Butterflies Below the Breast: Overcoming Tattoo Stereotypes for Women

Karlie Smith //

The foundation of my youth was nourished with an appreciation for ink on skin. My mother’s arms were painted with the stories of her life, and I used to trace my fingers across the vibrant graphics that wrapped elegantly around the base of her wrists and the small of her back. Her body was different from anyone’s I had ever seen. Each tattoo imprinted on her skin made her unique and all the more beautiful to me. She unapologetically flaunted her beautiful artwork; her body became a mural of everything I aspired to become. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to decorate my skin with similar enchanting symbols–this was very important to me. 

As I grew older, I seriously considered what images I wanted to etch onto my skin. I understood the permanence of whatever my decision amounted to. My mother, the inspiration for my admiration of tattoos, said to me. “Nothing above your neck or near your breasts…that will destroy your precious femininity.” Her comments were not intentionally harmful, but the damage seeped deep within my being. I stood before my mother and digested her advice. It festered within my soul, and my blood began to boil with shame. A negative image of my body began to develop, one that had previously never infiltrated my thoughts. From that point on, I understood that tattoos and women were natural-born enemies, a fatal duo. In order to retain “femininity,” one must set limitations upon themselves and cover-up the undesirable. 

My first tattoo was a flower that I deliberately placed on my ankle. In the event that I would need to cover-up, an alternative would be easy, almost effortless. Just wear jeans. My second tattoo was on my left arm, another flower. I wore long sleeves to work and neglected to mention the ink to my family when we met up for holidays. I was proud of my tattoos and the meaning they held, but I could not erase the feeling of disgrace that now dominated my vision of tattoos on female skin. This blend of pride and shame made me feel like a fraud: unfit to wear tattoos and unworthy of femininity.

 One day, I felt brave enough to wear a shirt to work that exposed the tattoo on my arm. One man looked at me and said, “that’s not ladylike.” The next man to walk inside crumpled his face when he saw my arm and said, “someone is going to have to look at that for the rest of their life.” Every essence of confidence I had mustered to own the flesh I inhabited, the way my mother did, the way I had always dreamed of–evaporated into the uncomfortable air. Of course, I received compliments, but unfortunately, those words were never the ones that stuck. 

It took a long time for me to think over the detrimental effects that the stereotype of women and tattoos had on my perspective of my body. As a child, I innocently worshiped the beauty of ink on skin and how tattoos pristinely envelop the body in a blanket of empowerment. Later on, however, I became obsessed with the ideas of those around me, and those comments were the definitive factors of how I viewed my body and gauged my femininity. The generic definition of femininity is that it is an attribute specifically for those who define themselves as a woman, but the meaning flows much deeper than that. Femininity is unique in that it is not limited to the curve of a woman’s hips or the way she dresses, or the way she is expected to behave–it is a relationship. My relationship with femininity cannot be deciphered by the woman who birthed me or the men who gawk at me–it is entirely dependent on my opinion of myself, which is the only opinion that matters. 

Six months later,  I finally wanted another tattoo. This time, I was determined to go about things differently. My third tattoo is located right below my breast. Two butterflies have carved their way into my delicate skin, and I would not have it any other way. Tattoos near or on the body parts that are typically defined as female do not diminish femininity or the overall worth of the skin that bears it. Opinions of others do not represent who I am or anyone else for that matter. I am a whirlpool of infinite possibilities, and my tattoos only amplify that fact. The bottom line is: women deserve to shine in whatever skin they choose to wear. 

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