Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body

According to a Pew Research Center survey in April 2015, 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo, including 40 percent of adults age 26-40. Despite the proliferation, stigma clearly still exists on varying levels, depending on size, location, subject matter of the tattoo, and especially in regard to the gender of the tattooed person.

In her book Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body released this month, Beverly Thompson, assistant professor of sociology at Siena College, looks closer at the increasingly visible subculture of women with tattoos who go beyond the typical definition of ‘gender appropriate’ body art.

“Tattoos are feminine so long as they are ‘small, cute and hidden’,” said Thompson. “A small rose on the breast, a butterfly on the ankle, perhaps a dolphin or a sun on the shoulder blade or lower back. As tattooing soars in popularity, it is not transgressive for women to have one, two, three or even four small, tattoos hidden somewhere on their body. It can even be visible as long as it hits the other categorizations in the mantra “small, cute and hidden.’”

“However, when women’s tattoos become ‘large, ugly or public’ they begin to encounter social sanctions for their ink. This is an indicator that you’ve ‘crossed the line.’”

Covered in Ink begins with a history of the stigma associated with tattoos and how they remain linked to their sailor, criminal and prostitute forbearers known only for lewd behavior. Through personal reflection, as well as 65 interviews gathered at conferences and tattoo shops, Thompson addresses the mindset of “heavily tattooed” women and what drives them to see their body as a canvas.

For many, it is an outlet that challenges the dominant perception of beauty in our culture.

“Collectors love tattoos because they find them beautiful, self-expressive and represent independence,” Thompson said. “When women consciously reject beauty culture, it can be liberating. They express that they are reclaiming their bodies and developing a heightened self-confidence.”

It doesn’t come without a price, however. Women often feel pushback at home from family members, at work from co-workers and bosses, and even in public from those who don’t understand personal boundaries.

“Heavily tattooed women are often stared at, questioned and even touched by strangers in public spaces. Strangers may try to pull back clothing in order to see a tattoo more completely, often without warning or asking permission,” Thompson said. “Or they may ask invasive personal questions about what the tattoo means, despite having no relationship with the person. All of the participants in this study have had this experience and found the intrusions offensive.”

Source Contact Information

Siena College
Assistant Professor of Sociology