This past weekend, my tattoo artist Derek and I started work on what will ultimately become a half-sleeve, meant to commemorate my experience at the Keys ultra. The first stage is done, a bouquet of tropical flowers and palm frond on my left shoulder that is currently itching and peeling under my cardigan. When everything is complete, my upper arm will be a tropical jungle of brightly-colored flowers and birds.
When people find out that I have several tattoos, they are often surprised. “You don’t seem like the kind of woman to have a lot of ink,” they say. I get it. I have that kind of middle-class, wholesome, blonde-ponytail, white-teeth aura specific to those of us brought up as Utah Mormons. My people do garments, not tattoos.
Truthfully I don’t have any of the markers that would indicate I belong to a tattoo-friendly subculture. I don’t do the rockabilly-pinup thing, or any sort of musical subculture, really. I hate motorcycles. Whenever I go to punk-ish things, I’m usually the least punk person in the building.
But the thing is, I am part of a tattoo-friendly subculture. It’s just one that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of.
If you ever find yourself lining up at a race or milling around on a beach before a triathlon swim, you’ve probably noticed the same thing, which is that a lot of the people taking part in the races have tattoos. Big ones, ones that cover thighs and backs and upper arms and shoulders. Tattoos that are usually hidden by business casual clothes or race t-shirts or khaki shorts.
A lot of the athletes who have them are women, particularly women like myself, who occupy that vast chronological terrain known as “middle age.” One female triathlete with a sleeve of roses and ivy twining around her arm competes in the 60-64 age group. A runner who races in the 40-44 age group has a big piece on her upper thigh that peeks out from her running shorts. And the back pieces! So many back pieces!
I see this so often that I’ve started wondering if there’s a connection between the two. I feel like there is, but every time I’ve tried to pin it down, I feel like I’m missing something, like maybe I’m trying to make the leap to a conclusion that isn’t there. That said, I know there is a connection for me, so here’s my attempt to articulate that connection. I hope that those of you who are athletes with lots of tattoos will weigh in on this as well.
I’ve liked the aesthetics of tattoos for as long as I could remember, as my stepfather had several from his time as an enlisted Marine. I rarely saw them otherwise, as I lived in Utah, but when I did see them I always marveled at how beautiful I thought they were. So when I turned eighteen, one of the first things I did was get a tattoo on my lower back. Now those tattoos are hatefully referred to as “tramp stamps” but at the time I liked the placement because that’s where Drew Barrymore had one. (So 90s, omg.)
I would have gotten more, but then I met my future ex-husband. My future ex-husband hated tattoos on women. Every time I brought up the idea of getting another one, he squashed it. “I’m the one who has to look at it, and I say no,” he’d say. So for several years, my skin remained needle-free, until two months after I left, and a woman named Jill etched a phoenix in solid black lines on my upper back. It was one of the first of several “fuck you”s offered to my old existence, a way of reclaiming my body for myself.
Saying “fuck you” to perceived authority is fine when you are younger – or, in my case, a newly-free divorcee – but at some point it becomes wise to allow principles aside from gut-driven defiance to guide your life, which is what I did. Over the next few years, I etched my body with symbols of my love of writing, my loyalty to my best friend Brandi, my pride in the woman I was becoming.
At the same time, I was slowly transforming myself into an athlete, first a runner and then a triathlete. I lifted weights and started eating for strength, and grinned at my reflection in the mirror as I posed and flexed all of my baby muscles. The woman in the mirror looked strong and capable, and eventually I started to understand that she – that I – was strong and capable, and that it wasn’t just the muscles or sinew, but that it was who I actually had become.
In a way, I feel like the tattoos are a visible reflection of that toughness and that strength. There’s a part of me that rolls my eyes a bit at equating tattoos with toughness, but let’s be realistic – anyone who can sit still while being stabbed with a needle a billion times in a row is probably pretty tough. (In fact, a coworker paid the best compliment to me the other day after seeing my new tattoo. He said, “You got this done…and you ran fifty miles? You look like a choir girl, but you’re as strong as three men!”)
Tattoos and athletics are also two ways in which I’ve taken back ownership of my body, after years upon years of feeling as though my body belonged to everyone but me. The recent Isla Vista shootings brought up a mess of gnarly feelings for me, not least of which is this gnawing ball of resentment that surfaces when I am confronted with someone who believes that women are trophies, like we are stuffed animals that can be won by scoring enough manhood points at the county sex fair and then taken home to sit on a shelf alongside the BMW and the condo in South Beach.
I’ve been with men who saw me as proof that they had “won” at being men, and it was the one of the most dehumanizing experiences I have ever had. In these relationships, my thoughts, my opinions, and my feelings didn’t matter. It’s not that they were secondary to my partner’s. It’s that they didn’t even exist at all.
To be a human being, I had to learn how to say “I want…” and “I like…” and “I need…” and “I feel…” I had to learn how to even figure out what it was I wanted and what I liked and what I needed and what I felt. I had to learn how to give precedence to my own tastes and desires over those of others, and to be comfortable with the fact that doing so might make some people not like me as much, or like me at all, really.
This bent toward self-determination marks me – and others like me – as a bit of a gender rebel. We’ve had a few decades of liberation movements in our society, and while a lot has changed, some habits still die hard, and among them is the belief that a proper woman is focused first and foremost on becoming the prettiest little ornament she can possibly be.
We female athletes know the limitations that come with being an objet d’art in someone else’s collection. We know how it constrains you and makes you small and makes it hard to breathe. We know the joys that come with shin scrapes from the barbell, hair fried from sun and chlorine, tan lines not easily hidden under clothing, toenails that make pedicurists shudder slightly, traps and quads that can barely be constrained by our clothes. We know how big and powerful this makes us feel, how it makes the world seem like it can barely contain our immenseness. The idea of giving all that up just so some random guy can find us attractive for a minute…well, it hardly seems like a fair trade at all.
So I don’t get upset when I hear people talk about how unattractive they find tattoos on women; I just think, “Good, it’s not for you anyway.” When I hear derision about women with muscles or female athletes, I think, “That’s too bad for you.”
I don’t believe I owe prettiness to any person who walks past, that I am obligated to be as sexually appealing to as many people as possible. I don’t believe any of us do.
What I do with my body, I do to please myself, whether it’s working on developing the strength to do a pull-up or practicing smooth application of liquid eyeliner or sitting for four hours while a tattoo artist injects ink into the skin on my arms or running ten hours through the Florida Keys in the summer heat.
You don’t have to like or understand any of it, because again, it’s not for you.