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Harsh Beauty: The Alternative Aesthetic of Tattooed Women

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Harsh Beauty:
The Alternative Aesthetic of Tattooed Women
Maurice Patterson
University of Limerick
hidden bodies
Consumer research has been slow to
tackle the issue of embodiment.
Following Shilling (1993), embodiment
has been an �absent presence’ within
consumer research.
While explicit treatment of embodiment
has been relatively thin on the ground,
the corporeality of consumption has
always been lurking in the shadows.
If nothing else, embodiment has acted as
consumer research’s Other. In order to
make the case for a rational, informationprocessing consumer, a contrast must be
drawn between it and an irrational,
emotive,
impulsive,
and
embodied
consumer (Longhurst 1995).
a resurgence of interest
Recently there has been a resurgence
of interest in embodiment across
various disciplines.
Turner (1992) has coined the term
�somatic society’ to signify the
growing importance of embodiment
as a topic for investigation in the
social sciences.
Although consumer research has
belatedly taken up these issues, work
within this arena is beginning to
appear with increasing frequency.
what is �the body’?
natural
socially
constructed
lived
the �natural’ body
There is a �natural’, pre-social body.
This body is the foundation upon which
social
relations,
hierarchies
and
inequalities are constructed, and through
which lived experience is mediated.
For example, the position of women in
society has been undermined repeatedly
by attempts to define their �unstable’
bodies
as
both
dominating
and
threatening their �fragile’ minds.
Until recently, arguments about how PMT
drove women �out of control’ were used to
prevent them becoming pilots in Australia
and bank managers in the US.
the �socially constructed’ body
There exists also a socially constructed
body: a body which has been positioned
as an object by the gaze or discourse of
those who seek to act upon it.
Discourses
represent
“cognitive
mappings of the body’s possibilities and
limitations,” (Frank 1991: 48).
These discourses are persistent in their
presentation of, and encouragement to
achieve �particular’ bodies; in their
instruction for us to take responsibility
for our own bodies, to control and
manage our corporeality, and; in their
provision of information on how to
achieve such bodies for ourselves.
smothering inscriptions
In contemporary society, aspects of the
body are ascribed value and function as
embodied capital which may be converted
to economic, cultural and social capital.
Women in particular are persuaded to
devote their energies to working on their
bodies in such as way as to maximize their
exchange value (Wernick 1987).
“The
disciplinary
project
of
femininity…requires such radical and
extensive
measures
of
bodily
transformation that virtually every woman
who gives herself to it is destined in some
degree to fail. Thus, a measure of shame is
added to a woman’s sense that the body
she inhabits is deficient”, (Bartky 1997:
139).
nature, culture & agency
Poststucturalist
and
postmodern
accounts tend to valorise the socially
constructed body at the expense of the
naturalistic body.
“Theories of discourse…have made
bodies the objects of symbolic practice
and power but not participants…To
break out of [Descartes’] universe…we
need to assert the activity, literally the
agency, of bodies in social processes”
(Connell 1995: 60).
“Women’s own understandings of their
embodied selves are reduced to an effect
of image consumption, while the
processes and practices through which
the self and the body become
meaningful
are
left
untheorised”,
(Budgeon 2003: 42).
the �lived’ body
Notions of the lived body serve to highlight the
tension between �having’ and �being’ a body.
The world as perceived through the body was,
for Merleau Ponty (1962), the ground level of
all knowledge, for it is through the body that
people gain access to the world.
As the point of overlap between the physical,
the symbolic and the sociological, the body is a
dynamic mutable frontier. The body is the
threshold through which the subject’s lived
experience of the world is incorporated and
realised and, as such, is neither pure object nor
pure subject. It is neither pure object since it is
the place of one’s engagement with the world.
Nor is it pure subject in that there is always a
material residue that resists incorporation into
dominant symbolic schema”, (McNay 1999:
98).
re-inscription
Body culture, the self-disciplining of
our bodies, and the pursuit of a
chameleonic and impossible ideal
have emerged as powerful diversions
just when women were beginning to
assert their position within society
(Orbach 1993; Bordo 1997).
“That which has been most objectified – our corporeality
– is to become the major source of [women’s]
subjectivity and agency, subject and object reunited and
no longer split by the Western dualist tradition”,
(Waterhouse 1993:110).
“Women are working to erase the oppressive marks of a
patriarchal society and to replace them with marks of
their own choosing which contest patriarchal power”,
(De Mello 1995:74).
tattoo & deviance
Tattooing has long been associated with outsiders.
Reintroduced to Europe in the late C18th by Cpt. James Cook.
A century later criminologists suggested that
tattoos were corporeal markers of criminality
(Caplan 2000): where once criminals were
tattooed to mark them out, now anyone who
was tattooed was viewed as criminal.
This didn’t prevent Victorian gentry from
adopting tattooing in order to access the
transgressions of the working class and the
fantastical world of the �primitive’ Other
(Braunberger 2000).
Even today “it is perceived as a social
marking that, if not inscribed on the bodies
of deviants, then constitutes a deviant
practice on the bodies of individuals (Fisher
2002:97).
tattoo & women
The mother of all tattooed circus women, Nora Hildebrandt
arrived at Bunnel’s museum in New York in March 1882
boasting 365 designs and claiming to have been forcibly
tattooed by her father after being captured by �red skin
devils’.
By the 1920s there was a glut of tattooed sideshow women
and, in order to forge a career, women had to capitalize on
the sexual side of their work. Enter Betty Broadbent who
participated in a beauty pageant at the 1939 World’s Fair.
By the 1970s the call for radical fundamental change for
women could be answered by a commitment-demonstrating
tattoo.
Over the next twenty years or so the most popular images
(butterflies, flowers and hearts) equated the feminine with
the natural and seemed to annul the contestation of the
tattoo, but all that was to change.
function & meaning
There are a number of common reasons cited in
deciding to get a tattoo:
Decoration, Protection, Ritual & Identification
Many tattoos are denotative signs:
Football Team Crests, Harley Davidson Logos etc.
However, the majority of tattoos deny literal
interpretation and their meaning often emerges
in the construction of self-reflexive narratives
containing complex justifications which change
as the tattooee is exposed to new discourses
(DeMello 2000).
Thus, tattooed bodies often represent open
texts: Following Garber (1992) they may be
viewed both as signifiers and that which
signifies the undecidability of signification.
themes
pain
boundaries
placement
looks
pain
There is a particularly prevalent concern with
tattooing as a practice that causes pain.
There were moments where I could feel my
nerves in my chin just go off. It hurt so
badly…I was lying there, trying to think of
things to get the pain off my mind. My muscles
were twitching, and tensing up. Once the
needles hit my skin, my muscles just started
spasming. The pain was excruciating.
However, in celebrating the tattooing
process many tattooed people challenge the
meaning and cultural evaluation of pain.
I think the whole process is gorgeous…I mean
even if I can’t get a new one, I’ll go in and get
them touched up… just �cause I like the
needle on the skin.
pain
Far
from
acting
as
passive
consumers, tattooees are necessarily
positively involved in the production
of the tattoo. They must put up with
the pain and the process and they
must complete the product through
attention to the appropriate healing
procedure.
You’ve gotta sit there for hours and
put up with the pain. So even if you
are really rich, if you can’t stand the
pain you can’t get tattooed.
You have to resist the urge to scratch,
it itches like hell but you just can’t
touch it. Just wash it a couple times a
day and apply the cream.
placement
The body is not a flat canvass, but is a natural, living entity
whose contours must be worked with.
This artist who worked from home, he actually showed me
how to work out placement on the body and how your body is
so much different from a flat piece of paper.
Where on the body a tattoo is placed may effect the
reading of the image. There is a huge socio-cultural
difference between a discreet tattoo and tattoos on the
face and hands, for example.
This girl came in with her boyfriend and she wanted a dragon
tattooed on her arm…He said: �Don’t have it on your arm,
have it on your back where nobody can see it’. She said: �I
want to be able to see it’, and he said: �Girls with tattoos on
their arms look disgusting’, and I was sat next to him and I
said: �Shall I pretend I’ve not heard that’.
placement
The extensively tattooed woman is
more likely to provoke anxieties related
to the �excessive female body’, and to
be seen as �butch’ and �aggressive’ etc.
I don’t think women would have big
tattoos because it’s fashionable…I think
they’d be too scared to…I think it is a
big decision to make, I think it’s a bigger
decision for women than for men.
boundaries
The tattoo needle pierces the skin
pushing ink between the layers; too
deep and the tattoo will turn out
blurred, too shallow and the body will
reject the ink. It also draws blood.
I don’t know what it is but I always bleed
heavily when I’m being tattooed…And if
I’ve had a few drinks the night before
that blood just flows.
Tattooing also violates the integrity of
the body, defiling boundaries and
raising questions over such fundamental
oppositions
as
nature/culture,
inside/outside.
boundaries
The opening up of one’s body to
the tattoo needle may be viewed
as an act of reclaiming the body
from its increasing penetration by
corporate, governmental, medical
and scientific interests.
I’ve
been
through
all
the
adolescent things, and I’ve had my
children, and now my body’s just
mine…to do what I want with.
looks
A vital consideration for anyone being
tattooed is that tattoos are a permanent
mark on the body.
Right now I look quite feminine so I can
balance it. But I do wonder sometimes
what I’m going to do when I’m 40…I
suppose, if nothing else, I’ll make a
colourful corpse.
There remains, even within the tattoo
community a sense of which tattoos are
appropriately feminine and which are
masculine.
Some of the stuff you see in magazines
now is fantastic and it’s so lovely and
delicate, even though its bold, and I still
think it’s feminine…and I get so excited
about it.
looks
Tattooed women express their capacity
to decide how they want to look despite
dominant norms of femininity and
beauty.
Girls often say to me: �I wouldn’t have
that, but it looks nice on you’…And my
dad said to me: �You’ve made yourself an
acquired taste now’. I think I look nicer
with them…I think that if they suddenly
disappeared I’d look quite strange.
looks
Moreover, heavily tattooed women not
only transgress conventions of beauty,
but, by making themselves �visible’ they
challenge definitions of the ideal
woman as restrained and diminutive
(Covino 2000).
These women strategically appropriate
a predominantly male expression of
physical power and potency, and
actively attract and challenge the gaze,
thus asserting control over the viewer.
People are fascinated by it and at the
same time they’re disgusted. Mind you,
those who are determined to tell you
how much they hate it are also the first
ones up to try and get a closer look.
looks
Women’s constant surveillance of their
femininity produces �docile’ bodies although
they may, at the same time, be transgressive
bodies (Johnston 1996).
Women have so internalized the beauty
imperative that any actions that might
challenge such an imperative are likely to be
viewed
as
threatening
them
with
“desexualization, if not outright annihilation”,
(Bartky 1997: 146).
I think I’m quite well turned out anyway…I don’t
dress scruffy or anything like that so I get away
with it…Even though I’m proud of it, sometimes I
do feel a bit uncomfortable. I mean, if I had to go
somewhere where I thought it might cause
problems I’d cover up. It’s not like I have a point
to prove or anything.
docile bodies
Many
tattoo
conventions
involve
competitions where tattooees go on stage
and display their tattoos. Men are usually
proud but often only grudgingly willing.
Women seem to be judged as much for their
bodies as for their tattoos.
www.suicidegirls.com has become a cultural
phenomenon. It offers tattooed women
another layer of agency, but it has been
criticized for depicting only thin, beautiful
models.
“Feminism
offers
us
knowledge
and
analysis…it does not provide us with wings
to fly above our culture. Feminists should be
critical about cosmetic surgery, tattooing,
piercing and so on, without undermining the
people who choose this as a solution for their
problems”, (Van Lenning 2002: 548).
conclusions
The association of tattoos with deviance allows them to be
used for the purposes of resistance. Nonetheless, this really
only applies to heavily tattooed women for, as Hayt (2002:
2) indicates, even for middle-aged American women the
tattoo is so commonplace that it may be losing its “allure of
naughtiness”.
“When people talk about their tattoos, about getting tattoos,
and about living with tattoos, they move back and forth
between what it means to them and the reactions other
people have to their being tattooed”, (Rosenblatt 1997:
306).
If there is a shared understanding of tattooing, it is to be
found in the role of our bodies in expressing and challenging
the relationship between the individual and the social whole.
This is made possible by the body surface, the skin, which is
at once inside and outside, part of the self and what we
present to others (Falk 1994; Rosenblatt 1997).
conclusions
“By engaging in these practices, people not only articulate
the critique but enact it: they inhabit it and it becomes part
of them.”, (Rosenblatt 1997: 319).
In
assessing
how
women
negotiate
dominant
conceptualizations of femininity, therefore, we need to
underline their agency. However, we must also accept that
the category �deviant’ often serves to reinforce the
category �normal’.
A tattoo may well be an expression of a desire for agency,
but it must not be confused with the types of agency that
are likely to impact directly on social power structures.
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