While I was at work the other day, a customer commented to their companion that I have several tattoos. This isn’t something particularly surprising to hear someone note, and I’m not bothered by it on its own merits. Still, there’s something disconcerting about the way a tattooed woman is treated, versus a tattooed man.
First, there is simply the fact that being “brazenly ogled” as my one friend put it is, in and of itself, a different experience for a woman than it is for a man. Women’s bodies are under constant scrutiny that men’s bodies aren’t forced to endure, and thus it gives the exaggerated scrutiny of visible ink a more sinister undertone. If an inch of tattoo peeks out from under our clothing, we’re subjected to judgments of how “unladylike” it is to have a tattoo in such a private area. Yet, this does not stop onlookers from craning their necks to see under our skirts, beyond our blouses, and around all folds of clothing to try and sneak more of a peek than we initially allow. And if we have a tattoo that is easily visible in modest clothing, we are judged as “trashy” for having such visible ink.
Then we’re forced to encounter the double-standard of how if we got the tattoo, we should expect people to want to see all of it. This carries the same logical weight as, “If she didn’t want men to stare, she wouldn’t wear low-cut shirts.” Our bodies immediately become the property of the public, because we are no longer human beings, but rather objects there for the entertainment of our audience. It does not matter that we desired to modify them for our own personal reasons; all that matters is the resultant objectifying desire to gain access to anything a complete stranger may wish to view. Perhaps tattooed men suffer the same experience, but they aren’t also forced to deal with it simply by virtue of being male. For women, it’s just yet another excuse piled atop the many that tell us why our bodies are not our own to do with as we please.
Tattooed women also face prejudice regarding how our desire to modify our bodies reflects on our abilities to fill stereotypically female roles. By taking ownership of our own bodies, we are displaying the “masculine” qualities of confidence and personal responsibility, and thus are inherently failing at femininity. I have been accused of not being “wife material” because of my choices in bodily decoration. The questions here are both, “How could tattoos possibly affect your ability to be a spouse?” and, “Why the hell should women be expected to be ‘wife material’ in the first place?” It’s all part of the heteronormative social structure that tells women our strongest desire should be to find a male partner, and latch onto him for life. It’s assumed that the opinions of males on what makes females attractive should greatly influence our decisions, and for what reason? Not all women desire any sort of relationship with men, and of those who do, not all of them wish to be wives, or fit into a stereotypical “wifely” role. To assume otherwise is insulting, homophobic, and anti-feminist.
Women are further judged not only for the tattoos they get, but for their very location. The infamous “tramp stamp” is a perfect example: It’s assumed that a woman with such a tattoo is using it to indicate her promiscuity. This is ridiculous not only because there is no legitimate link between tattoo placement and sexuality, but because there is not a damn thing wrong with a woman desiring sex. It’s slut-shaming nonsense that men are never subjected to. Further examples can be found in what is deemed “inappropriate placement” for tattoos on women, almost always based on how it reflects on her inherent “classiness.” Society would still have us believe that women must meet a certain criteria for social acceptance, and if we are at all “tacky,” “trashy,” or “slutty,” we’re disregarded as undeserving of respect. Perhaps a man with a facial tattoo will receive similar treatment, but can the same be said of a thigh tattoo? A chestpiece? No, because these are not inherently sexualized places on the male form, whereas they are on a woman. We are expected to keep certain standards of beauty, particularly when it concerns those body parts which are most prized as male favorites.
A key point in the argument against tattooed women is simply the fact that we run against the mainstream ideal of female beauty. Our culture still implies that women must be pure to be truly beautiful (or even socially acceptable, and certainly to be worthy of being dubbed “good wife material”), and this means untainted flesh, pure as the virgin snow. It’s no longer just a question of who will buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, it’s a question of who will buy the cow when she’s already branded herself. (How dare that brazen bovine take ownership of her own body?) And we must put a premium on our ability to catch and keep a (male) mate, because otherwise, how will we survive in this world, all alone and…female?