[The image features an androgynous person with light brown skin, flexing their bicep in a powerful pose. Their body has numerous tattoos, some geometric and others floral. They are wearing a chest binder.]
When I was younger, I never anticipated being the kind of person with tattoos. I have the pain tolerance of a goldfish, and I’m not exactly edgy or hip. I used to think that tattoos were reserved for rough and tough, leather-donning rock stars – which, if you couldn’t tell, I didn’t exactly fit the bill.
Yet today, I can’t imagine my body without tattoos.
I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 21, only a few short months after I got my first chest binder. I don’t think that is a coincidence, however; my tattoos were not a random decision, but rather, born out of a need to reclaim ownership of my body.
I felt as if I only knew my body on someone else’s terms. I had been told what a “good body” looked like. I had been told what a “woman’s body” looked like. I only knew my body in light of society’s interpretations. And that pressure to conform made me feel empty, confused, and alone.
I knew what society wanted from me. But what did I want?
At first, I didn’t know that I had a choice. But as I reached my early twenties, it became apparent that the emptiness I felt wasn’t going away. “Woman” was a label I was given, but it was never a label that I chose. I didn’t know what the alternative was, but I knew that something had to give.
It wasn’t long after that I embarked on my transition. And as I progressed, my desire to be inked grew. I fantasized about the tattoos I would have, where I would place them, and what they would mean to me.
Exerting control over my body and making it my own was a central part of not only transitioning, but tattooing as well. A tattoo became as much a necessity for me as a chest binder or masculine pronouns.
Having some sense of mastery over my own body was much-needed after years of policing from others. I could still recall the pain of being told by an ex-partner that transitioning would make me ugly and unattractive to him; being told by family that short hair would be the worst mistake I could make; insistence from others that tattoos would ruin me. With every choice I made, it was implied that I was now damaged goods, a less valuable commodity when I dared to step outside of stereotypical “womanhood” and pursue my freedom of gender expression.
I started to question who my body really belonged to.
In spite of the backlash, I pushed forward. Because my body did not exist for other people to objectify, ridicule, or appraise. The value of my body was not about to be measured by somebody else.
When I finally got my first tattoo, I felt a kind of high that I didn’t think was possible.
For too long, it felt like society had created this barrier between my body and myself – telling me what a “good” body looked like, what I should strive to become, and all of the ways that my body was not enough as it was.
I spent hours, bottle in hand, tipping it back and wondering if my body was just a mistake. I had bruised knuckles from punching a reflection that I thought I wasn’t meant to have. I spent my showers looking at the tile on the wall, straight ahead, afraid of what I would feel if I looked at myself for too long.
But as the ink made its way beneath the surface, it was as if I was taking my body back – back from unrealistic ideals, back from gendered rules and roles and expectations, back from this notion that I could never feel happy as I was.
Through the pain of that first tattoo, I felt like I’d reached a breaking point. I settled into the vibrations of the needle, the lines being drawn onto my skin, and my blood warming up in my body. I hadn’t felt this grounded inside myself before.
Before that moment, I’d never felt the gravity of my own self, the space that I occupied, the presence that I held.
I was having an uninterrupted, honest conversation with my body – a body that, for too long, I declared my enemy. Or worse, something I painfully tried to ignore, avoided looking at, avoided knowing.
My tattoo became the gateway to self-love and empowerment.
My androgynous hair, my tattooed arms, my pit hair, my nose ring, my bound chest – these were all intentional choices that I made, directly opposing conventional notions of what was “attractive” and what I should want for myself.
I was self-made. And the act of “making” myself was the best thing I ever did for myself.
[The image features the author, Sam, with his arms raised and his hands behind his head. He is a white, androgynous person with dark-rimmed glasses and short hair. On his left forearm, he has a tattoo of a fox; on his right inner-bicep, he has an intricate feather tattoo.]
When I look in the mirror now, I see a body that is undoubtedly my own. It’s not a collection of parts, not a gender that I was assigned without consent, not a compilation of failings or “not enoughs.” I no longer see a body I am resigned to having; I see a body that I chose of my own freewill.
And as a transgender person, being able to reclaim a body that I did not feel belonged to me was essential to my transition and my healing.
When I look at myself now, I see a beautiful, complicated, queer body that is remarkable in its own right.
My tattoos were born out of a powerful realization that changed my life forever: the realization that I could abandon everything I was told was unquestionable, unfathomable, and impossible. Instead, I could become the person I’d always wanted to be.
Every tattoo on my body is renewed commitment to passionately pursuing my own notions of gender, my own vision of beauty, and my own truth.
And that’s more than just ink. To me, that’s a revolutionary act.