TW: sexual assault, rape
I got my first tattoo when I was twenty. Got should be a relative term, since it was a DIY stick ’n poke of a hydrogen atom on my rib cage. I gave it to myself in the bedroom of the condo I lived in in Rhode Island for a summer, with a person I believed myself to be desperately in love with. A lot of the things we believe in our twenties are dumb.
But I survived the inevitable heartbreak and didn’t contract hepatitis or a skin infection from the tattoo. It still sits below my left breast, a little wonky and faded, but a reminder of a time in my life that makes me smile. A dumb decision, a funny story for the bar.
My tattoos, like the body that holds them, aren’t for anyone else. Their stories and meanings, inner jokes and secrets, are none of your business. The scars they hide, the memories they invoke, the reasons behind them, are for me and myself alone.
Yes, everyone else can see them. Like no one else could see the finger prints my rapist left on my inner thighs. Like no one else could see the bruises on my shoulder where my abuser shook me. Like no one else could see the blood that came from me the first time I was assaulted.
These invisible markers are now memories I carry with me. They tangle in my heart. I see them on my body even years later. For a long time, they made my body his and not mine. Their object and not my vessel. My soul climbed out and went somewhere safer. I became a shell.
Tattoos became a method of healing. Safer than cutting, healthier than drinking, more hygienic than refusing to shower or look in a mirror. After my first ‘real’ tattoo, I was ecstatic. I looked down at my thigh and saw words and images that made me smile. Words and images that I put there. This was mine.
I’m a recently graduated college student, just learning to “adult” (How do you clean an oven? What does ‘out of network’ mean?). My parents, in their endless kindness and generosity, help me financially. Since I’m not in debt from undergrad, I consider myself to be doing well.
But not only am I trying to learn how to live in the adult world, I’m also trying to live in my own self again. Not only do I have to make dentist appointments, I have to call twelve or thirteen psychiatrists to keep getting my medication. I drive two hours every week to see a therapist to try to overcome my PTSD. I work two jobs and can’t sleep at night, because the memories are still there. I did not choose any of this.
Recently, I got a tattoo with my dear friend, who has been with me through all sorts of crazy. When I posted photos online, my father told my mother that they shouldn’t help me financially if I could afford to get tattoos. If I could afford a tattoo, surely I could pay rent. My mother talked him down, but when she told me his thoughts, I was reminded of my abusers. This is not my body. This is a tool for others to control.
I only recently told my parents about my assault. Beforehand, I didn’t know how to frame the words. I didn’t want them to see me as a victim, as someone who was weak. I didn’t want my parents to see me the way I see myself. Though my father may not understand, controlling my body through money is the same as controlling it through physical acts of violence. The effect is equivalent: I am not in control of myself. I am not in control of what the world sees. I am not in charge.
Tattoos bring me that sense of ownership and agency that has been missing for so long. Not owning your own skin is a hard situation to explain to someone who’s never felt it. Though my parents may not understand my choices, they are mine to make. Though my father may see my tattoos as expensive and regretful, they are my tattoos, on my body. Through suggesting that he should revoke financial assistance if I get tattoos, he is suggesting that if he gives me money, my body is not mine. It is his.
I know he doesn’t see it this way. My father is a warm, caring man, generous with his time, money, and heart. He would give me anything I desired, if he could. He loves me in a deep way that only parents can love their children. But when he sees me make decisions he thinks are bad, he wants to save me from them. He wants my life to be easy. He believes that if I get tattoos, I’ll make it harder to get a good job. That people will view me a certain way when I walk down the street. He felt the same way when I dyed my hair purple, and when I stopped shaving my legs. He is trying, in his own way, to keep me safe.
Maybe, one day, thirty or forty years from now, I will regret my tattoos. I don’t think they will bar me from any opportunities, but I might see them as ugly or faded or silly. But I won’t regret the reasons I got them. I won’t regret the sense of agency they allowed me find, the sense of self. My body is covered in scars and hairs and moles and zits and birthmarks and dimples. And tattoos. And choices. And it is mine.