Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Promises I made my mother

As far back as I can remember my mother has been very fond of making me make promises. All based, I'm sure, on hard won personal experience. Number one has always been that I promise to be financially independent. Knowing my mother I was probably repeating it several years before I had any idea what "financial" meant. For a long time I thought this was simply feminist principal, but now I more completely understand the depth of this issue--how money and decision-making power are intrinsically linked. She also made me swear I'd never change my name if I should marry. And I didn't. And it's not because I swore it to my mother at three years old, but because I came to adopt the same perspective as her. Because our names are so linked to our identities, and I personally couldn't imagine being anyone different.
At eight she made me promise I'd never shave my legs--because my hair was "blonde and if you shave it turns black and then you will have to deal with it forever." As one might imagine, it was no problem swearing this at eight, but keeping this promise in middle school involved a fair amount of mortification (alas, I was also the last girl in my class to get a bra AND mom wouldn't let me wear spagetti straps OR read teen magazines.) But having to be different (in extremely small ways) was probably formative to my personality and maybe I came out a stronger person because of it. In any case, my embarrassment evolved into some kind of ridiculous self-righteous pride in high school, which has now calmed (thank god) into leg hair being something I never think about, and don't have to deal with. Thanks mom! Also, you were right, teen magazines (and People and Cosmo) are stupid.
Then in our family room, right before I got my ears pierced at age 11, my mom made me promise that if we got my ears pierced that I would never get another piercing. Or a tattoo. And I was really good about that. For about 15 years. What I'm getting at here in this long personal history, is that I got a tattoo. It's not a big deal, but I wanted a chance to explain myself to certain family members who might be scandalized. Back in the fall I was talking to the father of my friend, who in most ways was hip with the new generation, but just couldn't understand why the popularity of tattoos in the youth culture. For him as a father, it was devastating to think of his children sabotaging their bodies. I guess I can't speak for my generation, but I can speak for myself, and I think maybe some of my answers might be other people's answers too.
More than ever youth (and all of us) are being bombarded with media images of people who look perfect. I know this is an old rant, but I'm going to engage anyways. It seems I can't go anywhere (especially on the internet), without seeing stuff like this:
Images like this are called (by some) "thinspiration." Like inspiration to make people lose weight and look like that. Note the web adress at the bottom is "help me get thin." But for the vast majority of people, this is a lie. While I'm all about working out and eating healthy, this image is not promoting healthy weight loss or a healthy understanding of one's body. I'm a professional dancer, and naturally slim, and reasonably close to some standard of beauty, and I have never looked like that person or many of the others we see in media every day. 50% of girls between 11-13 see themselves as overweight, and if you look up eating disorder statistics they are terrifying and pervasive. I was lucky enough to have never had an eating disorder, but I remember feeling at times like I needed to lose weight. When I was 15. And 115 lbs. You have to have seriously lost perspective for that to happen, and that's what these images propagate. And it's not just weight. It's wrinkles. It's proportions. It's age. Look at plastic surgery. Cosmetic procedures (surgical and non) have quadrupled since 1997 (according to American Society for Cosmetic Aesthetic Plastic Surgery) and that's against a recession. I don't want to get down on people who diet or get plastic surgery. That's not my point. What my point is, as I see the very first signs of aging on my body (don't scoff--I have little permanent crinkles in between my eyes) I have a choice. I can buy all the miracle cremes and try to fight the inevitable, or I can say no, I will define what makes me beautiful, thank you very much. And I think tattoos, previously relegated to bikers, sailors, and outcasts of society, is a way to say that. That I will not worship at the temple of youth, that I will control my own definition of beauty, not advertising agencies. 

Connected to this is the irritating notion of body un-spoiled-ness. This was particularly relevant to me when I was planning my wedding. As a bride, you spend about a year thinking about how you are going to look on a particular day (hair, makeup, dress, nails, skin, etc.) and I spent an entire summer trying to not get a zit, or a sunburn, or bug bite, and it was totally suffocating trying to make by body perfect even for one day. The nature of bodies is that they do things that are ugly. The idea that you are somehow spoiling something previously flawless with a tattoo is unfounded. My body is sacred, but it is not precious. It bleeds, shits, breaks, and scars, just like everyone's bodies. Letting go of the preciousness of my body is I think a healthy step towards accepting it. 

What was my mother trying to prevent when she made me promise? Probably a lot of things. Probably she didn't want me to do something I would regret in the future. She didn't want me to put something on my body that reflected me at the time, but wouldn't in 20 or 50 years. But that just makes me want to question if my body has ever reflected "me" accurately. In some ways, yes, because we are products of the way we are treated, which is a product of how we are perceived. And I'm not going to pretend even for a minute that it is not in most cases a total advantage to be a pretty, skinny, white girl in this country.  But have people assumed things about me that were not true based on the way I looked? Yes. I have been condescended to, not taken seriously, treated as naive, angelic, innocent, or dumb. I'm not complaining, but it is maybe for these reasons that a tattoo, which symbolically counters some of these perceptions, appeals to me. Back to mom protecting me from regrets: so far I have led a pretty planned, thought out, and responsible life. I never had time to have the rebellious phase that my mother so enjoyed in her youth ; ) and if a tattoo ends up being my biggest regret, that's not so bad.

In addition I'm sure my mother wanted me to keep my career options open, fearing I may not be hired on account of having a tattoo. I totally respect this, but have come to a place in my life where I am certain that any field that would discriminate on the basis of a (non offensive) tattoo is not one I would want to work in. In fact, having a tattoo as an artist is kind of like wearing a business suit as a CEO. It's kind of expected. And in modern dance people are not necessarily interested in hiring skinny, blonde, all-American looking girls with ponytails. They want people who are interesting, whose bodies communicate something beyond the "blank slate" of traditional white-girl dance. I don't want to pretend that this makes me more interesting or unique, because in the neighborhood where I live, probably 90% of people have visible tattoos. I'm not even exaggerating. But it's not going to hurt my career choices.

Anyways, I just wanted you to hear it from me first and I'm sorry this turned into such a manifesto. I promise this is the last time I'll get all self-righteous on y'all. I know that those who love me love me regardless of what my body looks like, so when my artist asked if I was worried about how my family would react, I told her no. That my family loves and trusts me and wants me to be happy. 

So you wanna see it?

WOW. JUST KIDDING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here is my actual:

Not so bad, right? This is my forearm, by the way.

Happy Fourth of July everybody! Today let's be proud and glad we live in a country where people are free. Free to tattoo themselves with ugly cupcakes, should they want to. ; )