If one Googles “tattoos + feminism”, a lot of…interesting results come up. Everything from powerful declarations of autonomy to brash “slut shaming” to images of feminist symbols will be offered. To say the message is mixed is quite the understatement. And that’s to be expected; it wasn’t all that long ago that women with tattoos and piercings were generally pushed into three categories: the promiscuous (see: “tramp stamp”), lesbians (see: any woman with short, brightly coloured hair and a nose-ring), or freaks (see: all of us). These stereotypes were never very accurate, of course, but they did, for better or worse, connect body modification to the feminist movement. Society was forced to view women as more than housewives and care-givers. We had autonomy; we were in charge of our own bodies, our own appearance, and our own symbolism. And that philosophy continues today. As Margot Mifflin writes in her 1997 book, Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo, “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”
It’s hard to say whether tattooed women followed feminism or vice versa, mostly because it’s difficult to say when feminism arose. Depending on whom you ask, feminism has been around for centuries, or only a few decades. What we can say, however, is that the tattooed women of history, whether consciously or not, were making feminist statements. In eras where a woman’s role was clear, and mostly involved cooking and breeding, these women bucked those expectations. They had careers. They were independent. They often stayed single, or partnered with like-minded individuals. A handful of them became tattoo artists themselves – a move that is still, sadly, fairly uncommon. These bold women created an intrinsic link between the female self and body modification by defying societal standards and claiming their bodies as their own.
And yet, despite the progress, the history, and the normalizing (approximately 23% of American women – compared to 19% of American men – are tattooed), a lingering stigma remains. Caroline Biggs, a blogger and Women’s Studies grad student, details her experience with having a feminist tattoo here, and how drastic the difference between female responses and male responses to it are. While most women express admiration for it, many men see it as a challenge, and sometimes even a threat. Joanne Ogilvie, a feminist writer, takes that point even further, stating “The assumption that, as a female, my body should be “pure” leads a whole lot of people to question my tattoos, why I have them, and whatever will I do when I’m old and wrinkly?”, issues that most tattooed men will never have to deal with. Even now, in the 21st century, in an era where women can do or be almost anything we wish, the concept of a heavily tattooed woman seems to run counter to what we perceive as feminine. We’re still faced with a dichotomy of softness, purity, and femininity, or hardness, boldness, and debasement. A woman who chooses to get tattooed is, effectively, sacrificing part of her perceived femininity. She is opening the door to statements about how a woman “should” look. How a woman “should” exist in society. And, as obnoxious as that may be, as much as many of us would rather not politicize our appearance, we must be proud of that fact. We must smile in the face of those ignorant shoulds, content in the knowledge that, as our numbers grow, the power of those attitudes lessens. They are the last whimpers of an outdated standard, and our tattoos are a fitting send-off.