Monday, June 13, 2016
Writ in Water: Tattoos, Disability, and the Details
As I write this, I have had my first tattoo for 24 hours. For those unfamiliar, the phrase I had permanently etched to my skin is an ode to John Keats whose work and life has had special meaning for me since I was a teenager. Indeed I've been wanting this tattoo for almost 9 years.
My personal tattoo journey has been driven by my experience in my disabled body.
Most people who warned me not to get a tattoo were worried about the permanency: why would I do something to my body that could never be undone? But my body is covered in surgical scars, I need leg braces to walk, and I have an ileostomy beneath my navel. None of these things were truly my choice, but they are a permanent part of my body. I had to learn to live with these things and feel at home with my body amidst the stigmas society has attached to it. Electing to have words with such special meaning put on my body as a work of art is liberating -- the fact that it is permanent is part of what makes it so powerful. Indeed there was a similar battle waged when I underwent a procedure for permanent birth control (read more about that here.) I was told over and over that I might "change my mind" and the permanence was too big of a decision for me to make in my 20's. But I understand the consequences of living in my body and the extremely high risk a pregnancy would be on my body. Not to mention I've never wanted children. When I finally was able to get the procedure, the permanence felt like the biggest blessing -- I reveled in it.
My relationship with permanence also has an opposite essence: I understand how NOT permanent this life and everything in it is. I remember in early high school being really frustrated when people would tell me that someday I would die and go to heaven and not be disabled anymore or that my disability was some sort of earthly gift the creator gave me to teach others (paraphrasing, but you get the idea). When I discovered Buddhist teachings about attachment, suffering, and impermanence, the words really resonated with me and I was awakened to a whole new philosophy on life. As I explored some of the differences between what I had been taught and these new ideas, I realized that a lot of it had to do with how people viewed permanency -- one eternal unchanging soul versus the "non-self" and transcendence of the attachments that make up the self. So while many people are scared that something permanent will enter their lives, thinking of the body or soul as impermanent is even more frightening. I feel I was drawn to Buddhist teachings because they made so much more sense to me living in a body that is often unreliable and doesn't work in the ways I so desperately want it to. In so, I must let go of the longings I have no control over and find other ways to quantify my identity.
Besides permanence, the other warning I received from the anti-tat camp was that most work places were not friendly toward visible tattoos and that tattoos were, in essence, trashy or something "poor people" did. Now, I totally have thoughts about class and body art but I won't go into that here. I will, however, say that my visible disability is my biggest worry every time I have a job interview. I believe I have applied for jobs and not been hired because I was not the most qualified. But I do believe on a couple occasions that I was not hired for a job because I was visibly disabled. So I think I have bigger obstacles to my future employment than three words written on my arm.
However, I understand that sometimes I will not want to show my body art. I had the tattoo put on a place that I can cover for important meetings, interviews, or speaking engagements. But I also put it in a place that I can show it if I want to. Some people told me if I were truly getting the tattoo just for me that I should get it in a place where no one would see it unless I was wearing a skimpy bikini. (These people don't know I have a tendency to go to kink clubs where I've been known to wear the equivalence of said bikini, but no matter). But part of this whole thing is, in fact, to express myself and share it with others.
I recently wrote in a short story that featured a disabled character, "I've found that when it comes to living in a body like mine, you earn respect in the details." I found this was very true when I got my piercings. I have eight piercings and I have found that talking about or showing them to people "normalizes" my disabled body in a way that it does not able-bodied people. I haven't quite found words to articulate this but I have noticed that this "rebellious" act for others is for me a sort of evidence that I have independence and agency. Perhaps my piercings (and now my tattoo) show others that living in my body is not just a passive thing. I wasn't just born with a disability and that's that, rather I do have control over how I express myself to others and I choose a story to tell with my body.
Finally, some people I know just really hate my tattoo. They aren't afraid to tell me and they are not nice about it. I know that there was a time in my life that their comments would have torn me apart and I would have been filled with feelings of regret, sadness, and doubt. I used to feel this way about my body and my sexuality. This is, I think, the most important aspect of my tattoo: that my body is mine and other people's judgments of my body do not dictate my value. And I can't think of a better way to have spent the first day of the rest of my life.