• Charlotte

Ageing (tattooed) bodies

My birthday is approaching. Whilst 2020 isn’t particularly a year worth celebrating, I have asked for contributions towards a tattoo as a birthday gift. Soon turning 32 (read as old, or young, depending on the demographic reading this post!), I realise that this more ‘middling’ of age groups carries a little less stigma relating to tattoos and expectations, as does other age groups. Let me explain.

Obtaining a tattoo (legally) at the earliest opportunity, here in the UK, sits at 18. And no, you cannot get a tattoo at a younger age than this with parental consent - you must be a legal adult. However, in the literature, and most especially in the media, 18 is far from considered as ‘adult’ - it represents youth and irresponsibility. The 18th birthday tattoo has become almost a rite of passage for those that can now start their tattoo journeys (I know that’s what I did), but that does not make it acceptable in the eyes of others.

To quote my favourite paper* that I drawn on when teaching this topic - to be young and tattooed is to reckless, irresponsible, rebellious. These adjectives represent the antithesis for what it means to be a ‘good’ (not my thoughts, purlease) woman - sensible, responsible, conforming. Though I am sorry to tell you reader, growing older does not remove you from the expectant societal gaze of good womanhood.

My mom recently got a new tattoo (her third, of which her first was only 7 years ago) to celebrate her strength following from a stressful year. I have wrote elsewhere about tattoo meanings, and this isn’t the focus here - for those who don’t know that meaning, her tattoo(s) represent something of a mid-life crisis. For women of a certain age, it's almost expected that you should know better, that tattoos are the pursuit of the young, even though we know they aren't.

Again, to quote another favourite piece of research from the area** - women should grow old gracefully. Here, the tattoo is the antithesis of graceful - it’s a slap in the face to growing old naturally, and demurely - it’s bold, and it makes the ageing process visible, rather than hiding it. (wait, didn't I already give away my age? How unladylike of me...)

This has been less a post about tattoos, and more a rumination on the expectations imposes on women, which rears its judgemental head as certain points in a woman’s life. From birth through to death, women are expected to do certain things, act in certain (read: the ‘right’ kind of) ways, and adhere to social and cultural specific norms, in order to not just fit in, but to be taken seriously, to be listened to (that ones debatable regardless), and to be successful. The way that tattoos intersect with these specific points in women’s lives brings these specifics to the forefront, making the unwritten rules visible, and provides a space for resistance.


*Written on the body? Individual differences between British adults who do and do not obtain a first tattoo, Swami (2012)

**Why do people get tattoos?, Kang & Jones (2007)

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