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Tattoos and Feminism

The tattoo a girl gets on her lower back, indication that she is a dirty tramp. She wouldn't get it there if she didn't want people to check her out.

– Definition of Tramp Stamp on Urban Dictionary

A women with tattoos (Source: @arianismmm on Unsplash)

Tattoos easily qualify as hideous. It is surprising that India managed to make getting tattooed a taboo when in Indian culture tattoos have been used as identification, to fulfill traditions for certain tribal communities and for sentimental reasons for so long it is close to impossible to trace down its accurate history. Anyway, it became a form of self-expression for youth. While there are tattoos that are associated with intimate sentiments of a person, variety of tattoos are designed with respect to their ideals of social narrative.

In the Western world, history of tattoos has been that of a rebellion. Counterculture endorsed tattoos as resistance against the ‘heterosexuals, white and middle-class values.’ It was a harmless transgression of the stereotypical idea of ‘the decent’. The notion of opposing to the norm became the foundation of the relationship between tattoos and activism. Tattoos told society that their definition of ‘good’ is rudimentary and refused to follow it while activism questioned the existing social standards, ideals, policies and campaigned to bring about a social or political change.

For men, to repulse such ideals and the relinquish the need of social approval is much more easily accepted and sometimes, even justified. Tattoos are often associated with masculinist aesthetics so when women decide to do the same, it is frowned upon for it is not ‘ladylike’. As the definition of Tramp Stamp suggests, the choice (and the location) of getting tatted for a women becomes a vital indicative of her ‘character’.

The Rank My Tattoos website specializing in male tattoos states that:

A large portion of men with tattoos will choose images involving animals – some believing that the animal’s characteristics are, in part, given to the bearer of the animal’s tattoo. Therefore, the strength, courage, and power that many animals hold, may also be bestowed onto the one wearing the tattoo of the lion, tiger, dragon, or snake. This concept certainly enhances the masculinity of the tattoo as well.

For women, the most popular tattoos remain, according to Tao of Tattoos:

floral [and] tribal designs across the lower back, fairies, unicorns, butterflies, and sunflowers ... Dolphins were the most popular tattoos for women in around the 1990’s but are a bit clichéd now.

Tattoos on a women’s body is greatly subjected to ‘male gaze’. The notion of male gaze could be loosely identified as receiving aesthetic and sexual pleasures derived from looking at something. So, when men enjoy the status of a playful rebellion, the purpose for the same thing for women is noticed with its impact and relevance to male gaze. The whole social narrative of tatted women’s bodies is that of a women’s need to attract male gaze or internalised male gaze. Thus, it is stigmatised.

“A tattoo on the lower back of a female. Denotes the perceived correlation between having a tattoo in this location and being sexually promiscuous. The larger the ‘tramp stamp’, the more promiscuous the female, goes the common lore. Popular designs include butterflies, flowers, vines, tribal designs, wings.” – Another definition of Tramp Stamp on Urban Dictionary

Such concepts relent the female agency on their own bodies. It forgets to look beyond the finite conceptions where the tattoos of these women signify much more – their sentiments, their ideals, their activism, their lives. Tattoos don’t necessarily be a sign of masculinity. Undertaking aesthetics which are dominated by other gender doesn’t have to come at the cost of losing one’s gender identity and giving in to stereotypes. So it becomes easy for women to not only embody femininity, they create their own constructs of the same.

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