“How getting tattoos helped me overcome my destructive perception of my body”

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Writer Megan Nolan got her first tattoo in 2015. Here, she discusses how it helped her overcome personal trauma and take ownership of a body that had come to symbolise so much of her past.

I didn’t have tattoos until two years ago. I had thought about it before then – little fragments of poems I particularly liked, illustrations from children’s books – but it always seemed an insurmountable challenge to settle on something that was going to bear the burden of summing me up forever.

I had always hated my body, a hatred which had expressed itself through starving and self-injury, but when I suffered episodes of sexual violence as an adult I became entirely disconnected from it. I wanted it to be as small and pure as possible so that it was easier to ignore, to feel that it was not truly of me – that when somebody touched my body, they were not really touching me.

“Maybe I’ll get a tattoo,” I said to my ex once, back when we lived together, idly tracing the lines of his as we lay in bed one morning.

“No,” he replied, “I like you like this. You’re sort of… pure. A blank canvas.”

It was interesting that he put it that way. Back then, I aspired to nothing more than a total and encompassing blankness. I wanted to be a sort of proto-woman, a factory model, blandly and objectively attractive, because then there would be nobody who could refuse to love me. Eating disorders meant this to me too, they were a yearning to be reduced to my simplest form, to be interchangeable, invisible.

When my ex and I broke up, it was the first time in my life I had been single. Shortly before quitting my job and moving country, I cut my very long hair off and went to get a tattoo, in a bid to tick all the boxes on the ‘Recently Single Manic Episode’ list. In the tattoo parlour I was almost high with adrenaline and felt quietly proud that I had gone there alone, that nobody was holding my hand. The tattoo artist brushed her thumb briskly, unsentimentally, over the wormy white healed scars on my wrists.

“Are any of these recent?” she asked.

“No, I don’t do that any more,” I said, and was surprised to realise it was true. She tattooed right over them; in a moment my arms went from a site of grief to a site of joy.

Since then I’ve had four more. While I might feel utterly alienated by the trappings of my body at times, the tattoos are fully me. They feel more me than the flesh they sit on, which changes and fluctuates and betrays me. What is especially beautiful about tattoos to me is that they have allowed me to admire and enjoy seeing my body in a way I never had before.

I used to be obsessed with the idea of having fat arms. I hated other parts of myself too of course, but there was something specifically upsetting to me about arms. I hated the matronly implications, the sexlessness of it. A strange class anxiety attached itself to this perception too; the washerwoman type of body, the feeling that bodies like mine could only ever be built for pure function, never for pleasure or aesthetic enjoyment.

In summers past, I dreaded the weather becoming warm enough that I would have to uncover them. My tattoos calm the strange muddy feeling of disorientation I often get when I unexpectedly see my reflection. Now I look down at them happily, smile at myself as I pass shop windows and catch a glimpse. They make me feel more confident than I really am. They make me feel myself.

I spoke to others about their relationships with their bodies and tattoos, and this positive change in bodily perception cropped up again and again. As well as the finished product being a comfort, the actual experience of getting tattooed is cathartic.

Marc told me: “Essentially it's something commemorative, and to reshape my body in a way I control. But it's also about turning something more abstract, like depression, into something physical and symbolic. I need to know that something can come from suffering. I often feel like I'm not who I want to be, but tattoos are, even if just a small part. Plus I think they look boss.”

“I've always hated my body due to body-image issues but also some internalised racism,” explained Hayrr. “I used to perceive my skin to be much darker than it is. Since getting tattooed I love my skin. I never used to like anything about my body so for me this was a major thing.”

Several people I spoke to also referred to using tattoos as a way of regaining trust and control in their bodies after traumatic events like illness or accidents.

Lucy told me she’d had a stroke last year, “something you wouldn’t be able to know by looking at me. I got the tattoo of a brain partly as an act of defiance against this crazy event which had made my foot and fingertips on my left hand side numb, and partly so I had some kind of visible mark that I was in control of my body again and that I was proud of surviving something horrendous and traumatic.”

But it was Deborah’s story I really related to. “I got a tattoo on my back when I was 20 years old. I was having two or three full panic attacks a week and could barely leave the house. At a really young age I had been sexually abused and never treated for the trauma it caused. This left me with areas of my body where I could not be touched without violent and disgusted reactions. Getting a tattoo – particularly a silly one that only meant something because I liked it – was like reclaiming my territory.”

Like me, she finds joy in the silliness of her tattoo, even though – or perhaps especially because – it was created to address horrifying trauma. This is how I feel too about my frivolous, sometimes poorly executed, yet beloved tattoos: the pig I got the week I moved to London, the snail I got from a drunk Danish man at a rave in Milan, the stick-and-poke from a lovely friend last month, and the tooth.

Last year I moved away to Athens for a few months to try and work and to get out of London. I felt foolish and young and free, relieved and somewhat frightened to find I was more than capable of living entirely alone. On Halloween my friend Sam came to visit me. In Monastiraki we got drunk on the street and went to a tattoo parlour’s walk-in party. The tattoos all cost 20 euros, and I was giddy as hell as my small tooth was etched on, the tattoo artist complimenting me on how well I do with pain.

Afterwards, we climbed up to a rooftop bar from which you can see the entire illuminated Acropolis and laughed and laughed, and blood and ink was seeping out of the clingfilm and gathering in disgusting little pools by our cocktails. It’s stupid to get tattooed when you’re drunk – I know it thins the blood and makes the lines of the work smudge – but it’s OK. When I wake up in the morning, the tooth is still there, has not lost it’s essential self despite the blood. The tooth is entirely mine, even though it’s a mess.

Images: supplied by author