What do tattoos have to do with feminism?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from howstuffworks.com.

Molly: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: Cristen, over the course of doing this podcast we've learned so much about you. You really do share your life with our listeners.

Cristen: Probably too much.

Molly: We know you were home schooled. We know that your nickname is the Thrifty Nickel.

Cristen: To some.

Molly: We know you want to abolish marriage.

Cristen: Not true. Not true.

Molly: You said it. It's on the public record.

Cristen: Jokingly.

Molly: Now, here is a new thing we're gonna reveal today, a new insight into Cristen.

Cristen: Oh, goodness.

Molly: Cristen, tell us what is on your left wrist.

Cristen: Well, Molly, I'm looking at it right now. On my left wrist, the inside of it, there is a small tattoo of an anchor.

Molly: Of an anchor. I was telling Cristen before we came in here that the first time I noticed it I was like has she always had that or did she just get it, is it permanent, or is it just a picture of an anchor she drew on herself. There is a lot of misconceptions about this tattoo, Cristen. I just want you to clear them all up right now.

Cristen: Well, I think what you're referring to, Molly, is a tendency that some men in this town have of thinking it's cute to ask me if I have a sailor fetish.

Molly: Ah, because you have the anchor.

Cristen: Because I have an anchor. To which I reply no, then promptly turn around, and walk away.

Molly: So you know 0if someone asks you if you have a sailor fetish that that's as far as the conversation will be going?

Cristen: Yeah. I cut them off, yeah.

Molly: So a tip -

Cristen: That's all. That's all they get.

Molly: - out there to the listeners.

Cristen: Yeah. If you ever meet me, don't ask me about my tattoo. Yeah. If people notice it, they're usually wondering why I have an anchor on my wrist. It's definitely been the topic of conversations sometimes. It's pretty small. Like you said, you didn't notice it first off. I've had friends who haven't noticed it for a while and I kind of liked it that way. Even though it's in a visible sp ace, it's easy to cover up and it's not just out there.

Molly: So did you get a small tattoo because you didn't want it to be just out there and have people looking at it? I mean, you've probably got people looking at it and asking weird questions about it. Was it a conscious choice to keep it small versus keeping it - why didn't you get a sleeve of anchors? By sleeve, I mean an entire arm tattooed of anchors.

Cristen: Well, because then I don't think I could explain away a lack of a sailor fetish. I think my rationale behind getting it right here was that I figured I wanted to be able to see it every day if I wanted to and not have to crane my neck to see this tattoo. But, yes, I wanted to keep it small enough so that it wasn't always in my line of sight.

Molly: Gotcha. Well, the reason I'm asking questions like that, Cristen, is today we're gonna talk about what people think when they see a tattoo on a woman.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Even more fascinatingly, what tattoos have to do with feminism because, as it turns out, quite a bit. Now, as we get into this conversation, I want you to explore what feminist ideas you might have been playing with, if you were transgressing gender boundaries by getting a tattoo, all of that good feminist lingo, and how much of it did it play in to your decision to get a tattoo. These are all things we're gonna explore either during the podcast or later over drinks.

Cristen: All right. Well, Molly, I think that my anchor tattoo actually provides the perfect segue into our historical journey with the art of tattoos because it all starts on the high seas, does it not?

Molly: It really does. It's as if you knew one day you'd be podcasting about tattoos and you'd need a segue.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: A lot of people trace the rise of tattoos in this country to the 1770s when Captain James Cook went to Polynesia and brought back the Polynesian art of tattooing to the West. From that point on, tattooing really became associated with sailors who were all men. Just because women weren't sailors, women weren't the ones getting tattooed to show this brotherhood with other sailors.

Cristen: Right. So back then and even today I would say to some extent, but we'll get to that later, tattoos were very, very masculine. I would say they were very kind of blue collar, hard working sign of a tough guy.

Molly: You could withstand that pain.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: You were really tough.

Cristen: It wasn't until the 1880s with circus freak shows that we really start having more women getting inked as well.

Molly: Yeah. That's sort of where they first show up in the tattoo historical document. Right away if you're associating a tattooed woman with a freak show you can see how that is not going to change anyone's perception of tattoos being a manly thing because no proper lady of that time would have wanted to be associated with a freak show act. What was interesting to me, according to a paper by Christine Braunburger called Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women, she kind of goes into this history of freak shows and how there was this one woman named Nora Hildebrandt who just got tattooed because she wanted to be in the freak show. She liked tattoos. They made her construct this back story of how she and her father had been kidnapped by Sitting Bull and every day an Indian would tie her to a tree and make her father give her another tattoo until her whole body was tattooed. That's how she ended up in this freak show, so right away women have become linked with tattooing in ways that take away all of their power because she was forced to get the tattoos and makes them into freaks because she's in a traveling circus. It's placing a lot of stigma on these women with tattoos.

Cristen: That stigma grows into the 20th Century where it becomes a lot more associated with prostitution. There was also a famous case in the 1920s when it was a rape trial when this girl had a tattoo of a butterfly, I believe, on her ankle. That was the piece of evidence, if you will, that lost her the case, lost her this rape case, because they drew the conclusion that since she had a butterfly tattoo she was, therefore, sexually promiscuous and was askin g for this rape essentially.

Molly: Right. Essentially, she mislead the men because she was like, oh, I am into sex because I have a tattoo. It's just this really - these damaging links that only bad girls, sexually deprived women, and freaks get tattoos that characterizes the early 20th Century.

Cristen: It's interesting with this early history, this issue that you mentioned, that power comes up again and again even though these women were choosing to get tattoos, it was still culturally viewed as a sign of them being dominated and them not having power and ownership over their bodies, these things being perpetrated on them.

Molly: So enter the feminists of the 1970s where the body does become a political thing that feminists are reclaiming control of. It's an easy jump to make that because they wanted to reclaim the power over their body. They start making this big deal out of choosing to get tattooed and that's where we see the rise of women really entering the tattooed world and trying to reclaim that negative perception that was associated with the art.

Cristen: Yeah. I think Janis Joplin was someone who kind of helped push that into the mainstream. She had a tattoo of, what, a rose, I believe, and it was done by a guy named Lyle Tuttle who was a California based tattoo artist who really brought tattooing, in general, back into vogue in the '70s.

Molly: Right. Now, the '70s, it was a crazy time. I wasn't there, but that's what the pictures show.

Cristen: It was pretty wild.

Molly: So the people who were getting tattooed, I think, still existed within that wild sphere and people who were perhaps more conservative, more suburban, still would have judged them as the freaks of the world. While more women were getting tattoos, I don't think that the stigma of a tattoo symbolizing another would have completely disappeared even though more women were getting tattooed.

Cristen: Really, since the 1970s, tattooing has just come more and more into the mainstream. According to a report from the Pea Research Center, 40 percent of women 26-40 have at least one tattoo. We've gone from it being this kind of crazy, freak, sideshow thing for a woman to have a tattoo to every other lady walking down the street may or may not have one.

Molly: But I think that women are still subject to judgment for tattoos in ways that men are not, so let's talk a little about that double standard. While they're getting more mainstream, I would say they're not totally mainstream yet. There are offices where you can't walk into if you've got a tattoo showing.

Cristen: Yeah. I mean, that's the same thing for guys. There is still the issue of if a guy gets sleeves done, where his entire arms are covered in tattoos, it might be a lot harder for him to get a day job. He's gonna have to cover them up somehow. With women, I think that the standard is raised even higher. Not just because it's harder for us to wear - we don't generally wear full body suits. We just show more skin in general.

Molly: Speak for yourself, Cristen.

Cristen: Full body suits sounds like a Hazmat suit or something. But we have more skin showing and, also, I do think that there is still more of, I don't know, a negative implication if you have a tattoo. I definitely, from my personal experience of having this very small, insignificant tattoo, I would think, compared to others out there - I do get a different kind of attention sometimes for it than I would like. It's like once guys in particular will notice it, or even girls, too, notice that I have this tattoo of this anchor, I don't know, it sort of changes. I can tell that it changes their perception of who I am and this kind of message that I'm trying to put out about myself, which I really didn't intend to do at all.

Molly: I think that what's interesting is to me your tattoo is in a very, sort of, neutral place, but there are definitely places that you could have been tattooed on your body that would not have been neutral. If, for example, you had gotten the ever so popularly named tramp stamp.

Cristen: Yes, the tattoo on the lower back.

Molly: Right.

Cristen: Which I think it probably acquired the "tramp stamp" title with the popularity of low rise jeans when that area - you sit down and all of a sudden your lower back is exposed and maybe the top of your underwear and then sitting on top of that you have who knows what, a dolphin, a yin yang symbol.

Molly: A butterfly.

Cristen: A butterfly.

Molly: But somehow along the way, men looked at that or someone looked at it and told men if a girl has a tattoo there she is a tramp. Basically, there are places where a woman could still get tattooed today that somehow indicate something about her sexuality, which I would argue takes away just as much power from those women as it did to say that a woman deserved to be raped because she had a tattoo.

Cristen: Well, you and I were talking before the podcast about trying to figure out which part of our bodies could we get a tattoo where it would have no sexual implication. There is really no neutral space on a woman's body.

Molly: No.

Cristen: I mean, even I don't feel like this small part of my wrist is necessarily provocative, but someone could probably twist it as such, but that -

Molly: Well, they've all ready made it into a fetish. You are either gonna get a tattoo that indicates something about your sexuality. If you get a butterfly, you're somehow embodying ultra feminine qualities. Then, like you said, if it is a neutral tattoo in and of itself, a snail being one idea we came up with, where can you put it on your body that is neutral?

Cristen: Yeah. You can't put it on your hips, you can't put it on your neck, or anywhere around your chest. I mean, I guess you could put it on your stomach, but that would just look funny, your ankle. I would argue that your ankle could be a sexy place for a tattoo.

Molly: Well, it's interesting that you argue that because we found a Men's Fitness article that argued that if you see a girl with an ankle tattoo she's worth the trouble of seducing because she is obviously tough enough to get an ankle tattoo, since there is very little fat there and, yet, equally feminine. Particularly if it's something like a butterfly or a flower!

Cristen: Yeah. I mean, not that Molly and I looked at Men's Fitness as something that you should really put a lot of stock in, but it was funny. It had this guide to women's tattoos. Of course, it mentions the lower back tramp stamp that we talked about a minute ago. It says it doesn't mean that she isn't a keeper because of the sexual connotations, she's just a follower. So, really, it looks down on the lower back tattoos. Then if she's got an entire sleeve she is gonna be wild in the sack because she has so many tattoos.

Molly: She's totally subverting female norms to use some feminist lingo. Because I will say that sometimes when I see a person who does have the sleeves and they're a female, I do think of that differently than I would think of a guy with sleeves. I don't want to be that way because I don't want to judge someone just based on the sleeves, but there are arguments being made from both sides that they want me to think differently about them because they're reclaiming power, they're redirecting my gaze, versus people who say she's just trying to subvert feminine norms.

Cristen: This kind of reminds me of Kat Von D who is the star of the reality show LA Ink. She's covered in tattoos, super foxy. Can I call a woman foxy?

Molly: Of course.

Cristen: Is that degrading? Okay. She's really hot and she's covered in tattoo's and there was, I can't remember which magazine it was for, but they did a photo shoot with her where they basically removed all of her tattoos with makeup to kind of show her ultra feminine side because she looks really tough. She's covered in all of these tattoos and has sleeves and they're everywhere. Yet, she's really sexy at the same time. But they wanted to show her softer side and by doing that they removed her tattoos. They would never do that to a guy.

Molly: No. They completely removed her power, again.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: They - what was the phrase I liked? They deprived her agency. Deprivation of agency!

Cristen: So I definitely think that there is a lot more to a woman getting a tattoo. Like as little of a statement as I was trying to make to the world that I have this tattoo for personal reasons. I didn't really care what the world thought about it. Yet, you can't get away from it. You can't get away from societies case, not to try to over blow as silly of an issue as a tattoo, I think it definitely is real.

Molly: It is real. There was one study in Canada that we found from 2004 that tried to sort of qualify, I guess, what men and women thought when they saw a female with a tattoo. Basically, they got these college students to come in. They divided them into groups of people who had tattoos, people who were seriously considering one, and people who didn't have tattoos. Then they described these hypothetical people for them. A man who had a tattoo that was smaller than a loonie, remember this is a Canadian study, so their dollar coin is called the loonie. This is a shout out for all of our Canadian fans. A man who had a tattoo smaller than a loonie that was visible or not visible! It depended. Then one that was larger than that and then the same for a woman. By and large, all of the men and women, regardless of their tattoo status, had less favorable opinions of the women with tattoos. Now, they also did kind of a follow up reading and they asked the people where do you stand on sort of a feminist scale? How much do you believe in equal rights for women? That was a pretty good predictor of how the people would feel about a tattoo on a woman. If they believed in traditional gender roles and they had less of an inkling to agree with equal rights for women, they would judge women with a tattoo much more harshly than those who had more egalitarian views on women would.

Cristen: Right. I thought the most interesting finding from this study was that men, with or without tattoos, still had a lower perception of women who had large tattoos. But the small ones not as big of a deal, but once they got larger and more visible, their perceptions started to change.

Molly: It did change, but they would, even though they might have found the women more unfavorable compared to the woman without a tattoo, still remark that the tattooed woman was powerful. They were asked to rate her sense of power as well. So I think that we still see females getting tattoos as powerful, we just don't necessarily view them the same way, which is exactly, it seems, the experience that you've had.

Cristen: Well, because - this is something that the researcher brings up, that I will buy this. She says that women with tattoos is an example of gender role violation. I think it is because we do have this notion of power tied up with tattoos and with their visibility and what they're portraying and all of that. While, again, like I don't - I think it's silly to kind of over analyze the whole situation. I think that when you really get down to brass tacks, tattoos are kind of a really interesting gauge for really where we are, like how society does view men and women differently.

Molly: Yeah. Well, that's very well said, Cristen. On that note, I think we should open it up to our listeners and see what you guys think. What do you think about women with tattoos? Yea, nay, what tattoos do you have of your own? What prejudices do you find yourself with against women with tattoos?

Cristen: Has your perception of me lowered knowing that I have a tattoo now?

Molly: Oh, Cristen, no one's perception of you has lowered I'm sure. So on that note, momstuff@howstuffworks.com. That's our e-mail address. Let us know your thoughts. And let's read some people who have all ready e-mailed us at that address. I have an e-mail from Mary Ellen who wrote about our burqa podcast. And she writes I am an American woman living in France. The French view freedom of religion somewhat differently from the way Americans see it. In this largely Catholic country, religion is considered a private matter. Politicians do not say God bless France or otherwise refer to religion or prayer in their speeches. Schools do observe religious holidays, but other than that religion and schools are separate. No outward sign of religion is allowed in public schools. This includes the veil, but also the cross. The French highly value assimilation. People who chose to become citizens are expected to assimilate and to keep their religion private. The women who has refused French citizenship refused even to appear in court in less than her full burqa, she and her husband have adopted their radical Islam views since their immigration to France. So a view into French culture from Mary Ellen.

Cristen: All right. Well, I've got one here from Alexandria about our episode on poop.

Molly: Poop.

Cristen: We've gotten a lot of great e-mails about our poop episode. Guys, keep it coming because it just makes me laugh a lot. She says thank you so much for breaking the silence on the subject of women and poop. I used to be one of many women out there who felt embarrassed about pooping in public bathrooms. However, I was quickly cured of any further feelings of embarrassment the summer I took a job leading canoe trips in Northern Ontario. As you can imagine, when embarking on a week long trip into an area without even public bathrooms, the subject of just how you're supposed to go poop in the woo ds becomes not only important, but also incredibly necessary. The conversation is typically an awkward one compounded by the fact that you only met your trip participants earlier that day. Every trip leader has their own poop talk style and I like to use a lot of humor. I'll start by introducing my shovel named Doug. I go on to say that during this trip you'll find that you want to go take Doug out on a date and then explain how a date with Doug will go, including the need for privacy and the date being far away from camp. I also emphasize that Doug does not like to take long walks on the beach as it's against the leave no trace policy to have poop too close to water sources. I have never thought about all of this. I also stress that it's not polite to get poop on your date and that Doug is only used for digging the hole. On almost every trip I've led Doug has become an important member of the trip and is often featured at the end of every trip photo. Participants will often joke about Doug cheating on them when someone else heads out into the woods for a "date with Doug" and will even brag that they've been on more dates with Doug than other friends. These people in Ontario are so zany. This may seem silly, but talking about poop on a trip is essential. Try not going poop for a week because you're uncomfortable with the lack of facilities and it can be very dangerous to your health, causing blockages and a lot of pain. I used to find talking about poop to be a little weird, but now I take a certain pride in being able to openly discuss what is going on in mine and other people's bowels. Alexandria, thank you so much.

Molly: She also attached a picture of Doug. It was great. Thank you, Alex.

Cristen: Yeah. And it was clean, by the way.

Molly: Of course. You don't get -

Cristen: It was very clean.

Molly: You don't get poop on Doug. It's one of the rules.

Cristen: Yeah. Don't get poop on Doug. So keep sending your poop thoughts, guys, our ways.

Molly: Or other thoughts.

Cristen: Or other thoughts, yes. At momstuff@howstuffworks.com. During the week, see what Molly and I are working on on our blog, HowToStuff and you can read articles that Molly and I have written and other podcast personalities have written as well on our website howstuffworks.com.

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