Back in the 1960s, tattoos were not the popular body art that they have become. In the upstate New York town where I grew up, I knew of no one who had a tattoo; that is, until my boyfriend – now my husband – got one in the Marines. I was shocked. How could he mar his body with something so permanent? He thought my efforts to persuade him to have it removed were nuts. The tattoo stayed, I got used to it and married him in spite of the large off-kilter anchor on one arm.
The farthest thought from my mind back then was that I would someday join the ranks of people who patronize tattoo parlors, much less that I would get my first tattoo long after becoming a grandmother. But I did.
My youngest turns twenty-one this month. When she was sixteen, she approached me about getting a tattoo, parental permission being required for minors. Over the years, popular opinion had changed radically, and my own initial distaste of tattoos gradually had changed to disinterest and then curiosity. By the time my younger son beamingly showed me his tattoos, I was genuinely able to admire them.
I agreed to my daughter’s desire, and then surprised myself and my family by getting a tattoo of my own at the same time. What better way to bond with your teenager, I thought, than by sharing a tattoo-parlor experience? I chose a multi-colored floral design for my ankle. In the days and weeks following the procedure, I must have looked down at it a thousand times. I was honestly intrigued.
When my son saw it, he warned me that tattooing can be addictive, and over the next two years, flowers sprang up on my foot, then my right hand, and finally high up on my chest below the collar bone. No clandestine tattoos for me! I wanted them in plain view where I could see and enjoy them, which I do.
If there is any moral to this story, it may be that even the most engrained biases can change. It might also be that beauty is, indeed, in the eyes of the beholder. I’ve read of cultures where women wear pegs in the flesh below their lips to stretch them. And in some Third-World tribes women wear so many rings around their necks that they lose muscle tone and cannot support their heads without them.
So who decides what is beautiful and what is not? Some old friends from my pre-tattoo era have been shocked at my body art. Certainly, my mother and two brothers were uncertain what to make of it. One old friend even hinted that perhaps I had a desperate need to mutilate myself because of repressed anger. Lighten up!
On the other hand, I’ve received countless compliments from strangers admiring one or the other of my tattoos. And my husband, who always says that nothing I ever do surprises or shocks him, claims to like them. In any case, since we are only here once, I think we are free to embrace any idea of beauty we choose.
Who says we all have to look alike?