A new phrase that shames women’s bodies is in circulation. As if the term “tramp stamp,” used to describe a tattoo on a woman’s lower back, hadn’t done enough damage, the words “skank flank” are now being used to describe tattoos on women’s ribcages. Just in case you had forgotten that when a trend springs up among young women, or when many young women do or take part in something they enjoy, that trend or activity has to be demonized.
“Skank flank” is problematic in all kinds of ways, and you’ll be surprised to hear that my first issue is not with “skank” but “flank.” A flank is a cut of meat, a word we use for cows and horses. Anatomically,it’s not even correct: the flank is the part of the side of your body between your last rib and your hips, not your ribcage. If you check now, you’ll find that human bodies, especially women’s bodies, don’t really have very sizeable flanks. Mine is shorter than my hand. That’s why we use the word “flank” to describe animals and very rarely to describe women.
The “skank” part of the equation barely deserves my attention. There is no logical continuation between the definition of skank – supposedly a sexually promiscuous woman – and a tattoo on a discreet part of a woman’s body that will never affect her professional life and will only be seen by those she chooses to reveal it to. There is no place on her body a woman could get a tattoo that would justify assumptions about her sexual habits.
I am the proud owner of this ribcage tattoo, which I got in Barcelona on my 18th birthday during my summer travelling around Europe. It represents my nomadic lifestyle, which has seen me move city or country every three years and attend six schools. It represents my itchy feet and my sea legs, which have taken me to Los Angeles where I met Rhiannon and first discussed Feminspire, to Rwanda, all over Europe, to the Philippines, and to New Zealand in a few short weeks. It represents my desire to see and learn from the world, my inability to stay in one place, my fear of the phrase “settle down.” It does not represent my sexual behaviour, or any need to justify that behaviour to the chauvinists who promote body-shaming just to see women squirm.
How many parts of the female body does society need to criminalize before we are erased altogether? Even as a child, I “knew” that a tattoo on a woman’s lower back marked her out as a “tramp.” When I started to consider tattoos for myself, I never considered that part of my body as a potential site for art. But looking at it in the mirror now, I realise that the small of my back is actually a beautiful part of my body. It’s smooth, it twists as I move. It’s my core, supporting the rest of me. It’s where my boyfriend puts his hand when he wants to reassure me, or when I don’t know where I’m going. The small of my back is beautiful, but I will never be able to decorate it because I fear society’s censure.
Here is a picture of all the women with rib tattoos who care that there are some other women with rib tattoos.
Some women got their ribcage tattoo as a totally original, inspired thought with no input from anyone else, because they live in a vacuum. Some women saw a rib tattoo on the internet, or on another girl, and decided they liked how it looked and wanted their tattoo there too. We all buy clothes we like even though there’s one exactly the same behind it on the rack. I refuse to be told that my appreciation of my tattoo is “skanky” just because other women like it too.
As far as I’m aware, there is no demeaning phrase to describe the common tribal sleeve tattoo sported by many men. My boyfriend has a tattoo of a scorpion on his lower back, which no one has ever referred to as a “tramp stamp.” Only women’s bodies are subjected to the scrutiny and disapproval that results in these phrases.
Written by Abbey Lewis
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