How my tattoo helped me take my body back

After flirting via text message for a few months while I was away at an internship, I came home and starting casually dating a boy that I had known for only a short while. He was nice and cute, with short dark hair and vintage glasses. He was also covered in tattoos, an entire sleeve on his left arm, a half sleeve on his right, and other small and big pieces on the rest of his body.

We were having coffee one day when I asked him about one in particular, a lighthouse on his forearm. He smiled and told me about how he had always felt very connected to the water. Then, lowering his voice, he told me something else.

“I love tattoos, but I don’t really like them on girls.”

Immediately, I felt my cheeks get hot. He had no way of knowing, but I had a small tattoo on my ribcage and was thinking about getting another on my left thigh. Through the vapid smile suspended over the lip of his mug, I got the feeling that he felt like he was doing me a favor by telling me this, as if he was giving me the unofficial nod of approval.

When my great-grandmother emigrated from England to the United States after the second World War, she wasn’t able to bring much, other than supplies for my then-one-year-old grandmother and teacups that she had wrapped carefully in her clothes. She was a war bride who met my great-grandfather, an American soldier, where he was stationed near her English hometown. After the war ended, my great-grandmother left her mother and sisters to go live with my Papa and his Ojibwe-speaking family on an Indian reservation in rural Michigan. The teacups were the one thing she had to remind her of home.

Those same teacups now sit in my grandmother’s china cabinet, out of reach from where I would sit as a child to admire the swirls of bright flowers against white porcelain and ask about Nan’s childhood in England.

When I decided I wanted the tattoo, I carefully took photos of each of those teacups, running my fingers over the slight chips, the insignias on the bottoms, and then I brought those photos to my tattoo artist. He drew me a beautiful floral arrangement, pointing out how each flower connected to one of my photos that he had spread out on his desk. I loved it on paper, and four hours later, I loved it even more on my skin.

The first time my mom saw my newly ink-stained leg, she winced as if I had reached up and hit her. Parents often don’t like to see tattoos on their children, which is a reasonable reaction, especially considering that they’ve spent our entire lives trying to keep us safe from things like needles. My mom winced for that reason, I’m sure, but she also winced for another: “Now you can never be a model.”

Her reaction didn’t surprise me. Whenever I experienced those all-too-familiar bouts of self-doubt in my college career, modeling was the direction that she had pushed me towards. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a model, and I was flattered that she genuinely believed I could do it, but the problem was that I knew I would have to lose around twenty pounds from my already thin frame in order to be successful. In my life, I have experienced periods of intense struggle with body image, so there was little appeal for me to pursue a career path where my weight would constantly be scrutinized. For that reason and for others, modeling was something that I was 100 percent sure I did not want to pursue. Still, the disappointment in my mother’s eyes made me feel like I had thrown my entire future away.

For the first few months after I got my tattoo, I found myself justifying it to everyone, telling them the entire long, personal story. I waited for waitresses to nod, for family members to relax their furrowed brows. I wanted strangers to give some indicator that they approved of what I had done to my body. I remembered countless other times when people had sought out an explanation for every birthmark, scar, and freckle on my body, and how I had always given it to them.

Eventually, I stopped caring about whether or not my partners would find my tattoo attractive or if I had squandered my chances at a career path that I didn’t even want. I stopped trying to appease the opinions of shopkeepers and great-aunts-twice-removed.

Now, with my scarred, cellulite-decorated, razor-burned thighs splayed out flat against the ground, taking up the space that they are fully entitled to, I run my fingers over the English rose and morning glory, the African violets and oxeye daisy. I think about where I came from, and the sacrifices my great-grandmother made to keep our family together. I think about what it felt like to have the ink pressed into my body with dozens of needles. I think about choices.

Mostly, I think about my body, because it is beautiful, and it is mine.

Noelle Goffnett talks about burritos the way some people talk about their children. She also has a healthy love for public radio, hockey season, and feminist discourse. You can find an excess of information about her cats on Twitter @NoelleEliza.

[Image via iStock]

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