Getting My First Tattoo Finally Made Me Acknowledge My Body Dysmorphia

"I thought I had to change my body to be worthy of a tattoo, but now I’ve learned that it's worthy exactly as it is."

How I Bought That takes a peek inside the process of making a major purchase, whether your budget is big, small, all your own, or supplemented by family and/or financial institutions. In this series, we look at many different spending situations, from how people afforded big purchases like first homes to electric vehicles to splurge-worthy bags.

I’ve always wanted a tattoo. From as far back as high school in 2010, I was doodling on my body instead of paying attention to my math teacher. I’d often scribble a small crescent moon on my wrist in black biro, pretending for just a moment or two that it was real. Why a crescent moon? It’s hard to say, but it’s been a motif that I’ve been obsessed with for years. In my school books, university notes, and journals, you can find it smudged in the margins. I’ve traced it during phone conversations with friends and Friday afternoon work meetings. In fact, whilst recently rifling through old mementos, I unearthed an old film photo from a music festival in 2016 where you can distinctly spot a fake foil tattoo of a moon on my wrist. 

Why did it take me almost ten years—until 2020, when I turned 25—to finally get the tattoo? Surely, as a teenager I had navigated what is arguably the hardest part of getting a tattoo: deciding what I loved enough to want it inscribed on my body for the rest of my life. Looking at it now, it’s tiny—no bigger than a milk cap. In truth, choosing what I wanted was the easy part. It wasn’t the tattoo itself or the act of tattooing that scared me (or at least not too much, as I’m not a fan of needles!).

The thing was, for the longest time, I didn’t think that my body was ready for a tattoo nor even worthy enough of the attention. It was an adornment that I felt I needed to change myself for.

It was like a mental block had formed in my brain on how I thought I should look or the kind of body I thought I should have to have a tattoo, even if it was as small as a moon on my wrist.

After all, tightly associated with this teenage longing—the doodling of moons in math classes—were my very teenage hormones and my very teenage changing body. From a pre-pubescent U.K. size 8 that very quickly evolved into a U.K. size 10, then 12, then 14, I developed breasts and hips and suddenly had a whole new body to get used to.

Also, just consider the imagery associated with tattoos. Whether you’re searching “tattoo inspiration women” on Pinterest, scrolling through Google, or looking through tattoo artist pages on Instagram, you don’t often see curvy midsize bodies like mine, and definitely not plus sizes. 

I’ve yet to see delicate ribcage stick and pokes celebrated on women with soft tummy rolls, collarbone tattoos on models with double chins, or ink snaking up legs with hip dips and cellulite. Compared to these bodies, I felt that mine had failed. My body didn’t fit the mold, wasn’t worth what I saw to be a prize (the tattoo), and so I held off. As an able-bodied white woman, it’s also important to note my incredible privilege here. Body diversity isn’t the only issue within the tattoo industry—there is also a severe lack of models of color and disabled models represented.

Is this body dysmorphia? I’ve never been professionally diagnosed, but my feelings match the symptoms. Subconscious but powerful, whatever it is, it’s a toxic way of thinking about my body. What may appear healthy or even attractive to you has been warped in my mind. I attributed my worth to my size and shape based on the images I saw perpetuated online and in magazines, and it hardly helped growing up in a social media-obsessed generation and a career in fashion journalism.

It is a toxic thought process that has also plagued plenty of other areas of my life. I vividly remember the sick, pit-of-the-stomach feeling I had on nights out, conscious of how my body looked and moved in group photos or on the sticky club dance floor. Past holidays have been accompanied by ongoing internal dialogues of self-hate, sexual intimacy with others compromised by my insecurities, and though I wouldn’t strictly admit to an eating disorder, even my eating habits were tied up in ideas of what I “deserved” to consume that day. 

This never stopped me dreaming about getting a tattoo, though. On Instagram I have a saved document dedicated to design inspiration: hundreds of other little moons decorating hundreds of other bodies. For the longest time, this was simply an inspirational mood board of the kind of person I would like to be with the kind of confidence I aspired to have.

Until this year, that is: 2020 dawned and, even before COVID-19 hit, it felt like a huge thing. This wasn’t just the start of a new year but a new decade. It felt right to do something drastic to mark the change, so, before I had even thought it through enough to talk myself out of the decision, I booked with an artist I had followed on Instagram for years, paid the £50 (approximately $67) deposit, and agreed to the extra £80 (roughly $107) for the appointment itself—a shocking amount for someone on minimum wage and faced with London’s staggering costs.

With only a few days to wait before I saw her, it may appear that I had “conquered” my body dysmorphia rather quickly and effortlessly. This couldn’t be more wrong. It’s taken me years to challenge my brain, to recognize these toxic thought processes and reorder them in a healthy way. It’s been aided by a far more realistic and relatable Instagram feed, age, wisdom, and a long, slow, torturous journey to self-love that I still stumble on from time to time.

Simply put, I was sick of being the reason I stopped myself doing the things I wanted to do, and I realized that I was the only person who could change it. Cost be damned, I had to do it.

I ended up going to the appointment with a friend, jumpy with nerves and excitement. Relatively speaking, the tattooing itself—a stick and poke—was painless, feeling more like an intense scratch than anything. It was done within the hour, and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around London, gazing at my wrist in blissful disbelief. Finally the biro moon was real.

Now, months later, I still credit that first tattoo with helping me mark my journey of acceptance. To me, it’s a small ode to my teenage self and the very real growing pains I’ve gone through to get to where I am today. Since then, it’s been joined with three more by the same artist (a shell, butterfly, and a poignant Taylor Swift lyric: “If you never bleed, you’re never gonna grow”) that I managed to squeeze in during the summer lockdown window in the U.K. 

In total, these next three cost £300 (approximately $402)—a cost that one day not too long ago would have had me recoiling. This year, though, I’ve been able to accept and treat my body to the financial and emotional cost, learning along the way to accept and celebrate it just as it is, with no need to change or adapt. Finally, I’ve learned that my body is worthwhile, and any tattoos I get are made to fit it, not the other way around. I’ve got so many more tattoos planned to celebrate.

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