Negotiating Sexuality and Gender
The Wearer’s Burden: The Assumed Identities of Individuals with Tattoos and Piercings
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 impacted 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 the opposite sex, 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 regarding the wearer’s sexuality and gender; however, it’s necessary to reach beyond assumptions in order to recognize the wearer’s intended message.
The Expression of My Identity
A change occurred in me the summer prior to my junior year of high school. My braces were removed and my confidence skyrocketed. I developed a love for fitness, losing over twenty pounds. I developed my own sense of style, free of American Eagle t-shirts and Ugg boots. I let my previously shoulder-length, layered hair grow out to be long and natural. Essentially, I stopped trying so hard to fit in with my peers.
As a result, I started to develop my own identity. 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. I pierced my navel to reward my hard work in regards to exercise—my stomach was flat again. I could see my womanly figure taking form, and I decided that I was going to choose how to 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 societal notions of beauty; piercings were a way to reject the notions. Eventually, I was piercing my ears multiple times a year.
My tattoos were another way to redefine standard beauty notions. After my second year of college, I had the word “confidence” tattooed on my ribcage without telling anyone I was doing so. The tattoo was for me; I was finally completely confident in the woman I was. I was in my first serious relationship and was in love, but I wanted to remind myself every day when I looked in the mirror that my confidence came from myself and not from the eyes of another person.
History of Piercings
Laura (2013) found that nose piercings are used to display social status and economic standing among the modern-day Berber and Beja tribes of Africa and among the Bedouins of the Middle East. The size of the nose ring depicts a family’s wealth. When married, the husband presents his wife with a nose ring as a sign of economic security. In these cases, nose piercings are part of the culture and are 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. Laura noted that historically earrings have also been utilized as a way to exhibit one’s wealth. When sailors washed up dead on shore, their earrings could pay for a Christian burial. During the Elizabethan era, men of status, such as 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 nor are earlobe piercings antiquated. Earlobe piercings are one of the most common piercings (Stirn, 2003); pierced lobes are so widely accepted in 21st century macro-American society that parents may pierce their female babies’ ears (Laura, 2013). Other parents allow their daughters to obtain ear piercings once a certain age is reached, using piercings to symbolize maturity. I had 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 understood. Piercings themselves are considered more of a feminine adornment in modern-day American society. Men are often labeled gay for adorning their ears or other body parts with piercings; this label stems 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). My mother called my father gay when he pierced his navel following their divorce, yet he was remarried to another female and never expressed homosexual tendencies. As piercings in 21st century macro-American society are viewed as feminine, males with piercings are thought to be displaying too much femininity. Thus, the males’ identities become entangled with their supposed gender displays.
Nose and navel piercings have histories intertwined with gender roles. Over 4,000 years ago in India, the left nostril was pierced on women because it was associated with female reproductive organs; the nose piercing was thought to lessen pain during childbirth and menstruation. On women, the navel is considered an erogenous zone since women have flatter stomachs and wider hips than men. While there are no ancient records of navel piercings, they gained popularity along with the bikini in the 1950s (Laura, 2013). “The ability to flaunt their sexuality in public gave women more power and confidence in themselves” (Laura, 2013, para. 25). As the bikini and navel piercing gained popularity and acceptance, women felt liberated in their self-expressions. However, I’m shamed for flaunting a part of my body that is believed to elicit sexual thoughts. My boyfriend’s father has scorned me for wearing shirts that show my midriff and my ornate navel jewelry. Now I will sometimes pause before putting on a shorter top; I’m afraid of being shamed. 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 praising me for taking ownership of my body and sexuality, I’m scorned for looking too sexy and eliciting inappropriate thoughts in males.
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. The history of the ancient Greeks connects to 21st century macro-American society because wearers today tattoo themselves to transmit messages regarding their identities. Tattoos’ meanings may not be evident to all observers; tattoos may be in different languages or may be symbolic images that not all observers can understand without explanation. Other tattoos are more direct—perhaps the name of a loved one is tattooed on the wearer.
Tattoos had shame associated with their meanings, and that shame has extended into modern-day American society. In ancient Rome and China, prisoners were marked with tattoos, making escape more difficult. In Rome, slaves and gladiators were tattooed by their owners. Barbarians, people living outside of cities in small settlements or living as nomads, tattooed images of wild animals and strange beasts on themselves. Prisoners today continue to practice tattooing; teardrops indicate that the prisoner is a murderer. (Schraff, 2006). The marking of slaves, prisoners, and barbarians perpetuate today’s existing notions of tattoos being associated with those who are lawbreakers or those who are living outside of society.
In the military, tattoos are used to depict one’s branch, personal power, or personal loss; tattoos also represent group membership. According to Schraff (2006), during World War II tattoos gained popularity as soldiers tattooed symbols associated with their branches on their bodies. Mottos such as “death before dishonor” were popular tattoos for soldiers (chapter 8, para. 2). “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” (Mcllvine, 2011, p. 35). Tattoos depicting personal loss express the sorrow of losing a group member. Tattoos related to one’s branch or one’s willingness to die for members of the branch portray one’s loyalty to the group.
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 in New York, hepatitis cases from the use of dirty needles in tattoo shops emerged. Additionally, street and motorcycle gang members were tattooed to show membership in feared gangs (Schraff, 2006). While tattoos were gaining positive popularity from armed service members, tattoos were still not fully regarded as respectable. Moreover, male soldiers were the individuals popularizing tattoos—not women.
The Assumed Identity of the Wearer
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 utilize 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 further lends to the assumption that tattooed women are unfeminine. 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 American society (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 overly sexual individual. The location of one’s tattoo may indirectly invite assumptions regarding the wearer’s sexuality and gender.
Piercings often sexualize women in the eyes of society. A few weeks ago, I was fondly reminiscing with my boyfriend about our first date. 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. Kita (2003) reported the belief that a woman with multiple ear piercings “can’t get enough of a good thing” (para. 18). Though, Kita noted that a woman like myself, with multiple ear piercings, will at the very least have the chance of being “multiorgasmic” (para. 18). I grimace in disgust recognizing that my pierced ears apparently say so much to the world regarding my sexual desires.
My boyfriend is not alone in thinking that piercings and tattoos say “come and get it.” In an article in Men’s Health, Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropologist at Rutgers University, noted that piercings and tattoos are employed by women to advertise their body to the opposite sex (Kita, 2003). Women believe that “it’s better to be looked at than overlooked” (Kita, 2003, para. 2). Have women been trained to believe they need the help of piercings and tattoos in order to attract the opposite sex? A popular magazine targeted at males is perpetuating the belief that women’s identities are tied to sexual attraction, sending a damaging message regarding the role of women in a theoretically progressive era.
“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). Navel piercings were historically introduced as a form of liberating self-expression for females. However, navel piercings are still connected to fertility because they are located at the site in which a woman carries a child. In the 1950s, as the bikini gained popularity, women were also fighting for gender equality. Popularizing the bikini and navel piercing was part of the fight to eradicate traditional notions of women as mothers, homemakers, and creatures too sexual to be seen by the world. However, claiming that a woman exposing a pierced navel indicates her desire for sexual intercourse and children only pushes society backwards. 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 some of the most common reasons individuals tattoo themselves or pierce body parts other than their ears are the beliefs that the piercings and tattoos look good and help the individuals express themselves. Koziel and Sitek (2013) found that individuals with tattoos or body piercings rated their overall physical attractiveness and the physical attractiveness of their certain body areas—buttocks, eyes, back, face, legs—as more attractive than non-tattooed and non-pierced individuals. I can ascribe to the researchers’ findings as I’ve utilized piercings and tattoos as a form of personal expression. I obtained a navel piercing to accentuate my stomach once I had lost significant weight and felt beautiful. I tattooed “confidence” on my ribcage as a way to encourage myself to find my body physically attractive every day. Overall, I have high self-esteem in terms of body image. Only when my identity is assumed because of my piercings and tattoos do I begin to question my self-worth. I like to believe that my identity is expressed as unique, mysterious, and a little rebellious; however, I know I’m naïve to believe that 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 judgements regarding the wearer’s gender or sexual desires. When one does make such premature judgements, the wearer’s personal claim to his or her identity is stolen.
At a Halloween party, a friend commented that I had so many piercings. Her eyes rolled as she asked why I liked to pierce myself so often. 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 simply stated that piercing my ears was something I liked to do. Do I want observers to ask about my intended expressions? If I don’t, I risk allowing their assumptions and judgements 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? This question is the burden that the wearer carries.
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
Laura. (2013, October 7). History of body piercings. Retrieved from https://www.info.painfulpleasures.com/help-center/piercing-information/history-body-piercings
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