How Women Are Using Tattoos to Celebrate Their Bodies and Empower Themselves

How Women Are Using Tattoos to Celebrate Their Bodies and Empower Themselves
Melissa Fabello
Melissa Fabello

These days, women in the United States are more likely to have ink than men. Twenty-three percent of women have tattoos compared to 19% of men, according to a 2012 Harris Poll. What these numbers don't reveal is a possibly encouraging reason why women are getting inked: Tattoos are helping women reclaim their bodies and celebrate themselves.

Whereas in previous decades tattoos may have been "gestures of nonconformity," they're now more commonly "expressions of individuality," Margot Mifflin, a professor of English and journalism at the City University of New York and the author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, told Mic

Here are just a few ways tattoos serve this purpose.

They are an act of self-beautification.

Source: Melissa Fabello
Source: Melissa Fabello

Women have been subjected to unattainable beauty standards for decades. Restrictive behaviors intended to modify women's bodies, like dieting and wearing corsets, have largely been part and parcel of the female experience. But tattoos turn this limiting standard of modification on its head by empowering women to determine how they modify their bodies.

"I've never loved my body," Carolina Gerlach, who works in the theater industry, told Mic. "That just seems like a foreign concept to me. My body has always felt like something I could never quite control. There was always a few more pounds to lose or an inch of skin I wished would go away." 

Her decision to get a tattoo was partially because "I wanted my body to feel like my own," she said. "It was the first time I've ever felt a sense of control over how my body looked. It became a reminder of my strength and the journey I've been on with my body."

Source: Carolina Gerlach
Source: Carolina Gerlach

Instead of scrutinizing her body, Gerlach's tattoo, she said, serves as a daily reminder "that there's more to me, and more to life, than my physical appearance."

"We're pressured to look a certain way," feminist writer Melissa Fabello told Mic. While more women may be getting tattoos than ever before, "I'd argue that they're still not considered 'conventionally attractive.' And neither, I guess, would the many men who try to start conversations with me with 'I usually don't like tattoos on girls, but...'" 

Perhaps that's why so many women find tattoos empowering — they're not trying to be more attractive to others, but to celebrate and amplify their own beauty.

"It's not something the commercial beauty world prescribes for you; you choose the look for yourself," Mifflin said.

It's about rejecting the many expectations of beauty others have of women.

Source: Claire Fallon
Source: Claire Fallon

In many cases, tattoos have become a way of "expressing and redressing anxiety about the body," Mifflin said. "It was — and still is — a means for women to assert control over their own bodies."

"I think that, especially for women, any decisions that we make about our bodies are up for public debate and discussion," Fabello said. "There's also an association between body modification and low self-esteem, and tattoos are especially seen among women as a 'cry for attention,'" which can "add to the already difficult task of moving through public spaces as a woman." 

In fact, they can expose women to a unique phenomenon Fabello termed "tatcalling," or a form of public harassment women with tattoos experience. She attributes this at least in part to "the assumption that if I'm 'showing [my tattoos] off,' that is, walking around without, I dunno, taking them off first, they must be something that I'm proud of and therefore flaunting."

But women's bodies are certainly policed even in relatively private interactions as well.

"I've almost always felt like I had someone to answer to about my appearance," writer Claire Fallon said. Before life with a tattoo, Fallon said she always adhered to school dress codes and has generally taken her partner's preferences regarding her appearance into consideration. Her decision to get a tattoo, though, effectively pushed back on these expectations.

"It felt really empowering to say I'm going to do something to my body that my teachers would not have approved of, that my dad might be kind of shocked by, that isn't geared toward getting approval from authority figures in my life," she said. "It's just for me."

It's about defying the double standards about women and purity.

Source: Chelsea White
Source: Chelsea White

More women than ever before may be getting tattoos, but the perception of them as unfeminine and even reflective of their very character persists.

"Many women are still perceived as 'easy' because of their tattoos — not a stigma men experience with or without tattoos," Mifflin said. Just consider the pejorative terms for women's tattoos like "tramp stamp" or "skank flank"; there isn't quite a male equivalent. 

Fallon noted that she has experienced this particularly gendered association between tattoos and impurity. "A friend tried to convince me to get the tattoo on my ankle instead of my inner arm so I could cover it easily, like on my wedding day," she told Mic. "She felt really strongly about it. It was odd to me, that something so personal to my body and so meaningful was supposed to be subordinated to looking 'pure' one day out of my whole life."

Gerlach agreed that negative reactions to women's tattoos are part of "the long tradition of women needing to be perfect and pure." She even considered strategically placing her tattoo out of sight to avoid the judgment of others and feared the "stigma against women with tattoos, which can affect relationships, job opportunities and other daily social interactions."

Source: Chelsea White
Source: Chelsea White

Chelsea White, a teaching assistant at University of Wisconsin-Madison, experienced the effects of this double standard firsthand, noting that even though she is "a hardworking, reliable and professional individual," she has felt "unfairly judged or blown off" by potential employers because of her tattoos. 

"All three of my tattoos are visible on my arms and even though I love all of my ink and am very proud of the permanent alterations, I know that not all employers share my opinions," she said. "I decide to demonstrate my skills and experience and then reveal my body art. This gives the potential employer the task of re-evaluating their prejudices toward women with tattoos." 

Despite their pervasiveness, these women's tattoos serve as a powerful opportunity to buck these standards. 

It can be an empowering response to past bodily trauma. 

Source: Melissa Fabello
Source: Melissa Fabello

Part of Fabello's process of recovering from an eating disorder, she said, involved "finding ways to love and take care of my body in a variety of ways, and, for me, tattoos have become a part of that process." While her relationship to and motivation for getting her tattoos was not directly tied to her recovery, they still became "avenues for falling in love with my body in new and unique ways," she explained.  

For example, Fabello previously struggled with the appearance of her thighs, but has since gotten multiple thigh tattoos and now appreciates them as "works of art, marked with symbols of feminine power" and frequently wears shorts "because seeing how pretty [my thighs] are in bright colors makes me, myself, more proud of and excited about them."

Fabello said she doesn't see her tattoos as directly tied to her eating disorder recovery, but "if one of the reasons why people, myself included, engage in body modification is because there's a side effect of loving their body more, then I think that's as wonderful a reason as any." 

In addition to being an avenue towards or an aspect of recovering from negative body image or eating disorders, tattoos are a way of moving past other forms of trauma. Chicago tattoo parlor Ink180, for example, specializes in transforming scars women incurred after belonging to gangs, surviving domestic violence or sex trafficking. 

Breast cancer survivors are also using the power of tattoos to reclaim their bodies by transforming scars from mastectomies or reconstructive surgery into beautiful designs.

Source: Women With Ink/Instagram
Source: Women With Ink/Instagram

"I wanted to cover some of the scarring and to say 'I survived this and look how good I look,'" 64-year-old cancer survivor Anne Hulett told the Sydney Morning Herald in May. She tattooed a red heart adorned with a teardrop on her breasts after undergoing a mastectomy.

These tattoos are "a way of acknowledging rather than concealing their experience, and of transforming the scarred area into something pretty," Mifflin summarized.

As Fabello put it, "Body modifications are personal decisions that we make, somewhat similar to the clothes that we wear, that come from a place of wanting to share something with the world about ourselves and our relationships to ourselves."