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(Tattooed) Skin in the Game
I went to the supermarket with my mother the other day. I grabbed a cart and followed her in, and no sooner had I set foot inside the store than a set of pasty-white, blonde-knuckled, cigarette-smelling, pudgy little hands were caressing my forearm.
“Beautiful!” said the owner of these hands.
He was wearing the pale-blue polo shirt worn by the market’s employees. He had on a nametag, too, though I didn’t bother to read it. I looked up at his face and arched my brows. “Hello?” I suggested.
But he paid no mind to my face. His eyes were locked onto my tattoos.
“It’s okay!” he assured me, “I have them all over my back!”
“So you probably don’t have strangers touching you in public without so much as a hello first, then?” I replied, a little shocked at how direct I was being.
“I just love them so much,” he didn’t apologize. “Addictive, aren’t they?”
“Well, hello anyway,” I shrugged.
He trotted out into the mall and I joined my mother by the bananas. “Did he touch you?” she asked me. I rolled my eyes.
A few minutes later I was overcome by the stench of cigarettes at the far end of the produce department. The walking ashtray in the blue polo had sidled up next to me and before I could move an inch he put his hands up apologetically. “I am truly sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what came over me, I wasn’t thinking.”
This was not at all what I’d expected, so it took me a second to react. “Happens all the time,” I reassured him, “But it doesn’t make it okay.” I thanked him for the apology as he walked away, and I meant it.
Being A Visibly Tattooed Woman (AKA “Bad Manner Magnet”)
I have spent my entire adult life as a visibly tattooed woman, and though strangers have fondled me on an almost daily basis, I can count on my fingers the number of apologies I’ve received for bad manners.
I remember being nineteen in my hometown of Montreal, standing on a corner on a hot summer day, waiting for the pedestrian signal to cross the street. It was my first summer with a full sleeve, and for the first time that day an older man put his hands on me so that he could “look”.
He grabbed my forearm and said “Wow!” Then he proceeded to pull and turn it every which way so he could admire the underside and back as he pleased, and, when I pulled my arm away, he tightened his grip. His wife stood right behind him, mortified. “Relax,” he said to me in paternalistic French, “I’m just looking. That’s why you got them, right?”
I was much feistier then, and this man had a comb-over on par with the one that now sits in the Oval Office.
“No, it’s not,” I snapped. “Besides, looking is something you do with your eyes, not your hands. Otherwise I’d admire your hair like this!” I reached over and tousled his comb-over. His wife burst out laughing. A couple of people on the street stopped to watch. The man just stood there, mouth agape, little beads of sweat glistening off his scalp.
The last thing I saw before I crossed the street was his wife clapping her hands and gasping for air, tears rolling down her cheeks.
A Natural Impulse
In the years since that incident I’ve softened up quite a bit. I’ve come to appreciate that we all have a natural impulse to reach out and touch pretty things. I do it with flowers and puppies, with friends in cashmere sweaters. I have, at least once that I can remember, caressed the skin of a tattooed person, too (though that person was a friend, not a stranger). I immediately caught myself and apologized.
I have been pet and pulled, examined and disrobed, by men and women alike. Women are often the most aggressive clothing-pullers. I once had a plastic-surgeried Beverly Hills-type actually yank my shirt up in my place of work so that she could see more of my back tattoo (it had peeked out when I reached up to grab something for her off a high shelf). Not long ago I had a granny hike up my dress to see my legs while we were standing in line at a coffee shop. When I wear long sleeves to avoid the attention, which is frequent, people often feel entitled to pull my shirtsleeves right up my arm — even if it means stretching my shirt.
I understand the impulse, I really do. I also hold dear the belief that most people are kind, and mean well. But there comes a point when curiosity becomes invasive, when admiration turns disrespectful.
The Double-Whammy of Womanhood
The conversations I’ve been having on the heels of the #metoo movement have led me to do a lot of thinking about this. More specifically about the argument that no matter what a woman chooses to wear, she is never “asking for it.” I think clarity is important here. Asking for what? Attention? Or rape? Clearly, no one ever asks for the latter. “Asking for attention,” however, is a not as black and white — especially if your skin is purple, green and yellow.
As a tattooed woman, I face a double whammy: if I wear revealing clothing (and I am a rather conservative dresser) then, according to some, I am asking for both sexual attention and attention based on my tattoos. “Ah, but you chose to get the tattoos,” a so-called feminist once told me. While that’s true, I also choose to wear a flattering bra and, more often than not, a touch of makeup. Do those choices mean I’m asking to be cat-called, too?
There’s something about being a woman that just makes it easier for people to reach out and touch. About ten years ago I shaved my head. It looked good on me, my partner loved it, and I would have kept the cut had it not been for people petting my head everywhere I went. Other women with shaved heads have since corroborated this phenomenon to me. I once had a beautiful pregnant woman with a shaved head tell me that she had to start wearing big hats once she got pregnant because, between her head and her growing belly, she felt like she was being molested whenever she left the house.
I’ve never seen a man with a shaved head or a potbelly get treated this way by strangers. I have a couple of friends in Hollywood who are big, attractive, muscular actor-types. Sometimes, flirtatious women squeeze their biceps. It’s uninvited contact, and shouldn’t happen either but, they have told me, it only happens in the context of a conversation. I should also point out that, when I’m out in public with these men, no one ever touches me without asking. Draw your own conclusions about what that means in 2018.
The Importance of Awkward Conversations
Do I want to condemn or scream obscenities at everyone who touches me without asking first? No. What I want is to deepen the dialogue about not just women’s rights but overall objectification of the human body. I’d like to know that, after reading this, maybe someone will think twice before reaching out and touching tattooed skin — or pregnant bellies, or bulging biceps, for that matter, without asking first.
I was surprised by the words that came out of my mouth at the supermarket the other day because I usually let the bad manners slide. But I’m tired of it (aren’t we all?) and the #metoo ripple has renewed my willingness to speak up.
My mother and I had an interesting conversation later on. “Every woman I know has been inappropriately touched at some point in her life,” she said. “What’s the point of exposing these men after all this time? Are we going to start throwing people in prison twenty years after the fact?”
To be fair, she was merely raising a philosophical question, not debating the point, and she comes from the generation for whom a slap on the butt in the office was a rite of passage, not a lawsuit waiting to happen. However, I reminded her, she also comes from the generation that made it possible for me to not experience that same rite of passage. And we know we still have work to do.
Asking for Attention… and Dignity
I have talked to many women who were considering visible tattoos about “asking for attention” and what it means in the context of the tattooed-woman-double-whammy. As a feisty nineteen year old I perceived the slightest gaze in my direction as a violation of my dignity. Today I understand that I’ve been tattooed by some of the greatest living tattoo artists and people can’t help but be drawn to the beautiful images on my skin. I must assume that if I leave my house with skin exposed, I am inviting curiosity — just as a busty woman with a low-cut top and a push-up bra is inviting some admiration of her cleavage.
I have come to understand that my responsibility lies entirely in how I present myself to the world and in how I react to the people who violate my space. To be clear, my responsibility also ends there — right where yours begins.
Do I regret my reaction to the stranger on the street corner in Montreal, all those years ago? I don’t. It was the best I could do at the time. I am, however, proud of the patience and understanding I’ve developed in the years since. That’s what allowed me to let the supermarket guy hold on to his dignity while I defended mine.
I may be a woman, and one of these days I may wear a skimpy outfit and go out dancing, but that doesn’t make it okay for anyone to touch me without my consent. Shouldn’t the same apply to my tattoos?
Besides, they feel just like regular skin does. Promise.