Women who wear their ink on their sleeve

“I write on my body so that I can remember to feel everything, and to not ignore the important things in life” –Rebecca Furlong

Image by Denicke Cronje

The inked female skin has for centuries been a symbol of disruption and rebellion. In contemporary society, tattoos are more commercially accept than ever before. However, the practice maintains a culturally constructed stigma, which does not favour the inked female skin.

I’ve always been fascinated by tattoos, especially women with tattoos. The practice evokes a sense of personal autonomy, liberation and rebellion. The ultimate act of female defiance against the objectifying patriarchal society.

My ink obsession has however not translated onto my physical skin. But when granted the opportunity to try special-effects tattoos, I jumped at the opportunity. I paraded my newly faux inked skin for five consecutive days. I felt uncharacteristically comfortable in my newly embellished skin; my physical flesh had become a surface for social inscription and categorisation.

Even though I acquired a temporary sense of empowerment, I also fell victim to a variety of misogynistic stereotypes. These culturally and socially constructed dogmas, continue to shape the contemporary lived experiences of women who wear their ink on their sleeve.

tattoos sleeve 1
Image by Denicke Cronje

Tattoos have become increasingly commercialised throughout the past few decades. A recent study by The Harris Pole suggests that “about three in ten Americans (29%) have at least one tattoo” while it is also reported that a fifth of British adults have been inked. There is limited data available on South African tattoo culture, however, it is clear that the practice has been widely adopted.

Recent studies propose that more women are going under the needle than ever before. The statistics are especially high among younger generations, namely Millenials and Generation X. But, does the increase in popularity among women suggest a changing perception of the inked female body?

According to a study by psychologists Hawkes, Senn and Thorn, both male and female participants perceived women with visible tattoos negatively. Women with visible tattoos are often deemed as “irresponsible”, “defiant” and “promiscuous”. These common stereotypes are attributed to a patriarchal environment, in which women’s bodies are continually sexualised and shamed.

Rebecca (22), a tattoo enthusiast says, “I’ve been stereotyped because of my ink, people have called me a ‘dyke’ before”.

French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen suggests that “men tend to overestimate women’s sexual intentions”. Particularly in relation to physical cues, men’s responsiveness to tattooed women is much greater than towards those without. His research provides valuable insight into the before mentioned sexualisation of the inked female body.

There remains an evident obsession with the relationship between tattoos and sexuality. In many instances, women with tattoos are objectified by society. Junette Syster, a South African curves model recalls the time her mother asked her if she’d “put a sticker on a Bentley” when she revealed her new ink.

In gender and feminist discourse, this idea of objectification refers to the perception that the female body is a material object of which one can maintain ownership. Tattooed women are no strangers to statements such as “art belongs on walls” and religious sentiments like “your body is temple”.

Jessica Grammer, a fashion buying and marketing student says, “every time that I’ve had my leg tattoo visible I have had negative criticism from at least one person…I have been physically stopped in the Waterfront shopping mall by an elderly couple, who thought it was necessary to stop me and tell me how ‘disgusting’ and ‘shocking’ my tattoos are.”

Women with ink, however, embody a different narrative to those of a misogynistic society. Jessica adds, “I think at this point in my life, I look back and thank those people, as I wouldn’t be the confident young woman I am today without those “disgusted” people.”

The women I interviewed expressed an enhanced consciousness of their physical body. Their inscribed skins had become sites for social and cultural engagement. Through the embodiment of these embellishments, they have internalised a distinctive branch of feminist thought referred to as corporealism.

Rebecca says, “My tattoos have improved my relationship with my body.” Which she expanded on by adding, “I became more tolerant (by) having tattoos. I became kinder. But I also became more me.”

Women with visible tattoos often mention that their ink invites physical touch. This intrusion of personal space is related to the concept of proxemics. Humans are said to have built-in distancing mechanisms, in which they are able to control the proximity of social interactions.

Junette mentions, that although she considers herself to be an affectionate person, her tattoos often invite non-consensual touch from strangers and acquaintances.

Rebecca and Francisca mirrored the same experience, claiming that their tattoos often drew the attention of men or older women, who would proceed to touch their inked skin.

This idea of proximity is culturally and socially constructed and differs among individuals. By tattooing the skin, one can unintentionally deconstruct personal boundaries and the manner in which others define your personal space.

The inked female body should be considered as a site for inclusive feminist discussion. Tattoo culture allows women the opportunity to regain control over their individual bodies.

Black feminist scholar Marquis Bey writes: “with my tattoos I am doing a kind of feminist work, quite literally embodying my feminist ideologies and always already putting my feminism into practice.”


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