Tattoos and Embodiment: The Power of Self-Mutilation, Piercing and Tattoos

There are very few ways that we get control over our physical bodies, particularly our appearance. We don’t get to choose things like height, build, weight (much), skin tone, eye color and shape, facial features…we can barely even control out hair most of the time. And philosophically speaking, people today rarely view their body as really THEM: generally it’s considered more of a house for your soul or your mind, broken away from the real you. And so it seems to me that asserting ownership over our own bodies is something really extremely important.

Particularly for traditionally marginalized groups whose bodies are considered public space, having a way to mark your body as your own, or physically change your body in order to feel more in tune with it or to connect it to your emotions is a powerful action. When you change your body in some physical, permanent way, you are loudly declaring “This is mine. I can do with it what I will. I can change it to suit my desires, and I can brand it as my own”. It’s liberating to see your body changed in some way that you have imagined and then acted out on your flesh. It’s sensual in its own way, and the pain that often comes with it is a visceral reminder that you’re alive, you are embodied, and you are solid. It creates an adrenaline rush of knowing what’s about to come. It can be a powerful emotional experience that connects you very deeply with your body.

In addition, for those people who have powerful negative associations with their bodies, tattooing or piercing over the site of negativity can mean a lot. I have scars from self-harm on my hips and legs, and have plans to tattoo over at least some of them as a metaphorical way of reclaiming that territory. Our bodies go through a great deal that leaves us marked in ways that we can’t undo. Some of this is by choice, some of it isn’t. But the choice to cover or change the marks from the past is a strong statement about who we would like to be in the future.

Many people view tattoos as “rebellious”, “tacky” or “low class”. Many of the reasons they’re viewed that way is because marginalized groups often use them to assert their autonomy or their belonging in a group. They mark someone as different, as particularly themselves, and as a BODY. We don’t like being marked as bodies. We often view it as objectifying. We don’t like to be viewed aesthetically, we prefer to be judged based on our intellect or personality. But the fact  is that a major part of our selves is our body. The inherent recognition of this in the act of bodily mutilation or piercing or tattoos is deep, and you can’t escape it when you’re undergoing the process. You feel more connected to yourself in certain ways. It’s one of the reasons that self-harm can be so grounding.

Tattoos also signify a great deal to others: they can tell about our experiences, our emotions, our aesthetic taste, our interests, our values, and our group membership. They use our own bodies to convey messages of our identity, something which is extremely powerful in integrating your body into our identity. In addition, they can signify things to ourselves. They can remind us of our past, of something we care about, of self-care, of good or bad things we’ve experienced…especially for those people whose voices are rarely heard, using your body as a canvas is one of the loudest ways to get a message across.

Some people say that the body is beautiful and shouldn’t be tampered with. But for those who are in marginalized groups, they haven’t really hard this about their bodies in particular. Their bodies are often viewed as wrong or bad. The few times they do hear these things, their bodies are generally objectified. It can be hugely empowering to make your physical presence different to fit your conception of self. It changes your narrative about self, takes your body away from the societal narrative of beauty, or brands visibly on your body that you have autonomy and are more than a body. Of course these are all comments about tattoos personally chosen: being forced to get a tattoo says the exact opposite of all of this.

It reminds you that you’re a body, but also that your body is yours, and that it has its own needs and desires and some autonomy. It’s not just an object. Its senses are how you navigate and manage the world, and the act of the tattoo reminds you viscerally of your senses and your physical boundary with the world. The constant reminder of that is an act of asserting yourself into space.

Reminding ourselves of our bodies, of the ways we can control and identify with our bodies, and of how we can present our bodies to others as part of our identity is a big deal.

Also I really want the tattoo in the picture, so I felt like I had to write this.

7 thoughts on “Tattoos and Embodiment: The Power of Self-Mutilation, Piercing and Tattoos

  1. Sara V. says:

    Super interesting. I just had a similar discussion with someone about tattoos and what motivates someone to permanently alter their skin.

    Personally, tattoos are totally legit things to have, but if you’ve got your significant others’ initials inked on your forehead, let’s be honest, that actually does look tacky. (I wish I was kidding that I’ve seen that, but I’m not.) Not to mention that feels like you’ve given the owner of the initials possession of your body, and people don’t take you seriously.

    When you talk about ‘reclaiming’ from self harm, is it an attempt to hide or eradicate the scars? Or do the scars mark a place you don’t want to return to, and by placing something positive over them, you’re effectively closing a door to that mental/emotional place? I’ve had people suggest that I hide or remove my scars and I just end up feeling insulted because I don’t think I need to hide my past, not to mention I actually use them for theatre pieces. Additionally, people have this really vexing habit of telling me I’m “not that kind of girl” if they learn I have a tattoo or scars from self harm and it drives me crazy. It reinforces the stereotype that you have to look a certain way in order to have gone through hell and back. Stereotyping isn’t helping the mental health stigma, and neither is this “you’re not that type of girl/guy” statement. We shouldn’t have to feel a need to hide scars from that which has made us into who we are. If we want to reclaim those areas with something more positive, we shouldn’t be judged for it, but nor should we be challenged, judged, stereotyped or otherwise lumped into groups for being willing to wear those scars openly.

    I think I’m sort of rambling, but…that’s sort of where my brain goes with tattoos and scars.

  2. Edd says:

    I think you’re totally right there Sara.
    You shouldn’t need to hide your past and I agree that tattoos can be totally artistic and legit. Although sometimes terribly tacky….

  3. What is that tattoo in the picture? Is that a symbol with a specific meaning?

  4. nadith says:

    Honestly, I think there is a whole myriad of reasons around the nature of tats. I believe another issue with tattoos though is that they are a little difficult to do and it is an art form that isn’t quite formalized. Often it is more trite, simplistic, or simply poorly doodled and in a world where we all are essentially art aesthetes and rather honed compared to 30 or more years ago, it probably stands out.

    otherwise I enjoyed each of your perspectives, they are quite intriguing and understandable.

  5. nadith says:

    Oh, and I so wish people wanted to be seen for their self, or even just their intellect, bearing, or such. Such individuals who desire to be seen beyond the surface and superficial can be rather difficult to find. I believe people often like to be seen in ways that surprise them positively and align with their need/desire/expectations.

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