Food for Thought

The truth about women with tattoos: challenging stereotypes and judgment


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If you saw this women walking down the street or in a photo in a women’s (or men’s) magazine, what are the first thoughts that come to mind?

It’s not uncommon to see men and women sporting tattoos nowadays. Women want designs that are ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’, but also small enough to be considered feminine or on a part of their bodies that could be easily concealed. On closer inspection, there is also women who sport a collection of tattoos or bigger pieces that are frowned on by women and generates stereotypes in men. Since getting my latest piece done 2 weeks ago, I’ve been starting to see the dichotomy of ink the world considers ‘feminine’ and the ones that feel they are justified in making presumptions and judgments about.

It’s a trend that mainly younger generations of women have embraced wholeheartedly. At a recent blogger catch up, we jokingly discussed how it must be a ‘blogger must’ to have a tattoo to express your creative side – after all, the world of blogging is still putting its stamp on the world of reporting and writing. We like to do things in non-conventional means and having tattoos is a means for us to express our individuality and creativity through the designs inked onto our skin. Sitting in the waiting area of the tattoo studio I visited, within 5 minutes an older lady came in looking for a tattoo while her niece also contemplated getting a small one but couldn’t quite decide what to get.

Growing up with traditional Chinese parents, tattoos were seen in a negative light. In Asian countries, mainly men who have served time in prison or are involved in gangs sport tattoos. Tradition in Japan still lives strong today where members of a yakuza or crime syndicate (the equivalent to Italian mafia and Chinese triads) sport either sleeves or half/full body tattoos to identify the family they belong to. As a woman, many often wonder what the rationale is behind getting a ‘masculine’ piece like swords, dragons, skulls or other macabre designs. Since getting my newest (and biggest piece) to date, I’ve had various people showing interest (‘that’s cool!’ to ‘you’re very brave!’) to looks of disgust or judgmental comments like ‘why would you do that to yourself?’ and ‘how are you ever going to find a man with all your tattoos?’

Like any other topic I am strongly passionate about, I felt it necessary to make my stance known when it comes to women and tattoos. Buoyed by the recent discovery of the book Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body by Beverley Yuen Thompson, I felt this was another topic that needs to be addressed to reduce the stereotypes and comments faced by women who are heavily involved in the world of tattoos.

If you had met me over 4 years ago, you wouldn’t have pegged me as the type of woman to have any tattoos. A lot of friends and University classmates were surprised to find I had a small tattoo on my left wrist and were even more surprised when I told them that was my fifth tattoo. ‘You don’t seem like the type of person to get a tattoo! they would comment. That is the real question: what does a person who would be likely to get a tattoo look like?

I got my very first tattoo 2 months after I turned 18. I had been speaking to some friends about it for a while, but wasn’t really something I had given serious thought. After all, tattoos were mainly for men and I didn’t want to be associated with the mafia. On a whim, I made the decision to get my very first one. Yes, it hurt like a mother******, but I’m glad in the end I went with a black tribal design on my lower back rather than the photo of a Brian Froud fairy I wanted which would’ve ended up covering my whole back.

Twelve years later, I am now the proud owner of 8 tattoos (my latest of which is only half-finished). I’d received a lot of questions about my ink (often paired with disgust or disapproval) and, as a woman with tattoos, I want to share my thoughts on the comments I’d read other women, or that I’ve personally, experienced.

‘Women with tattoos must be promiscuous because no ‘fine lady’ would do that’

By tattoos, I don’t mean a small butterfly or heart: for the purpose of this post, I’m referring to big pieces on any part of the body. Various interviews with women with tattoos and a research conducted in France (see here). The research showed that the women used as part of the study with a large temporary tattoo on her lower back had a higher chance of being approached by men and seen to be more promiscuous (the men felt they had a higher chance of getting a date or a sexual relationship).


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Almost a year after I got my first tattoo, I was sitting on a bench waiting for a train at the station in Milan. A man approached me and complimented me on my tattoo. On the contrary to being flattered, I was annoyed. I wasn’t actively flaunting my tattoo, in fact I was wearing a long top which meant he would have been spending some time trying to catch a glimpse of my lower back from where my top had risen from the waistband of my jeans…while I was sitting on a bench. Some men are of the opinion that women get tattoos to gain men’s attention because they’re more likely to be promiscuous. Why is it okay for men to get tattoos, but women with tattoos are faced with double standards? (Read here and here).

Women are faced with possible judgment from men and be seen as less desirable (from a romantic or occupational view) and are concerned about getting a big one in a visible part of their bodies. The truth is, women are just as likely to get tattoos for the same reason as men: it has personal meaning or significance to each person. In a world of equal opportunities, it’s shocking that women should be judged for inking their own bodies. Women should be allowed to be confident and proud of their art – it’s not done to gain men’s attention.

Tattoos are stories — marked in ink and blood — quietly traveling around us all day on shoulder blades and wrists and across entire backs. These stories can be powerful, uplifting and even heart-wrenching. They can symbolize a life-changing event, they can be in memory of someone special, or they might exist simply because they’re beautiful.

– Alanna Vagianos, The Huffington Post

‘You could be so pretty without all that ink. Why would you do this to yourself?’

Pretty is a subjective view of a person or object based on the person’s own opinion of what is ‘beautiful’. To me, my tattoos are beautiful and I’m happy with my appearance, tattoos or not. Getting tattoos hasn’t change my opinion of myself in any way. I look after myself the way I see fit and getting my skin inked is another part of my personality and is an integral part of me that I don’t see it in a negative light. For almost all women, getting a tattoo makes them feel beautiful. Personally, my tattoos don’t detract from my appearance; I feel it only adds another dimension to it.


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Sporting a larger piece doesn’t make a woman any less ‘feminine’ compared to more dainty pieces. A tattoo is a person’s way of expressing their own individuality while also sharing the artistry of the artist that inked their skin. It’s not something a person does for fashion. It’s a permanent piece of art, a lifestyle choice. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s my body, my choice.

‘How are you going to find a man with your tattoos? What would your wedding photos look like?’

My decision to get tattoos were never about attracting (or repelling) men. They’re simply a part of who I am. There are a lot of people who don’t like tattoos and that’s fine. What I don’t appreciate is the idea that all will be as close minded about it. It’s not something I actively hide and I knew that eventually the right man would accept me for who I am, tattoos and all, and I was right. If I met a man who liked me for my great wit and sarcastic sense of humour later frowned upon my interest in tattoos, I know he’s not the right one for me by judging my person on my outward appearances.

My wedding photos turned out very nicely too, thank you for asking. I chose a style that suited me and the idea I had in mind of my perfect dress. Luckily for me, the lower back to the dress also complimented my visible tattoos.

‘Why would you waste your money on that? It doesn’t keep you warm at night’

The look of disapproval is occasionally accompanied with a finger reaching out touch my arm. I’m sorry to say this is something I honestly don’t appreciate. In social situations, I don’t normally like people touching or hugging me when I don’t know them very well. For that same person to look down on my ink while reaching a finger out is a bit of an insult. While questioning my judgment on how I spent my money, it’s not acceptable to think that you can then invade my personal space and show morbid interest in my art. I don’t judge how others like to spend a lot of money in one night on alcohol, expensive 5-star hotels or extravagant luxury goods, so I would appreciate others not asking me how much money I spent on it and why I ‘wasted’ it. The luxury goods and alcohol doesn’t keep you warm at night either and I don’t make such comments, so my decision to get inked is none of their business.

It’s a piece of art on canvas which happens to be my body. I like to wear it on me because it’s more personal, it’s a thought out decision that I consciously made. I chose it because of a personal decision that has significance to me. I went through the pain of getting inked with a needle on my skin to get the piece of art permanently etched on my skin, so my art isn’t something I decided on in a drunken moment. If I wanted to tell you the story behind why I got it, I will. When I’m being judged for the ink I happily paid for, all I’d say is that I didn’t waste my money: I wisely spent it on something that is important to me. Like the other few times I willingly spent a lot of money, I know what I’m paying for is an investment and it will last me a lifetime.


My latest ink: the phoenix took 6 hours. Another full day session to go and this will become a full sleeve with a dragon on my forearm

A lot of people in the world today feel they are justified in their first impressions of others without fully understanding the consequences of their actions. Judging a person with tattoos is making an assumption on the other person. While living in Hong Kong, it was something I needed to hide (I used to hide the one on my left wrist with a leather cuff) to avoid scrutiny and judgment in the workplace because it was frowned upon. It’s not uncommon to see men and women with tattoos in my current workplace. I’ve also made friends and met my husband and in-laws who don’t look down or disapprove of my ink (my brother-in-law also has a multitude of ink).

I got my first tattoo at 18 as an act of defiance, but over the 12 years I’ve been collecting my tattoos, I’ve come to be happier with myself. I’m more assured in my beliefs and don’t let the opinion of others affect me as much as it used to. I’ve grown in myself and I no longer feel the need to hide myself behind insecurities of what others might think of me. The plan to get a full sleeve done is to celebrate the person I’ve become and to be proud of who I am. I’m no longer ashamed of what I choose to do with my life (or my body) and I’m not hiding my tattoos anymore.

Over the years, many people have been surprised that a ‘good girl’ like me would have tattoos. I want people to understand that having tattoos doesn’t make a woman a rebel, gangster or a prisoner; it’s another way for women to appreciate art. It’s frustrating the double standards women face when getting more ‘masculine’ designs or bigger pieces that are considered less ‘feminine’. Women have the option of wearing ‘boyfriend’ jeans and it’s becoming fashionable for men to wear skinny jeans, babies are no longer required to wear pink or blue clothing to define their gender – why is there such a distinction for women who want to permanently ink their skin with a design of their choice?

In the first 6 years of getting tattoos, I got the first 3 on my back where I could hide them and the 4th on my wrist which I could easily conceal, but over time I felt less of a need to hide and started getting more obvious ones (like the quote on arm, an anklet on my left ankle and now the sleeve). It’s easy to for people to judge and stereotype others by appearance, but the truth is when you take the time to listen to the stories behind each piece from those who are willing to tell you their tales, you’ll find that you learn something new.

If you’re interested in joining the Women with Tattoos project started by Christina Theisen and Eleni Stefanou in 2013, get in touch here for the chance to be photographed and tell your story about your ink.

To learn more about the issues women with tattoos face in society, Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body by Beverley Yuen Thompson is also available for purchase on Amazon UK.

If you’re a woman with tattoos, I’d love to hear your story and your experiences, if you’re willing to share. Were some of the comments I mentioned above said to you? Any other points you’d like to share that you feel is unfair? Is there a double standard between heavily tattooed men and women where you are?

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