More than Just Ink: How Tattoos Were a Vital Part of My Gender Transition


Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

[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.


Not afraid to show off my tattoos!

[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.



My Body is Not Up For Debate: Part I

I’m used to it by now. Every piercing, every tattoo, every wacky hair color, my exasperated mother tells me that I’m going to give her a heart attack — that my “antics” will be the death of her. She then frowns, and in a melodramatic plea, she asks me, “Can you PLEASE not do this again?”

She asks, as if my body and the choices I make regarding it are somehow up for debate. As if my happiness and self-expression are less important than her comfort with my appearance. It’s kind of wild, because my mother seems very concerned with my happiness most of the time, but the second I alter my appearance in a way that makes her unhappy, suddenly it’s not about me anymore.

And the problem I have with this isn’t so much her having an opinion, but rather, the problematic idea that parents — or anyone else, for that matter — feel entitled to instruct people on the decisions they make regarding their body.

Running interference with an adult’s bodily autonomy is, to me, a big no-no.

In a society with very stringent and unforgiving ideas of what a body should and should not look like, we should be celebrating those individuals who have the courage to express themselves in ways that run in opposition to these standards.

Parents who feel that they are entitled to control the bodies of their children — especially and particularly adult children — are misguided in that they are upholding the idea that their body does not belong to them. Further, this perpetuates the harmful idea that we have all grappled with — that how you look and how others perceive your body is far more important than a personal sense of happiness and fulfillment. This emphasis on an “acceptable” appearance creates an unhealthy relationship with our bodies.

I find it funny that so many parents tell young women in particular that who they are on the inside is what matters, and yet the second they modify their bodies or exercise their autonomy in a way that conflicts with their parents’ ideals, that message becomes irrelevant. I was told time and time again growing up that inner beauty was most important, but the second I stepped outside of gender norms or decided to pierce my nose, my external appearance was ridiculed. Many people in my life felt it was their obligation to tell me how they felt about my personal decisions regarding my body.

When I got my first tattoo, I felt a dazzling, dizzying sort of power. After years of being told how to look, how to behave, and how to be accepted, I made a choice for myself. I did something for me and only me. The idea that I could make a choice, at any time, to permanently install some artwork on my fucking body was a revelation for me. This freckled, vast terrain was my own and I could do with it what I wanted. As I was being tattooed, I felt in awe of all that my body could do and feel and become. I made a commitment — a sincere, ongoing commitment — to do what made me happy, regardless of the opinions and policing of others.

I was fed up with being told that a tattoo or a piercing would “ruin” me, as if my body was a commodity depreciating in value.

Hell no. My body is majestic and my body is mine, and it is not up for debate and it is not accepting feedback.

For me, my body modifications are a way of feeling a sense of connectedness with my body, and a stronger sense of my body belonging to me. I consider tattoos and piercings, among many things, a radical act of reclaiming ownership. In a culture which damns my personal self-expression, I am making a decision to pursue what I believe is beautiful in spite of a stigmatization of this body. This makes me feel empowered. I have chosen my own happiness over the contradicting and narrow ideals of what makes a body beautiful, and instead, I am celebrating my own ideals of beauty. I am adorning my body in a way that makes me feel both lovely and powerful.

If we truly want to raise young people to accept themselves and love themselves, we must stop policing their bodies. Whether it’s their size, their choice in clothing, their dye job, or their tattoos, if we want to be a society that celebrates uniqueness and inner beauty, we must stop being hypocritical and accept ALL bodies. This starts at home, with parents encouraging a healthy body image and exploration of self-expression. While everyone has an opinion these days, it is not your place or job to express that opinion in a way that makes the recipient feel pressured or shamed for exercising their bodily autonomy.

At the end of the day, a person’s body belongs to that individual alone, and it is their right to exist in that body and adorn it however they see fit.

And for the record, I think my purple hair and nose ring look hella cute, Mom.