How Tattooing My (Fat) Body Helped Me Fall in Love With It
As a young girl with much older parents, I got to hear a lot of old-fashioned ideas repeated throughout my childhood. Few were impressed upon me with such sternness as one of my father’s favorite axioms — “Your body is a temple.” He comes from a generation that believed that tattoos were in no way proper — mostly for anybody who wanted to be “respectable,” but particularly for women. But since day one I have been an artist, and this lead me to a natural fascination and interest in tattoos as forms of bodily art, self-expression, and even as a medium for art. I see my skin as a canvas, and use it to create art and to express myself, like many other tattooed people will tell you. But as I began drawing my art with plans to put it on my body forever, I found that the placement became it’s own journey of self-expression and discovery.
I identify as fat. In a realistic spectrum I fall somewhere in the middle — not as fat as some, not as thin as others. I am relatively hourglass-shaped, which means that my relationship with my fatness was tied into my relationship with my femininity from the beginning. As women in the Western world are well aware, the hourglass shape is it’s own sexist commodity (which many have written about, see “Some types of fat are hotter than others”) and it comes with a wrapper of hyperfemininity that fits mostly two forms: docile and effeminate 50s house-wife, and overtly sexual pinup girl.
I gravitated toward what seemed to be the tougher of the two acceptable images I was presented with — the pinup. Tattoos fit into that identity because of the way that modern women have created the image (trope? Niche?) of the tattooed girl in retro clothes, and I made straight for that. It seemed tough, beautiful, and sexy — all things I preferred to be associated with after a chubby, awkward, greasy childhood. I climbed the ladder of self-confidence slowly, one rung at a time, learning how to meticulously do my makeup and curl my hair, thrifting vintage dresses, stretching my ear piercings, and amassing ideas for future tattoos.
My first tattoo was acquired during the peak of my retro-pinup look. I designed it carefully and repeatedly. When placement became an issue, I looked to the place I could cover with the most ease (so as not to horrify my parents.) That place, I decided, was my thighs. My cellulite-covered, pallid, spider-veined thighs that I had hated since they became something I was taught to hate, despite have cultivated a decent, if not downright worshipful, relationship with various other parts of my fat body. My ugly thighs that I always covered up with pants or leggings or knee-length shorts — yes, that would do.
This decision brought on a very unexpected result. I fell in love with my tattoo, because it was both a piece of my own artwork and a really well-chosen personal symbol … and by extension, began to fall in love with my thigh. The veins now framed a piece of my heart, the pale flesh became a perfect canvas to showcase the detailed work. I began to buy real shorts and dresses that came above the knee. I started to show people my thigh, to pull up my dresses joyously. Covering my thighs had been a priority when I got dressed. Now I chose garments specifically to show them. I still hang on to a pair of Bermuda shorts and some Capri-length leggings to make sure my parents don’t have to stare with mixed feelings at my tattoo (or it’s brand new sister on my other thigh), but I no longer dressed with hiding anything in mind.
Along with this freedom of clothing came another strange effect of this tattoo — I began to deconstruct the carefully cultivated feminine image I had created for myself. I had adapted to fit into a box that society had created for a certain type of fat girl, full of self-doubt and body hate, that I was no longer comfortable inside. With shorter skirts and shorter shorts came new frontiers of dressing and new ideas about what could be feminine, or even just beautiful. I discovered my queerness and the inspiring world of outspoken women (and bois and bulldykes and trans* folks and genderqueers …) from all over the world breaking from similar boxes given to them by society, many of them fighting harder than I would ever have to for survival, and then rebranding that style in the name of self-love and sister-love. I cut my hair and began the eternal transformation that is a conscious lifestyle, and I took the words and styles of other people and began to internalize them instead of the toxic restrictions that teen magazines and clothing stores and porn sites had been pouring into me all of my life.
Five hours and $450 dollars (plus a tip, of course) later, and my world was wider and more beautiful than it had ever been. My thighs were no longer objects to be shaved and slimmed and tanned, they were beautiful pale canvasses for art, my first love. And my world was no longer a box that I suffered to squeeze into like a dress two sizes too small, but an ever-widening kaleidoscope of love and solidarity. So, as a word to my parents if they ever read this, I hope you guys can forgive me my ink in the knowledge that it was that first choice that I have made as an individual, separate of your guidance, that has affected me in such a profoundly positive way.
Written by Hannah Bodenhamer