Art, the Body and the Conflict of Self Expression

I have two tattoos. They’re inconspicuous and strategically placed in spots that hiring managers don’t think to look (thanks Mom). I got them when I was 18, during a year of my life that was riddled with change and uncertainty. Since my venture into industrial cartilage piercings had meteorically failed three years prior, I was convinced that tattoos were more my speed. The first was a birthday present from my parents, who would rather support my body mutilation than have me secretly get a stick-and-poke in some stranger’s basement. I remember being nervous and worrying about the pain: how could I get a tattoo if I couldn’t even get a vaccine without losing my shit? Then I remember being anxious about what it meant: did I really want this symbol to become a part of me, to define me for the rest of my life? And then here’s what happened: it took all of five minutes for a peace sign to be permanently etched onto the back of my neck so I didn’t have time to change my mind.

I know it’s corny and generic, but it wasn’t just a peace sign. It was a testament to the anatomical mess I was dealt by DNA and the powers that be. When I was 17, I actively decided to accept myself as I was. I incorporated Pilates, cardio and healthy eating into my daily routine. Not because I was trying to change my body, but because I was finally ready to take care of it. I woke up early and hung out with friends often and just said yes to a lot of things. I had spent so much of my adolescence processing who I was and coping with who I wasn’t. And somewhere along the line in 2011, I started telling myself that it was okay to be short as fuck and an introvert and hairy. I was at peace with being not straight and knock-kneed and sad. I admired the foot-long scar on my knee and the discoloration on my lips and the visible mutations from an invisible gene. The peace sign was a reminder for my future self: that loving myself isn’t hard.

I’m 23 and I haven’t gotten a tattoo since. In the past 5 years, I’ve realized that permanence isn’t the scariest thing about tattoos: it’s the meaning. It messes with your head a bit, discovering that the initial intention behind your tattoo is no longer applicable. Life and time and shit out of your control have given that tattoo an entirely new context, a new story and a new message. My second tattoo was meant to keep my cats close to my heart but now it’s a reminder that I had cats at all. The story of how I didn’t want to leave them behind when I went to college has become a story of how I don’t want to forget their names, what they looked like or how much they meant to me.

Honestly, I’m so at war with myself that I often forget the peace sign is there. I can list a million reasons why I don’t love myself, from the quirks of my personality to the wonky space between my eyeballs. I could write a novel about how I hope to wake up one day and be an entirely different person: outgoing and enthusiastic and motivated. I follow women on Instagram who have the body type I want but will probably never achieve. And I really, really envy those who never have to cuff their jeans and can actually wear anything labeled ‘thigh high’. I don’t believe that loving myself is easy and I probably never will, but my first tattoo has done its job: it has reminded me to try.  Sometimes, that’s all you need.