My workshop group is writing a collaborative short story collection, a frame narrative about a circus, and purgatory, and atonement, and best intentions. So we've all been researching and writing about sideshow freaks and circus performers, and it's been fascinating.
One of my favorite things so far has been researching tattooed ladies. We had talked initially about the tattooed man, but i pointed out that the societal implications of tattoos (especially of full-body tattoos the display of which supported your livelihood) were different for men and women. I wanted us to include both.
I learned that some of the earliest examples of tattoos were actually found on women. Experts believe that the tattoos were meant to protect them during pregnancy and childbirth.
Historically, of course, women have been the property of men. During the Victorian era, as tattoos were becoming more popular, some women tattooed themselves as a way of marking their autonomy. They got to alter their own appearances, their own bodies, forever. It was a way of reclaiming their own skin. Prostitutes were some of the most commonly tattooed women, including one French prostitute who tattooed herself with the names of her lovers and favorite clients.
One of my favorite tattooed ladies was Anna Mae Burlingston Gibbons (Miss Artoria), who worked as a tattooed lady for over fifty years. Most of her tattoos were of religious or patriotic significance, and her husband was her artist. He was a tattooed man working in a carnival, and they decided to supplement their income by tattooing her as well. She worked to support her family, using her own body to do so.
Tattoos are still a way for women to take ownership of their bodies. Julia Gnuse, featured in the Guinness Book of World Records, wanted to reclaim her body from disease. I've said before that tattoos are the scars you choose, the story you decide to tell about yourself. My own tattoos are prime examples of that.
I had a professor who liked to say that we are homo narrans -- story-telling people. What defines us as human beings is the narrative impulse. The stories we tell matter. The stories we tell about ourselves matter.
I have a friend who was raped. On her hip, just above her mons pubis, she has a tattoo of a broken heart that has been patched up and repaired. She took the story of something terrible that happened to her -- being raped -- and turned it into a story of triumph and growth and perseverance. My brother and members of his unit got tattoos to memorialize their dead and wounded brothers. The tattoo that has been most popular on my blog is a tattoo about me owning my choices, whether good or bad, and owning my body.
Tattooed ladies kick ass. Tattooed ladies own themselves. Tattooed ladies are unafraid of public condemnation. Even sorority sisters with tattoos of dolphins and mistranslated Chinese characters are spending money and inflicting pain to say, "This skin is mine. This body is mine. I belong to me, forever."