On Tattoos And Character Over Beauty

This morning I had an interesting (though not uncommon) question posed to me by a friend of my father’s with whom I have had a lively email correspondence. He is an older gentleman in his 60’s or 70’s (his curiosity keeps him youthful) and has lived in Brooklyn all his life. I had so much fun writing my response that I’d like to share it here for posterity:

Michael: Feel free to ignore this question if you so choose, but you are the first young person with a brain who might actually be able to explain.  I know that tats are considered “body art” but why would a young lady as attractive as you feel the need to enhance anything?  Though some tats look good when skin is taut and supple, they tend to stretch and detract with age.  You are way too smart not to have thought into the future, so my question is what was your thought process/aim?

My response: Re: your question, it’s an interesting one that I get semi-frequently and that I answer with varying degrees of honesty. But you seem like a very thoughtful person with an ear to the ground re: social trends, so I’ll give you the full, honest answer. My reasons for getting tattoos (and quite big, eye-catching pieces rather than minuscule, delicate script) are:

1. When I was a pre-teen in Los Angeles, I frequently experienced street harassment from older men who commented about my ethnicity as well as my looks. I was underweight (having hyperthyroidism), and with long hair and summer dresses, certain people assumed that they could intimidate me by yelling or hissing things at me while I went about my business as a clueless 11 or 12 year old. Unfortunately, they were correct in that I was intimidated, and I have always felt extremely uncomfortable when I feel that someone is looking at my exterior appearance alone, rather than engaging with me as a person. Getting tattoos was a way for me to change the narrative, throw the observer off balance, and force people to acknowledge the fact that I am more than an object to look at. There was also a generous helping of LA post-“riot grrl” culture that influenced my decision as well.
2. My first tattoo was of a goldfish on my wrist to represent my sister. I got it when I was 18, in law school at Oxford, and very homesick. I later grew the piece to incorporate Chinese symbols representing my mom and dad. Most of my tattoos are Chinese symbols, as I love mythology, symbolism, and art history, and the tattoos were initially a way for me to become comfortable with my heritage. Being mocked by street harassers and the occasional classmate for my ethnicity led me to reject the Chinese side of me in school, and I especially rejected the pernicious Confucian ideal of a Chinese woman as pale, slender, demure, quiet, and sweet. My parents always encouraged my academic success, and I am naturally competitive, so it was incongruous for me to perform in one way (competitively and with ambition) and act in another (shy, overly modest, and empty-headed). I chose to be true to my natural personality and have been running with it ever since, with a few fumbles along the way! Anyway, my first tattoos were Chinese symbols introduced to me by my grandmothers, who I saw on occasion as a child. They give me a sense of self and a “portable home”, if you will.
3. In college, I was the only student to get tattoos, and many of my elitist classmates and professors approached me as if I were a “townie” rather than someone on their intellectual level. I actually really enjoyed their mistake, as studying law suited me very well and what I lacked in classical education I made up with in mental agility. So it was incredibly satisfying to watch someone’s eyes light up with the realization that I had interesting thoughts and could express them in a non-aggressive, non-accusatory manner. Similarly, a number of people assumed I would be unpleasant, uncultured, and unmannered due to my appearance and style of dress (motorcycle jacket every day, all day in the dreaming spires). I took that as a challenge to be a better conversationalist and to draw shy or uncertain people out of their shell. Having tattoos reminds me to kill them with kindness, wherever I am and whomever I am with. I used to be a very hot-headed teenager, so it’s still a pertinent reminder to police my own behavior and be a better person!
4. On the topic of self-improvement, I want to be more than my looks and more than my vanity. I have always admired character over beauty, especially in women of all ages, and I see many professional, intelligent women waste precious time fretting over their skin, their manicure, and their weight, as if these things really define a person. I can’t judge them for their obsession since we are all a product of our environment, but it makes me quite sad to see so much feminine potential unfulfilled due to preoccupations with beauty and the falsehood of finding self-worth through other people’s eyes. Of course, I like to take care of myself and treat myself to skincare, nail care, nice haircuts and the like, but I make an effort to present myself confidently no matter how imperfect my physical appearance may be on any given day (a zit on a bad day, carrying a few extra pounds, a bad haircut). This includes tattoos and the imperfections they develop over time. Like most young women, it took me many years to accept my body, and now that I have made my peace with it, I am not very interested in how other people tell me I should look. I now have time to get on with the real work of life!
5. My parents are obviously not too thrilled that I went through with the body art, but I posed the following question to my mother when I revealed them (5 years after my first one): “Mom, you always said that no one would love me and no one would hire me if I got tattooed. Do you like my boyfriend(s)? Do you think I have a good job?” I had been dating an Etonian and working hard in an insurance law firm for a couple of years when I posed the question, so my mother had to admit that my life was going well by any reasonable person’s standards. The tattoos have never been brought up as a frictional issue since this conversation! Despite my fondness for body art, it hasn’t seemed to impair my other decision-making skills to date.
6. More relevantly to the topic of tattoos deteriorating in old age–I suppose the idea has never bothered me. I have seen corruptions of tattoos in older people and pregnant women, but they have always carried themselves unapologetically and with good humor. It is that bearing that appeals to me most! I once worked with a bartender who was 7 months pregnant, and her twin pistols tattooed on her hips had stretched unattractively with her pregnancy. Her chirpy response to anyone implying that she regretted her tattoos? “I used to have pistols, but now they are rifles!” Also, speaking with the older women that I count as friends, a few of them have told me that aging and menopause in particular have freed them from the pressure to look conventionally attractive and appealing to their coworkers, family, neighbors, etc. I always have a place in my heart for salty older women, women who add value to their community by using their hard-won experiences to help other people rather than hiding behind (or being imprisoned by) the guise of a shiny trophy to be coddled and protected. Further, I have never understood the appeal of keeping one’s body pristine throughout a lifetime. Health is one thing, but the incorrect attribution of morality to physical integrity is another. Who will I be trying to impress when I am 60, 70 or 80? I hope that by that point I will still be in touch with the number of friends who keep me around for reasons wholly unrelated to my looks. I have style, education, and a modicum of social grace, and I believe these traits will last long after my youthful appeal has faded! I don’t want to be left with a void in lieu of personality when that happens.
7. Lastly (congratulations if you have made it this far through my stream of consciousness), would we be having this particular exchange if not for my inky hobby? I think not! Well worth the pain, in my eyes.

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