I am confident. I am unique. I am strong. I am brave. I am feminine in my own right. I own my beauty. I own my sexuality. I own my body.
Fourteen ear piercings, one nose piercing, one navel piercing, and two tattoos express my identity to the world. As I’ve amassed piercings and tattoos, I’ve also amassed comments regarding my femininity. The opinions regarding my supposedly affected femininity lie on two extreme ends of the spectrum. I’m either told that I’m sexualizing myself, making my body more attractive and inviting to males, or I’m told that I’m doing the complete opposite, ruining my pure, innocent beauty. Within 21st century macro-American society, body piercings and tattoos—and their placements and image depictions—are used as adornments and markings to express aspects of the wearer’s identity, yet observers of these artifacts often make assumptions regarding issues of sexuality and gender. The histories of piercings and tattoos extend many of today’s assumptions; however, it’s necessary to reach beyond assumptions in order to recognize the wearer’s intended message.
The Expression of My Identity
Prior to my junior year of high school, my physical appearance changed drastically. My braces were removed, and my confidence skyrocketed. I developed a love for fitness and lost over twenty pounds. I also developed my own sense of style, free of American Eagle T-shirts and Ugg boots. And my hair, once short and damaged from straightening and blow-drying, grew out to be long, natural, and wavy.
Prior to my junior year of high school, I started to develop my own identity. I stopped trying so hard to fit in with my female peers, who all dressed the same, wore their hair the same, and had the same hobbies and interests. Then, I started to amass piercings. It began with a nose ring. “It’s funky,” I thought. It made me stand out, showing people I’d changed. Next, it was a navel piercing as a reward for losing weight and getting in shape—my stomach was flat again. I could see my womanly figure taking form, and I wanted to choose how I would express this woman to the world. Stirn (2003) said, “Body piercing can be interpreted as a visible, self-produced violation of socially defined beauty standards and body boundaries and, thus, arouses social provocation” (p. 1,212). I was tired of mirroring my peers’ notions of beauty, and piercings were a way to reject their notions. Eventually, I was piercing my ears multiple times a year.
My tattoos were another way to redefine standard beauty notions and begin shaping my adult identity. After my sophomore year of college, I had the word “confidence” tattooed on my left ribcage without telling anyone I was doing so. The tattoo was for me; I was finally confident in the woman I was. In my first serious relationship and quickly falling in love, I wanted a reminder that my confidence came from myself, not the eyes of another person. The following summer, I had a giraffe tattooed on my right ribcage. Much like my “confidence” tattoo, the giraffe reminded me to stand tall and keep my head held high.
The History of Piercings
Hill (2013) found that nose rings are used to display social status and economic standing in cultures throughout the globe. The modern-day Berber and Beja tribes of Africa, and the Bedouins of the Middle East, judge a family’s wealth based on nose ring size. When married in these cultures, the husband presents his wife with a nose ring as a sign of economic security. The bigger the nose ring, the wealthier of a family the husband comes from and represents. In this example, a nose ring not only depicts social status and economic standing but is used to uphold gender roles. The male is thought to be the economic provider; the female is thought to find the male’s power and wealth attractive.
Hill (2013) noted that historically, earrings have also been used to exhibit wealth. When sailors washed up dead on shore, their earrings could pay for a Christian burial. During the Elizabethan Era, men of status, including Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh, wore gold earrings to display their social standing and wealth.
Assigning meaning to ear piercings is not an antiquated act. Stirn (2003) said earlobe piercings are one of the most common piercings today. Pierced lobes are so ubiquitous in modern-day America that parents often pierce their daughter’s ears during infancy (Hill, 2013). Other parents wait to pierce their daughter’s ears until a certain age is reached, using ear piercings as a symbol of maturity. I had several friends in high school who were not allowed to pierce their ears until they were 16 years old, which was the same age they were allowed to start dating. Both dating and ear piercings meant that my friends had matured to womanhood.
As pierced lobes can indicate rites of passage for females or are considered something so feminine that female babies must possess, the assumptions made regarding piercings and gender in 21st century macro-American society can be further understood. Today, men are often labeled gay for adorning their ears or other body parts with piercings. This label stems not only from the popular uses of ear piercings in American society, but also from the history of piercings in America. As piercing was popularized during the 1970s and 1980s, the owners and initial clientele of the first piercing shops in Los Angeles were gay males (MacKendrick, 2005). Over 20 years later, my father was labeled gay for his piercings. My mother called him gay when he pierced his navel following their divorce, yet he was engaged to another female and never expressed homosexual tendencies. However, since piercings are viewed as inherently feminine adornments in our society, males with piercings are thought to be displaying too much femininity. Thus, males’ identities become entangled with their supposed gender displays.
While nearly all piercings have histories intertwined with gender, American women have attempted to use certain piercings as catalysts for social change. During the 20th century, American women were fighting for gender equality. According to Hill (2013), nose piercings became part of that fight in the late 1960s when the nose ring was popularized in America by large numbers of young people, commonly referred to as hippies, who had traveled and acculturated to India. In India, nose piercings symbolized motherhood as they were thought to lessen pain during childbirth and menstruation, but hippies adopted nose piercings as a symbol of the Punk Movement, which celebrated rebellion and eschewed conservative values. American women used them in a similar manner, piercing their noses to rebel against feminine norms in favor of personal expression and individuality. Navel piercings were popularized in America around the same time as nose piercings. While there are no ancient records of navel piercings, Hill (2013) found that they gained popularity along with the bikini in the 1950s. Hill said, “The ability to flaunt their sexuality in public [by wearing a bikini] gave women more power and confidence in themselves” (para. 25). Like the bikini, nose and navel piercings, were used by women to eradicate traditional notions of themselves as mothers, homemakers, and fragile creatures whose sexuality should be hidden from the world.
Like the women of the 20th century, I use my navel piercing as a form of self-expression. However, I’m often shamed for accentuating a part of my body that is believed to elicit sexual thoughts. My husband’s father has scorned me for wearing shirts that show my midriff and my ornate navel jewelry. Similarly, my mother has told me that it’s inappropriate to wear a sports bra and no shirt while exercising because my stomach and navel piercing are distracting men from their workouts. Rather than being praised for taking ownership of my body and sexuality, I’m blamed for arousing males and presenting myself in a seemingly erotic, sensual manner.
The History of Tattoos
Tattoos have been and continue to be used to communicate messages, both directly and indirectly. Schraff (2006) found that in ancient Greece spies communicated through tattooed messages. Like the ancient Greek spies, wearers today tattoo themselves to transmit messages, though today’s wearers transmit messages regarding their identities. The messages’ meanings may not be evident to all observers—they may be in different languages or be symbolic images that not all observers can understand without explanation. Other messages are more direct—perhaps the name of a loved one is tattooed on the wearer.
Historically, tattoos sent the message that someone was a lawbreaker or living outside of society. In ancient Rome and China, prisoners were marked with tattoos so they could easily be recognized as different if they escaped. Roman slaves and gladiators were tattooed with specific markings to show who owned them. And ancient barbarians and nomads marked their bodies with images of wild animals and strange beasts to differentiate themselves from city dwellers. Today, prisoners continue to sport tattoos as a way to distinguish themselves from the masses, and many popular tattoos for prisoners carry frightening messages. For example, a teardrop indicates that a prisoner has murdered someone, with multiple teardrops indicating multiple murders (Schraff, 2006). The markings on ancient prisoners, slaves, and barbarians, as well as the markings modern-day prisoners choose for their bodies, perpetuate the assumption that people with tattoos do not belong and have startling differences from those who do.
During World War II, U.S. soldiers proudly sported tattoos with more positive messages than their law-breaking counterparts, helping combat the stigma tattoos had long carried. According to Schraff (2006), tattoos gained popularity during World War II as soldiers tattooed symbols on their bodies that were associated with their branches, values, or feelings of personal power or personal loss; mottos such as “death before dishonor” were popular tattoos for soldiers (chapter 8, para. 2). Mcllvine (2011) said, “For today’s soldiers and families, a tattoo has become a statement to the world that someone close to them has fallen, whether a comrade, father, husband, son or daughter” (p. 35). Tattoos depicting personal loss express the sorrow of losing a group member, and tattoos related to one’s branch or one’s willingness to die for members of the branch portray group loyalty. Not only are these messages seen as noble and respectable in the eyes of the observer, they indicate group membership and sameness rather than differences.
While respected individuals who served our country, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, sported tattoos, a negative image was still associated with tattoos following World War II. In the 1960s, a string of hepatitis cases from the use of dirty needles in New York tattoo shops were reported, leading to the belief that only dirty, unclean people had tattoos. Additionally, street and motorcycle gang members began to use tattoos as symbols for membership in feared groups, further perpetuating negative stereotypes. (Schraff, 2006). So while tattoos were gaining positive popularity from armed service members, they were still not fully regarded as respectable. Moreover, male soldiers and members of all-male street gangs were the ones popularizing tattoos—not women.
The Assumed Identity of the Wearer
Because predominately male groups popularized tattoos in America, tattooed women are often judged in 21st century macro-American society as being unfeminine. I’ve been told by mother that I was stupid to permanently mark and therefore damage my body. She asked, “Why would you want to ruin your skin like that?” The impression is, that as a woman, my skin is ruined if marked. However, marking my skin is a way of taking ownership over my body. I’m not alone in my belief. Stirn (2003) found that women who are victims of sexual abuse use piercings and tattoos as a way to reclaim their bodies; they are taking control of the pain inflicted on their bodies, thus reconstructing their shattered identities.
The location of tattoos on women can further lend to the assumption that tattooed women are unfeminine; the location may also indirectly invite assumptions regarding women’s sexuality. Amy Krakow, author of Total Tattoo Book, said a tattoo on a woman’s bicep signifies toughness, which is thought to be a masculine trait in modern-day America (Kita, 2003). Krakow calls the bicep “‘a typically male place of adornment’” (Kita, 2003, para. 8). Contrastingly, a tattoo on a woman’s lower back is referred to as a “tramp stamp,” identifying the woman as an overtly sexual individual.
Regardless of their locations, piercings often sexualize women in the eyes of society as well. A few weeks ago, I was fondly reminiscing with my husband about our first date. When I asked what he first noticed about me, he said he immediately noticed my nose and ear piercings, believing my piercings said “come and get it.” I was appalled. My piercings, so personal in meaning, had been demeaned to sexual invitations.
Unfortunately, my husband is not alone in his thinking. In an article in Men’s Health, Kita (2003) said that men tend to believe a woman with multiple ear piercings “can’t get enough of a good thing” (para. 18). In the article, Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, said women use piercings to advertise their body to the opposite sex (Kita, 2003). She corroborated Kita’s assertion by claiming that women believe “it’s better to be looked at than overlooked” (Kita, 2003, para. 2). What do these assertions say about American society as a whole? A popular magazine targeted at males is perpetuating the belief that women’s adornments are tied to their sexual desires, sending a damaging message regarding women’s identities in what is often regarded as a socially-progressive era in America.
“When a woman calls attention to her stomach with a navel ring, a belly chain, or a small tattoo, she’s sending the signal that she’s sexual, fertile, and possibly ready to reproduce” (Kita, 2003, para. 16). Though navel piercings were introduced in America as a form of liberating self-expression for women, they are still connected to fertility, historically and literally, because they are located at the site in which a woman carries a child. In the latter half of the 20th century, navel piercings gained popularity in America as women were fighting for gender equality. Great strides were made in their fight that continue to benefit women today, but claiming that a woman exposing a pierced navel indicates her desire for sexual intercourse and children only pushes society backward. The woman once again assumes the identity of a sexual, child-bearing being.
The True Identity of the Wearer
Body piercings and tattoos make both “an introverted, private and an extroverted, public statement towards society” (Stirn, 2003, p. 1,213). Tiggemann and Hopkins (2011) found that the most common reasons people tattoo themselves or pierce body parts other than their ears is the belief that piercings and tattoos look good and help wearers express themselves. Koziel and Sitek (2013) found that people with tattoos or body piercings rated their overall physical attractiveness and the physical attractiveness of certain areas on their bodies—buttocks, eyes, back, face, legs—as more attractive than people without tattoos and piercings. I can ascribe to the researchers’ findings as I’ve used piercings and tattoos as a form of personal expression. I pierced my nose as a way to begin shaping my adult identity. I pierced my navel to accentuate my stomach once I had improved my health, lost a significant amount of weight, and felt beautiful. In the same vein, I tattooed “confidence” on my ribcage to remind myself that my body was physically attractive despite any perceived flaws. I tattooed a giraffe on my ribcage as a reminder to stand tall in the face of adversity. Overall, I believe I have high self-esteem in terms of body image. It’s when my identity is assumed because of my piercings and tattoos that I begin to question my self-worth. I like to believe that my identity is expressed as unique, mysterious, and a little rebellious, but know it’s naïve to believe this is the message initially received by observers.
Piercings and tattoos are obtained for multiple reasons. The wearer may be expressing aspects of his or her culture; the wearer may be expressing group membership; the wearer may be calling attention to certain areas on his or her body; the wearer may obtain a tattoo or piercing to overcome a traumatic experience. Multiple motivations mean that upon initial observation one has no right to make judgments regarding the wearer’s gender or sexual desires. When one does make such premature judgments, the wearer’s personal claim to his or her identity is stolen.
At a Halloween party, someone commented that I had so many piercings. Her eyes rolled as she asked why I liked to pierce myself so often. Because I was there to have a good time, and did not want to divulge my struggles with my weight, confidence, and desire for self-expression, I replied, “Piercing my ears is just something I like to do.” Do I want observers to ask about my intended expressions? If I don’t, I risk allowing their assumptions and judgments to continue; however, in some contexts, such as parties, I don’t want to justify my means of self-expression. Do I as a wearer allow my identity to be assumed, or do I invite questioning regarding my identity? Determining the answer to this question is another burden the wearer must carry.
Hill, L. (2013, October 7). History of body piercings. Retrieved from https://info.painfulpleasures.com/help-center/piercing-information/history-body-piercings
Kita, J. (2003, April). Body of evidence. Men’s Health, 18(3), 140. Retrieved from https://www.journals.ebsco.com
Koziel, S., & Sitek, A. (2013, August). Self-assessment of attractiveness of persons with body decoration. HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology, 64(4), 317-325. doi:10.1016/j.jchb.2013.04.004
MacKendrick, K. (2005). Body piercing. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, 1, 166-169. Retrieved from https://www.cengage.com
McIlvine, R. (2011, February). WEARING MEMORIES. Soldiers, 66(2), 34-39. Retrieved from https://www.journals.ebsco.com
Schraff, A. (2006). Tattoos. Retrieved from https://www.ebscohost.com/ebooks
Stirn, A. (2003, April 5). Body piercing: medical consequences and psychological motivations. The Lancet. 361(9364), 1205-1215. Retrieved from https://www.journals.ebsco.com
Tiggemann, M., & Hopkins, L. (2011, June). Tattoos and piercings: Bodily expressions of uniqueness? Body Image. 8(3), 245-250. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2011.03.007