The scars we choose
I've always kinda liked tattoos. Even as a teenager coming of age in a tiny town in northwest Pennsylvania, where only a handful of "edgy" kids had tattoos. I don't want to generalize too much, but where I grew up, that basically meant the hippies, the grunge kids and the drug addicts, and maybe one or two lucky people with progressive parents. I myself was absolutely not an edgy kid - I'm actually giggling at the thought. I would say the edgiest I got in high school was probably dating a guy with pierced ears. But I digress.
I used to gaze wistfully at people with tattoos, simultaneously feeling intimidated and intrigued by the whole thing. I always wondered how people chose what to permanently ink on their bodies - not why they got a tattoo, but what the image or words meant to them, what the story was. Being a giant wimp when it comes to pain, I thought surely the only way a person would endure the discomfort is if they were truly passionate about the thing they'd gotten tattooed. I realize that leaves us all scratching our heads over all those butterfly tramp stamps, but hey. Maybe those hundreds and hundreds of girls were really passionate about those butterflies. You don't know.
It's pretty amazing, actually, to think about the evolution of tattooing in our country just during my life span. In small-town America in the late 90's, it was a sign of rebellion. But now, just twenty years later, it seems like tattooing is the new ear piercing. If you're in a big city anywhere except the deep south and maybe the midwest, at least a good 2/3 of the people you encounter probably have a tattoo. I don't think I have to tell you how many tattoos I see in Seattle. Living on the west coast, It's much weirder to be the person without than the person with one. Every time I walk into my yoga studio I think, "I need more tattoos!"
Yes, I have tattoos now. Four, in fact. I got my first one when I was thirty years old. THIRTY. That's how long it took me to get brave enough to do it. It wasn't until I moved to Seattle that I started to feel really comfortable with the idea of finally getting a tattoo, despite years and years of lusting after other people's. There was absolutely no chance it was going to happen while I lived in the south and worked for a Baptist institution. I remember when a girl with a nose piercing - the tiniest one you have ever seen in your life - was hired, and everyone patted themselves on the back for choosing someone who was so "edgy." (See above; I don't think they really knew what edgy looked like). Living in North Carolina, I missed mohawks and tattoos and facial piercings like you wouldn't believe, even though I regret to admit to you that I once owned a seersucker dress. You gotta play the part and fit in - at least, that's what I used to think.
Once I got to the west coast, I felt like I was finally home. I'd never lived in a big city, but I'd spent a lot of time in them. For years I thought New York was the only place I might possibly feel totally at home. It only took driving across the entire country to find some more viable options - San Francisco, Portland and Seattle all called to me. Landing in Seattle, it felt like I'd finally found a place I could really be myself with zero repercussions. Here, the culture exists somewhere in between the east coast stereotypes of the mean northeast and the super-friendly south. (Insider tip from someone who's been in a few places. Northeastern folks aren't mean, they're in a hurry. And southerners are not nearly as polite as they seem). Here, people are friendly if you need them to be, but also perfectly happy to leave you alone. That's totally my speed.
Along with that whole willingness to leave you alone comes a nonchalance about whatever the hell you've decided to do to yourself. If you have a four-inch purple mohawk and are covered head to toe in tattoos, fine. If you've got a huge burly beard and a closet full of flannels, fine. If Prada and Gucci are more your speed, that's fine too. No one cares. No one bats an eye at your attire or your jewelry or your ink, unless you're one of the few people working in traditional corporate jobs - and if you are, I'm sorry. Even the Microsoft peeps wear jeans to work, and people wear Patagonia to five-star restaurants.
It's funny that after secretly wishing for a tattoo and working up the nerve, the decision to get my first one happened really quickly. My family was traveling to Ireland for the holidays, and my sister and I were killing time in the Philly airport. "I've always wanted to get a tattoo," I said, sipping my second (or third) glass of wine and feeling devilish. My sister looked me in the eye, her expression one hundred percent serious. "I'll get one with you. Let's do it this week." Well played, Maggie - knowing how long I sometimes procrastinate making a big life decision, she threw down a gauntlet, forcing me to decide right then and there how serious I was about this whole tattoo business. Because my sister is confident, and she is decisive, and if she said she'd get a tattoo with me, she meant it. I took a big swallow of wine, buying myself a couple extra seconds to think. Did I really want to do this?
For years I'd told myself that the reason I hadn't gotten a tattoo yet was that I'm such a baby when it comes to pain. That's true, but not the reason. I'd also muttered about being unable to settle on a design or phrase. That wasn't really it, either. The true fear was of the scrutiny and judgment of others, not just that they would look down on my choice to get tattooed, but on my character, that they would arrive at an opinion about me, a negative one, simply because of the artwork etched on my skin. And you know what? The older I get, the more I realize how stupid that is. "Who cares what anyone thinks of me?" is the strange, new, surprisingly liberating mantra of my thirties. Once you stop caring what other people think about you, it becomes a lot easier to get a tattoo - or do any of the other things you've ever wanted to do in your life but didn't because what would people think. And living in an environment where that sort of "who cares" mentality is reinforced certainly helps.
So I told my sister yes, and on a whim, we located a pretty, well-lit tattoo shop that played Band of Horses and The Black Keys while we got matching Celtic knots tattooed on our ankles. It was all downhill from there, because what they say about tattoos is true. Once you get one, you want a million. I can think of twelve tattoos I'd love to get right this very second. There's a high you get when you do it, a combination of the adrenaline of sitting through some mild to medium physical discomfort and the rush of having made our bodies even more our own by deciding what they will look like going forward.
The scars we inflict in a tattoo parlor are one-of-a-kind because they're truly ours, our choice, our design. That's pretty rare in this world, a world in which so much of what happens to us is decided by the systems we live in, the infrastructures in place around us, the people with the power in those systems who make decisions for us and about us on a daily basis. Women are fighting for their right to make decisions about their bodies every day. People all over the world are fighting for their right to get married or walk down the street without fear of being senselessly shot for nothing more than the color of their skin. But this is something we can control. Our bodies are our canvas, and we can write the story we want the world to learn about us. We can't be judged for living our truth. We have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to become whatever we're becoming, represented in whatever way feels natural to us. Maybe that's a line of scripture or poetry, maybe it's a butterfly stamped just above our underwear line. Whatever the message is we send out to the world, whatever is inside us just screaming to be heard, it's ours.
And that's what I was scared of all along, I think. Letting my voice be heard. Living in my skin. My own beautifully imperfect skin. I guess the true meaning of edgy, then, isn't being grungy or on drugs or a giant hippie - it's having the courage to live your truth, and to hell with what anyone else has to say about it.