Shedding clothes during the summer months is something we all look forward to – but, if you’re a tattooed woman, baring more skin can be a double-edged sword. Freelance writer Emily Reynolds explains the perils of ‘tat-calling’.
A few weeks ago, when the sun finally started shining for the first time in what felt like 65 years, I joined the rest of the UK’s millions of women in one gleeful ritual: binning off my scratchy 60 denier in favour of going bare-legged.
As you can see from the picture below, I have quite a few tattoos on my legs; this summer, in fact, is the first time I’ve ever been so heavily tattooed.
I was excited about finally showing them off. But – yes, despite the fact I’m a woman who exists in the world with a physical form – I was shocked at how much unwanted sexual attention I got because of it.
In the few weeks since the sun started shining and my tattoos have been on display, I’ve experienced countless catcalls and leery comments; five men have actually touched me without my permission because of my body art, and one even crouched by my table in the pub and grabbed my ankle to ‘take a better look’ at my tattoos. It was so audacious that I felt a perverse level of relief that my friend was there to witness it, convinced that if she hadn’t then nobody would have believed me.
Ever since I first started work on a tattoo sleeve on my arm several years ago, I’ve had inappropriate and unsolicited touching happen more times than I could count – and it turns out I’m not alone. It’s so common that it even has its own name: ‘tat-calling’.
Sophia, who blogs under the name Tattooed Tea Lady, says that she’s been told she “wants attention” because of her tattoos.
“I’ve had people grab my body to get a closer look at my tattoos, or to try and find ones they think aren’t easily visible,” she tells me. “One guy wouldn’t let go of my arm when I tried moving away until he was satisfied he’d inspected the ‘handiwork’ fully. It was quite intimidating.”
Claire, a doctor in her 20s, tells me that people have asked to take pictures of her legs, and Camilla, a playwright from London, has had similar experiences.
“It didn’t occur to me before I started getting tattoos that it would be a thing, so at first I’d just accept it,” she says. “But I am firm now about people touching me.”
“When it happened recently, I asked the man to stop touching me without asking. I had to ask several times, then I got pissed off and was firmer. He was pulling and twisting at my arm; I was like ‘do you know this is someone’s arm, or do you think because it has tattoos on it, it’s just a random chunk of matter?’”.
This attention can go both ways, too. Sophia says that complete strangers have told her she’s a “bad influence” on her daughter because of her tattoos, and I distinctly remember a Twitter exchange a few years ago when a random man earnestly replied “please don’t” when I said I was about to get tattooed. Many of the women I spoke to for this piece recounted (largely male) strangers telling them it was a “shame” that they had “ruined their bodies” with tattoos. The most common refrain? “But you’re such a pretty girl…”
anyone else notice an exponential uptick in creepy catcalling dudes with each leg tattoo you acquire? 🤢— afra boissevain. (@afraboissevain) September 18, 2017
Men leering at women and saying "Nice tattoos" is just a new more acceptable form of catcalling and I am not okay with it— Phoebe Webb (@Feehlo) August 31, 2017
Research seems to confirm that men do have certain opinions about women with tattoos – and behave accordingly. One 2014 study, by French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, found that men believed women with tattoos to be more sexually promiscuous, making them more likely to approach women – even if the targets of their attention didn’t seem interested in them.
Another 2017 study found that, despite the prevalence of tattoos in modern culture, there is still a significant stigma for those who have them – particularly women.
Though women with tattoos were rated as “stronger and more independent”, they were also considered to be less inhibited, less competent, less caring, have a “worse character”, and drink more; study authors suggested that the prejudice “may stem from sexist beliefs based on tattooed females’ violation of traditional gender norms”.
But for me, the obsession with tattooed women’s bodies – whether it’s ostensibly ‘complimentary’ or judgemental and stereotyping – comes down to one thing: ownership.
Obviously, street harassment happens to most women, regardless of whether they have tattoos or not, and I’m not claiming some special oppression simply because of the way I choose to present myself to the world.
But the way men respond to tattooed women does speak to a wider problem with perceived ownership of women’s bodies. Touching someone’s body without their consent indicates that you feel some right to it; that you don’t understand – or, worse, choose to ignore – the idea that the person it belongs to may have some autonomy of their own.
Imploring strangers not to get tattoos or telling them that they’ve ‘ruined’ their bodies may seem like the antithesis of this, but comes from the same place – the idea that women’s bodies are public property, available to touch, comment upon and judge whenever you choose.
I spend my time and money adding to my collection of tattoos because I like the way they look – and, yes, I like getting compliments on them, as long as they’re respectful and, most importantly, nobody touches me at any given point.
It shouldn’t need saying, but the fact I’m tattooed is not an invitation to harass me; nor is it an opportunity to comment on the way that I look. My tattoos are for me – and so is my body.
Images: Timothy Paul Smith / Unsplash / Emily Reynolds