I looked over on her Instagram the other day and saw that she had another tattoo. Hidden away on her abdomen, a beautifully inked design. It started with one small one on her ankle, and then on her arm, and now this. I don’t know how many others she has. I have only found out about them through her Instagram images.
‘Did you get another tattoo’, I messaged her, sounding as casual and calm as I could. ‘Yes’, came back the abrupt response. I know her far too well, and she knows me too. I know that she is expecting me to react strongly, give her another ‘lecture’ as she calls them, and she probably knows me well enough to know that I don’t approve of it. Approve is perhaps a strong word, but I found myself wishing that she hadn’t.
Even as our children grow up, it is difficult for us to step away from their lives. My daughter might be 22 years old, with a job, living away from home, but for me she still reminds me of the days when it was just the two of us, making a life of our own in a country that was not our own. And, as I brought her up as a single parent, working, juggling, struggling, I thought of us as one unit; me and her against the world. For me, she was and remains my moral compass, my north star, the one who first made me a mother and a better person for it. As she grew up in this country, she struggled to find her place with her dark skin, and a foreign sounding name. I tried my very best to inspire a sense of self and pride in her, and I tried to give her the message that nothing mattered if she believed in herself. But, in doing so, perhaps I overlooked a conversation and honest acknowledgement of the challenges and barriers she might face.
‘You are precious’, I told her again and again. But she struggled to believe it completely in a society which assigned so much importance to the colour of the skin, where a blonde, skinny, blue-eyed look was the ideal. Her curvy body and dark brown golden skin weren’t what she saw in images around her, in media: in films, on television, in print. Not only in this country with the Western beauty ideals, but also in the country of her birth, where prejudice against dark skin runs deep, the centuries of colonialism so deeply entrenched that fair skin is valued and dark skin stigmatised. I know she felt a sense of discomfort in her skin; I could sense that. And, I felt helpless all the same. As parents, we can do our best to model good behaviour, and empower our children, but girls — in particular — go through that tumultuous teenage phase when they want to be accepted by the people around them. Their sense of self and identity begins to be defined by the acknowledgement of their peer group. Research has shown a close link between body image and self-esteem. And, as she went through to University and the high-pressure academic environment in one of the most competitive Universities where she was one of very few women of colour, it is possible that her self-image and confidence took a knock. She was still trying to fit in, to be accepted.
When she got her first tattoo, it took my breath away for all the wrong reasons. I felt that she had defaced her beautiful skin, and despite my proclamations that we need to stand up and be our own person, I worried about how people would see and judge her. Would they form a mental image of her that doesn’t align with what she truly is like, and would she be prejudiced against in the workplace? What would my parents think?
Tattoos are mainstream now. And, one in five Britons now has a tattoo, according to research cited by the British Association of Dermatologists in 2012. And in the US, the estimate is around two-fifths of people over the age of 30. Nevertheless, there has been research that shows that people still express negative views against people who have noticeable tattoos. The Metropolitan Police in the UK bans them on the face, hands and above the collar line. A recent survey in 2017 showed that 64% of UK recruiters see tattoos as an undesirable feature. Apart from religious markings, body art is not considered a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, therefore employers are free to base their hiring decisions on this aspect alone. Airlines frequently place restrictions on tattoos among cabin crew. There are still countries where tattoos are seen as being associated with organised crime syndicates. Recently when Samoan and New Zealand athletes competed in the Rugby World Cup in Japan, they ensured that they would cover them up in communal bathing places, where people with tattoos are forbidden to enter. Research in 2013 showed that men may misperceive tattooed women as more sexually receptive. This study found that a man will approach a woman with a tattoo over one without, and much faster. As the recent incident with Kate von D, the tattoo artist and businesswoman, showed, something as personal as a tattoo evokes a strong public reaction and opinion. People jump to conclusions based on people’s appearance. It is what we all do. We all form and fall back on our instincts and our first impressions. Stereotypes persist.
I realise that in worrying about how society would perceive her, I am also displaying my own inherent implicit biases. This has really forced me to confront and acknowledge my own ingrained prejudices, those that have been shaped by my own upbringing and my childhood. And, I have had to accept that in taking ownership of her own body, she is making empowered choices. Isn’t this what feminism is, the ability to make our own choices, unencumbered by societal norms? She is claiming her right to choose what she wants for her body. As a parent, this is all I can ask for, and wish for.