Reflections on pain.
On a scale of 1 - 10, how much does it hurt?
This is a loaded question. It depends on who’s asking, who is being asked, the context, the cause, the resolution. Pain is subjective.
My theoretical thoughts on pain are rooted in my research on tattooed bodies. How pain is part of the ‘performance’ of a tattoo (for others to indulge in watching people writhe and squirm in pain, the grimaced faces), the indicator of bravery (just head to any tattoo convention, and seek out those getting full body work, sometimes by multiple people), and also the expectation that it just comes with the territory. Tattoo pain is a bit of ‘well that serves you right’ for those who don’t agree or are ambivalent to them, and a bit of empathetic sharing for those who understand. Pain becomes a sharing and comparing of notes. A gauge of worthiness (tattoo quality itself depending, but that’s another point for another day).
Here, pain is subjective - not just for those experiencing it, but also for those seeing or hearing about it.
Being more specific, my research on pain focuses on women’s tattooed bodies. Whilst assumptions are made generally about people with tattoos and their pain tolerance (it must be high, you must enjoy it), we move into a completely separate realm when we talk about pain and women’s bodies. My favourite ever comment from one of the women I interviewed, after the interview had finished, was how her tattoo hurt more than childbirth.
The pain is subjective, in comparison to things expected of women.
In my research, we spoke about the myths of pain. Pain wasn’t actually something I’d anticipated discussing at all - it emerged through discussion organically. Things such as not getting a tattoo when you’re on your period, because you’re more receptive to pain. The protestations of ‘nah it didn’t hurt at all!’, as simultaneous dismission of the pain, and a performance of strength.
That brings me to the present day, where another myth of tattooed bodies is what actually prompted my writing. Six weeks of constant pain, in my lower right abdomen, with no one knowing what the pain is.
Actually, being told that ‘women’s bodies are complex’, and that being that.
Appointments that involve lots of prodding, scans, and awareness of every possible inkling of pain, anywhere. Follow ups involving blood tests, with me not being fond of needles, and telling the nurse this, to the response ‘that’s so common with people with tattoos’, but still in a surprised way. As though to get a tattoo is to not feel pain, to be brave to pain, to not be uncomfortable with it.
The temporary pain of a tattoo is not the same as a prolonged period of pain (I appreciate that my prolonged period of pain is but a drop in the ocean compared to some people who live with chronic pain - but highlights again, subjectivities in pain). To be asked in a multitude of scenarios - on a scale of 1-10, how much does it hurt? My 2 might be your 4, and so on - so how is this useful?
We know that women are often dismissed when it comes to the pain they feel (it was reported yet again this week, with news outlets looking to compline information on it). And I get it - I’m in the same boat right now. So it’s interesting (or perhaps not) how for tattooed women, that tattoo pain is either dismissed (as bravery) or compared in ways that are more understood (childbirth - and I say understood wearily).
Both my research and my current experiences have taught me that pain is not something to be considered from a wholly quantifiable perspective, especially when so much of the ways we talk about pain, and contextualise it, are qualitative. It is individual, contextual, historical, cultural, political.