my study.


  4. crimsonlocks says:

    Oh, and I’m sorry to have gotten off topic there some. As for tattoo magazines, I refuse to buy them. When I see them in the stores they usually have a naked girl on the cover, and as far as I’m concerned, it might as well be a Playboy. Very discouraging for someone interested in the art form.

  5. nicky says:

    I stopped buying tattoo magazines because of the half naked ladies who didn’t really need to be half naked to show their tattoos off. I find the tattoo programmes on tv are much the same there appears to not be any normal looking tattood women around, but rather super ‘hot’ women who want to flirt with the tattoist or suicide girls. It really is not a good representation of tattood women imo.

    I find the language used when talking about my tattoos vs my husbands is very different and I do think its to do with gender. I get a lot of “what happens when you’re an old lady” and “what will your daughter think” comments whereas my husband gets mainly positive comments and never has anyone touching his arms without permission! I definitly feel like I have to excuse myself for wanting to be tattood a lot.

    Good luck with the phd, sounds really interesting 🙂

    • emmacbeckett says:

      Thank you 🙂

      I had to laugh when reading, “what happens when you’re an old lady” – I get that ALL THE TIME!!! and yes, like you, my (male) partner doesn’t. And yep, the grabbing of the body parts to ‘take a look’ without permission. My friends couldn’t believe this the last time we were out.
      Ah, it’s so nice to hear somebody else has the same experiences!

      • Sophie Rees (@sophielour) says:

        The other thing I get (I only have three pretty small tattoos but still) is “but what about your wedding dress?” And, I must admit, that thought did cross my mind but I still chose to get my latest (and loveliest) tattoo on my back above where a traditional strapless wedding dress would sit. I think maybe it was BECAUSE of that thought? I was like ‘stop thinking that, it’s ridiculous, you don’t even really want to get married!’ And actually, I think my birds would look beautiful on show above any dress, even a wedding dress! I think it’s definitely about gender – the whole suicide girl thing really annoys me. Your PhD sounds really interesting! I’m interested in the idea that political and cultural relations are inscribed upon our bodies – perhaps even more literally so through tattooing.

  6. christiebea29 says:

    Hi there- I got here through Jessica Mae’s Women and Tattoo blog-
    I love what you’re saying and I wish you the best on/in (?) your PHD endeavor!

    I personally “love” looking through Tattoo magazines- actually I do love looking at tattoo magazines and beautiful tattoos, but do not enjoy the ridiculous depiction of all the women “hotties”. I can envision myself sitting there rolling my eyes thinking- come on people…but I have to say my true favorite is when they put in women that either have very little or sometimes no tattoos at all, and not because of their accomplishments or intelligence. Then I know I really should ask for my money back. But I also think that perhaps people’s differences make the world a great place~ those who buy into the whole over sexualization of everything down to their toothpaste are not people I want to be around. It is rather dull and not really very clever at all. So I guess my point is, if I find a copy of Maxim magazine in a potential dates shopping cart, I know to move on. Haha~ I am all for the beauty of love and sex, but like everything, it has its place. I recently “unfriended” a tattoo publication on Facebook because it was all about the hot chick of the day crap all the time. Enough already- they are boobs (or a butt) – get over it.
    I also have never gone to a tattoo convention, not because I don’t super love tattoos, but because everything else that goes on there. Granted, I am assuming, but I think I rather go to a place where it is more art oriented than all about sex and weird for weird’s sake. No offense to those who like them- I rather go to the fair- ANYWAY-

    The main stereotypes I get labeled with are that I am a rule breaking, late night carousing partier. It is hilarious, and couldn’t be further from the truth. I love wine, but as I drink it, I am in bed watching Monk reruns at 9 pm! Woo Hoo!
    I know I am blabbing- just liked your post and your thoughts, and wanted to add ;-D
    Best Wishes to you,

  7. Miss Honey Bare says:

    I spend a lot of time ignoring being pointed at and talked about because of the way I look. Most days I hardly notice it but sometimes it can be tiresome. I was working at a vintage fair recently, a married couple came up to me and started asking me why I was tattooed, how I could ruin myself, what happens when I’m older. Then the husband noticed the pin-up girl on my arm and said ‘oh, well, I don’t like tattoos on women, but that one’s ok with me’ (cue pervy wink). Well, gee, thanks, now I have your acceptance I can sleep a little easier at night!
    I’ve had men ask me if I’m a lesbian beacause I have a woman tattooed on me. I’ve sometimes complain to my more ‘normal’ (whatever that really means) friends I am told that if I don’t want the attention then I shouldn’t look this way.
    Of course there are also lovely people who are fascinated, polite and complimentary of my artwork too. So, swings and roundabouts. But I do notice that the reaction I get from people is different depending if I am looking feminine or tough that day.
    It’s like one of the last things people are allowed to poke fun at or discriminate against without getting into any reak trouble, along with taking the piss out of gingers. Well, I’m tattooed AND ginger 😉

  8. Amber says:

    Hi, it was great to find your article because I’m doing research on tattoos for my dissertation. There’s so many different aspects of tattooing, I haven’t yet narrowed my research focus yet but your decision to focus on gender performance is really interesting.

    Good luck with your Phd 🙂

  9. Autumn says:

    This brings up so many good points, and yes, I think this is absolutely a feminist issue. Because what was once seen as a larger statement about society is now more accepted and even co-opted as a symbol of “sexy rebellion,” it only makes sense that both those outside the tattoo culture and those within would now expect women to more closely fit a highly sexualized beauty standard. It’s now simultaneously more of a threat and less of a threat to culture at large (more of a threat = more women taking charge of their bodies; less of a threat = more accepted), which heightens the case for needing to keep a tighter rein on the images of tattooed women.

  10. sarah says:

    actually, regarding the lack of reply from the tattoo mag, I’m working in theatre history and criticism, a field that seems to be having a bit of an identity crisis these days (will there *be* theatre historians in 15 years? Or will we only discuss performance?), but I will say that my impression is there *is* and actually *has been* a lot of academic interest in body modification and performance of identity – esp. on the heels of Butler’s theory of gender performance, as you cite. So, perhaps it wasn’t a snub – perhaps there is an influx. Or perhaps they’re all assholes and were hoping you’d show them your tits so you could get some interviews, whatever. 😉

    It’s funny, I only have one tattoo, a large black fleur-de-lys on my shoulderblade. Got it when I was 19, one of those instinctive things – I knew it was right. Never regretted it. Sure, some guys at the conservative private college I went two for two years thought I was some kind of bad girl with my short dyed black hair and my tat, but I’ve had the lucky experience of meeting some very nice people – a Quebecois woman who asked me if I was part of the independence movement when we met at a hostel in the SW desert, a young man from Louisville, KY who was so excited to have potentially met someone from his hometown where, he explained, everyone had that tattoo – for me, it’s been an interesting door-opener. We’ll see what life is like when there’s more ink involved, though; my brother and I made a pact years ago to go and get inked when our parents die (their health has been touch-and-go for years). I just hope I have a tenure-track job before that happens, because I do worry sometimes; academia still strikes me as conservative, especially in the choice of women it hires. hm.

    Best of luck with the dissertation – it is a beast of a prospect, isn’t it? I’m actually avoiding working on a chapter now! 😉

  11. Stephen Perry says:

    Hi Emma

    As you write your dissertation I wonder if you will be able to probe deeper than the general feminist lament that men objectivise women.

    Of course, it is hard to dispute that men are so widely susceptible to the looks of a young, slim.attractive woman. You may think less of us for that but I think for most men that is hard wired in. It’s instinctive and if we don’t look it’s through politeness and willpower.

    When I buy tattoo masgazines I do so not for the pretty girls but to follow tattoo trends and pick up on new advances and to see how other people are coming up with new ways to be inked. That is what my mind is doing – searching for information. But I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that a picture of a half clad pretty woman would attract my gaze almost immediately. If you are selling magazines or newspapers it is vital to get that first glance. Although few educated people would buy a publication just for it’s sexy pictures, The editors have think about what will make people pick up the magazine in the first place when in a newsagents. What will catch the eye.

    I am tattooed for many reasons. Most of all I find it exciting to be a tattooed person and I love the individuality it gives me. But I firmly believe there is a sexual identity element to being tattooed. It’s our body and how we look. How we look is in part a sexual signal, amongst many other messages.

    It is with some apprehension that I make what I suspect you will see as a highly predicatable and boring male response into a site engaged in feminist debate, but fools rush in.

    In nmy own blog,, there are large numbers of photos of my tattoos but I confess that even when I wrote about grandparents being tattooed (I am one of them) I chose a photo of a tattooed grandmother. I am a sinner.


    • emmacbeckett says:

      Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for your comments: lots to think about, I hope I can form my thoughts into a coherent reply!

      My PhD thesis will indeed be more than the “general feminist lament that men objectivise women”. In fact, it’s too much to go into here, but my research is not about this at all really. I’m really interested in how heavily tattooed women ‘play-out’ their gender roles and negotiate ‘being a woman’ in a society that still frowns upon heavily tattooed women (I know this society still frowns upon heavily tattooed men too but I do think it is slightly different for Women still).
      I know for a fact that men objectify women, but in this context I know women objectify women too – and I also know that within the tattoo subculture there is a degree of condoning this ‘objectifying’ and actually, for the models in tattoo magazines – this is a positive thing. They want to be seen, and they want their ink to be seen and appreciated. I have an issue with some of the images portrayed but as Sion pointed out – much to my interest – these photo shoots are model-lead, not magazine-lead.
      I have probably just put my feminist foot in it, with stating that the objectification of tattooed women can sometimes be positive, but I don’t mean ‘objectifying’ per se, I mean the ‘celebration of the grotesque/carnivalesque’. AND, this is exactly what my research wants to explore – is it positive? what affect does this have on the female readers of the magazines?

      My feminist standpoint is one of the postmodern feminist, who likes to deconstruct….. so a thorough exploration of these issues is what I intend to carry out.

      I buy tattoo magazines, as you say, for the current trends, what’s going on, and a general feel for the sub culture – and yeah, an attractive women with good ink is going to catch the eye.
      A little bit of diversity is what people are asking for, I think.

      I have checked out your brilliant blog – went straight to find the ‘tattooed grandma’ photo as I detected a little sarcasm in you self-identifying as a ‘sinner’. As a tattooed person, I love photos of tattooed people – whatever their gender, whatever they’re age and photos of tattooed ‘older’ women are fab. I do not think you are a ‘sinner’ (whatever that is).
      You may be interested in the wordpress blog, “illustrated women” – check out my links. Jess only posts photos of tattooed women, but tattooed women doing everyday stuff, not ‘being sexy’. She is not a ‘sinner’ !

      Ok, now I’ve talked too much and probably pissed a load of people off, I’m going….. anybody reading these comments, this blog is for me to think ideas through, discuss ideas – they are not my final thoughts. Please be patient!

      • Stephen says:

        Thanks so much for your kind remarks about my blog and becoming a “follower”.

        I did not intend to be sarcastic when describing myself as a “sinner” but it was part of my public school self-effacement game where I hope that you will say ” no of course you are not.”

        I have my own understanding of what “objectivise” means but as an academic, what is its correct definition?

      • emmacbeckett says:

        To me, to objectify means to treat the individual, or group as simply an object. I suppose we could go deeper in to it by talking about positions of power – some would argue that the person doing the objectifying is in a position of power where as the objectified are not, and perhaps are power-less.
        I don’t think it’s as black/white as this though – although that’s my personal opinion as an academic.
        I am going to be looking at ‘Objectifying’ in my work – and using elements of psychoanalysis to look at The Gaze, and how we as individuals take on roles as the Spectacle and The Spectator. I think this is especially relevant to the discussion around Tattoo Magazines.

        I really must get around to writing the blog post on this…… 😉

    • christiebea29 says:

      Why can’t I figure out how to get to your blog? Tried the link, tried putting it in the address bar, tried blogspot…help me?
      Thanks, Christie

  12. Christina Nichols says:

    “Gender is not something we are but something we bcome” Bollocks. You need to explore the world of transsexualism, to understand the vacousness of that assertion. As a transsexual woman, with about 90% coverage, I can give you insights, that you have no concept of. Hiowever, before I can do that. you need to be open to, and understand the world of the transsexual.

    • emmacbeckett says:

      Hi Christina,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I would love to speak to you.
      I have spoken to some of my transsexual friends about this issue, and would welcome a conversation with you.
      I think perhaps it’s a little presumptuous to say I have no ‘concept’ of these issues, or that you assume I wouldn’t be open to understanding your world. I try to be as open as I possibly can be and am always, always willing and open to learning about people’s individual experiences. I totally understand that your experiences and opinions would be different to my friend’s experiences and opinions – which is why I would welcome a chat.
      I am sorry if my blog post suggests I am a close-minded, blinkered idiot – I assure I am not. Or I try my best not to be!

      My research focuses upon heavily tattooed tattooists who identify as women – I would love to hear your opinions on how gender performance as a heavily tattooed trans woman differs from the gender performance of heavily tattooed cis woman. And indeed your definitions and differences between sex and gender.

      Thanks again Christina, I hope to speak to you again soon 🙂

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