I started calling getting tattooed “tattoo therapy” as a joke. I do this. I claim “kitten therapy”, “music festival therapy”, “camping therapy”. But for me, tattooing goes beyond a mere joke about something I like to do. Tattooing is something very large, very meaningful, and very good.
The way I feel after being tattooed, the way I feel right now, my skin still tender from the needle, the smell of ink and Vaseline still clinging to me, is beyond compare.
This feeling is not simply the endorphins and the excitement. It is a profound joy and pride at the deliberate act of taking control of my body, of changing it on my own terms. Tattooing my body is hurting it, yes, but in a way which transforms it and improves it and says THIS IS MINE ONLY MINE.
I am taking back my authority over my body.
I have been fighting a war with my body since I was eleven years old. It is a contested site, a battleground.
When I was eleven years old, my authority, my ownership was taken from me. I was invaded upon and mistreated and deeply, deeply hurt by somebody I trusted. My body no longer belonged to me, but to the old man who molested me. To his clumsy fingers, blunt and dirty. To his grasping satisfaction of his own base desires at the expense of the most personal and vulnerable part of my being. To his wilful infringement upon my bodily autonomy. I was no longer my own.
In the nine years since then I have been fighting relentlessly against my body, the site of my betrayal and hurt. I have starved myself, I have mutilated myself, I have burned myself and bruised myself and broken myself down. I have pushed my body beyond what is reasonable, beyond the way that human flesh deserves to be treated. I have hurt my flesh because it was alien to me, because it did not belong to me but still clung to me, somehow linked to my mind and heart, uninvited.
And then, two years ago, I chose to be tattooed for the first time. There is a slight irony which brings me a small, twisted smile in that I have so far only been tattooed by men. A penetration, a pain infinitely far removed from the one I suffered at another man’s so long ago. The choice to be tattooed was an enormous one in terms of my progress out of the suffering brought upon me by what I endured. I did not realise this at the time of my first tattoo, not in so many words. I knew, though, that I was permanently altering my body by a process I had chosen for myself, unprompted. And I knew that this made me feel good. That it made me feel strong.
Radical feminist, academic, and all-around unkind person Sheila Jeffreys groups tattooing with cutting as acts practised by women who have suffered under the patriarchy as a programmed, almost involuntary, response to our marginalised position. As a self-mutilator and a tattooed person, my response to this claim is a resounding fuck you. Self-mutilation is an act of desperation, an act of hatred turned inwards. It is born of and carried out in fear and misery. Tattooing is an act of self-determination, of making a choice to change our bodies on our own terms. To compare these two actions is to delegitimise the work being done by those of us who are fighting to own our bodies.
My body belongs to me. It does not belong to my abuser, to his crime. It does not belong to an illness. It sure as fuck does not belong to the set of arbitrary rules held by our society that try to tell us what is and is not allowed in terms of what we do with our bodies. It is mine. It is me.
When I am sitting cross-legged in the slant beams of sunshine in a Brunswick apartment with a dear friend pressing needles of ink into my skin, this is what I am doing. I am fighting. I am reclaiming myself. I am becoming whole. I am making my life happen, rather than letting life happen to me.