Ink Against the Beauty Myth

Apologies for my long absence, but I had some work that needed 120% of my attention and had some strict deadlines. At least some of it was fun, like writing a paper for an upcoming volume on Breaking Bad and philosophy. It’s too bad fun work doesn’t pay … oh well.

Naomi WolfThis year marks the 20th anniversary of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, a book that every woman should have a chance to read (especially as teenagers). It tells the story of a relationship between the force of adherence to impossible physical standards and advancements women make in society, and that with every advancement that force grows. I have read it a few times in my life, and it’s the one that made me proud to be a feminist and a woman. I think tattooed people have something special to contribute to her discussion.

In it, she writes:
“The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called ‘beauty’ objectively exists and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless. None of this is true. ‘Beauty’ is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male domination in tact.” (p.12)

She goes on to argue that beauty is neither universal or changeless, or a function of evolution, or based on sex, gender, aesthetics, or God. The beauty myth is “actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression. The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power.”(p. 13) Beauty in its myth-form actually contradicts women’s real situations, become like an Iron Maiden (medieval German torture device) the real faces and bodies of women are concealed, and all one sees is the pretty, smiling, young lady painted on the exterior of the casket. The Iron Maiden represents that unobtainable standard that traps us women or we trap ourselves in, and it is used to punish us emotionally, psychologically, and physically. We are left vulnerable and constantly seeking approval, and feeling incomplete and never good enough. Evidence of the beauty myth at work can be seen in fashion magazines and celebrity gossip rags, in the line ups at Botox clinics, plastic surgeons, and cosmetic dentists. We see it in the rates of anorexia, bulimia, and suicide in young women. There are 5 areas, Wolf says, that women are most under attack by the myth: religion, sex, hunger, work, and violence.

I think tattooed women fuck with the beauty myth, actually all tattooed people do and I will return to the general inked population in a moment. Tattooed women create a new idea on what is feminine as much as what is beautiful. Tattooed women can have any tattoo they like and anywhere, their personal wishes are the limits. They can have pin-up girls, or skulls and cross-bones, or drag cars, or flowers, and how a woman tattoos her body defines what feminine beauty is to her. Tattooed women come in all sizes and shapes, and any race, creed, religion, and colour. And ALL are beautiful in each other’s eyes. I have found in my conversations with other tattooed women a unity, a locking of arms against the standards that seek to crush us, rather than a competition with each other or a divide from within. This unity of tattooed sisters shows the lack of power the beauty myth has on those of us gals who freely define ourselves and have our own ideas of beauty. Even with all the tattoo shows on tv there is still a large number of people in Western culture who don’t see tattoos are beautiful, or tattooed people as beautiful. They still think we’re weirdos. Tattooing, and also piercing and branding, is still considered a subculture, and not mainstream. And that’s fine, because I’d rather feel good about myself and be beautiful to a small number of people who respect me for who I am. I’d also rather celebrate something that is real and truthful, and not some ideal dictated by a society that wants me to eat fast food, weigh 90 pounds, have DD breasts, be heterosexual but wild enough to kiss girls once in a while (preferably while in a swimming pool or mud pit with string bikinis that fall off easily), be tanned, be toned but not too muscular, and stay 25 forever with not an ounce of cellulite on my body.

So, how do we, the tattooed people, fuck with this beauty myth? By creating new forms of beauty, new ideas on what is beautiful and not imposing them on others for the hell of it or for power gains. Beauty, to tattooed people, is deeply personal and profoundly meaningful. We cover our bodies with words and pictures that have personal significance and truth for us, that tell a personal story or describe a moment in our experience. Being tattooed is like wearing your inner life on your outer body. The artwork itself is usually a thing of aesthetic beauty. If there is any universal aspect to tattooed beauty, it is the standard for beautiful tattooing rather than the content of the tattoo itself. Tattoos enhance the body’s curves and lines, and can bring out the natural beauty of the human form no matter what size you are or what sex. Yes, tattoos recreate beauty in new ways for both women and men equally. We cannot forget that men too are affected by certain beauty myths, ideals of strong men who bring home the bread, and I’d say those myths are also dictated by institutional systems of patriarchy as well. Take for example, Rick Genest, the Montreal man known as “Zombie Boy” who looks like a walking skeleton, now famous for appearing in the Lady Gaga video ‘Born this Way’.

Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy

Yes, he’s now become a fashion model for companies like Mugler, but that is beside my point. He is a beautiful man, in my book, and I would say more handsome because of his ink. The ink emphasizes his bone structure and his body lines, and that is just the physical beauty side of things. There is something beautiful about his tattooed body of human bones and bugs. Something deeply beautiful in that kind of honesty. It’s a beauty in truth, not only to the truth of his insides now displayed on his outsides, but a beauty in the truth of life: we are mortal and will one day be a pile of bones with bugs. He permanently wears what many people avoid thinking about. He confronts with his body what most people replace with their thoughts of heaven and afterlife. He lives what one day he will be. It’s quite existential actually, and it’s fucking impressive too. But what I admire most about him is the balls (not sure if those are tattooed as well) he has to do what he feels best reflects who he is, the balls to define what beauty is for himself and to defy the societal dictated norms of beauty and what a man ought to look like. Genest is exactly what I adore about tattooed people – balls and integrity, and a huge amount of creativity too. Oh, and a sense of humour as well, let’s not forget that. He’s authentic and beautiful in his own way. Tattooed people don’t care about the beauty myth or socially dictated standards of beauty, because they have their own sense of beauty. They are happy with it, and that is more than enough to satisfy. And it’s beauty that feels good too.

Once I started getting tattooed at 17, I stopped caring as much about socially dictated beauty, and I started caring more about my own ideas of beauty. I began to own my body, and own what it looked like and will be. I refused to be bent over the table of acceptability and social approval, and fucked over by an invisible, nameless, faceless force that feels it has the right to tell me what i am and what i want. I refused to play a game I could never win, I refused to pay attention to an ideal I could never attain. Tattooing in that way is liberating, it frees you from the Iron Maiden in many ways. Camus once wrote that revolt gives life its value. Tattooing is a revolt, and as much as that revolt by ink displays personal meaning on your body it also gives birth to more meaning and to truth. The truth of who you are and what you think is all over your body. The beauty myth doesn’t like truth, and truth is the tattooed person’s sword.

Thank you Naomi Wolf for opening my eyes at a young age and helping me realize that things were not what they seemed. You taught me that I ought to do something about it, to prevent becoming another body trapped in the Iron Maiden. And what I did was I got tattooed.

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