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Don’t Call It a Tramp Stamp: How the Patriarchy Ruined My Tattoo

Yes, there is a dragonfly on my lower back. Yes, I got it in the year 2000. Let's all move on.

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I didn't become a whore in high school. It happened my first year of college, in a tattoo parlor a few blocks off campus. That's where I got my tramp stamp.

It was a permanent scarlet letter, attached to my lumbar region. Instead of the letter ‘A,' I chose a small dragonfly. This wasn't because dragonflies held any deep meaning for me. It just looked good in one of the books of tattoo ideas the jaded guy with the needle pointed me towards. After a short, painful process, I was on my way. The top of the dragonfly's wings peeked out of low-slung jeans, while its whole body emerged at the beach.

At the time, I wasn't aware that getting a lower back tattoo (or LBT, as I'll call them) would someday brand me a slut according to popular culture. It was 2000, a confusing time. Britney Spears was dancing around at the MTV Awards in low-slung skin-tone sparkly pants. 98 Degrees was not yet a punchline.

But now, 15 years later, I'm a member of a small and aging tribe of women in their mid-thirties. We're a secret society. We walk among you, work in your offices, sit next to you at lunch, bound together by the ink secreted just below our waistlines.

"I got it on my 18th birthday," says a 30-something friend about her LBT. "My best girlfriend designed it. It's a moon and star surrounded by pointy squiggles or flames. It signifies nothing. I probably started disliking it a year after I got it. It's not just that it's this unoriginal, very 'I'm an 18 year-old girl' place to get a tattoo. It's that it became sexualized, implied some sort of promiscuousness. If removing it was painless or cheap, I would have done it by now."

There we were: the cancer researcher, the human rights lawyer, the American history PHD, and the girl with the dragonfly tattoo.

I was only able to enjoy my LBT for a few years before it became a complete and total joke. "Tattoo on the lower back?" asks Vince Vaughn's character in 2005's Wedding Crashers. "Might as well be a bullseye." Branded a whore. Must want sex. There's no equivalent phrase for men, no flip expression for the thing Nick Lachey has encircling his bicep even though it's equally emblematic of the early 2000s. It's so hard to come up with a name for bad man tattoos because it's so hard to demean men sexually and boy, do they get upset when you call them date rapists. Herpes early warning signal? Creep signature? American slang has failed me.

What I didn't realize, as an 18-year-old with a penchant for risk-taking and a short-term view of the future, is how having a LBT would make me feel five to 10 years down the road. I let it embarrass me constantly, like at a hippie dippie retreat in upstate California when everyone else was skinny dipping in the hot springs, or a recent Florida wedding where much time was spent poolside with former classmates of my husband. There we were: the cancer researcher, the human rights lawyer, the American history PHD, and the girl with the dragonfly tattoo.

I didn't put much thought into the form my tattoo took, but I distinctly remember why I decided to get it. It was my first time living on my own, and out of the confines of my parents house, I had never felt so free. It was a spontaneous choice during a period of spontaneous choices. I was experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and anything that pushed a boundary. I tried skydiving, and briefly indulged in picking up men and then casually discarding them. That backfired when one night, after the bars shut down, a drunken former suitor bleated, "You never called me!" across a crowded street — a memory that has stayed with me, though not quite as obtrusively as my tattoo. The dragonfly is a permanent reminder of a more carefree time in my life when midriffs ruled, a Seven For All Mankind jean clutch was ‘cool,' and scarf tops were a viable wardrobe option. It was a lark.

Somehow, the joke of the tramp stamp has managed to endure. It's got legs. Aside from Wedding Crashers, it's cropped up belatedly on SNL and How I Met Your Mother. Nicole Richie, basically my tramp stamp style icon, struggled with it on an episode of her show Candidly Nicole in 2013. "It just means a certain thing," she said about the cross descending into her butt crack, "and I just don't want to be a part of that group."

Women do not stand alone in making poor tattoo choices. I spoke recently with a man — an adult professional with children — who, at 18, decided to ink the Aztec sun from the Sublime album "40 Oz. to Freedom" between his shoulder blades. Said man was not particularly obsessed with Sublime. This tragedy bears no catchy name. (By the way, I'm editorializing when I call it a tragedy. He says his tattoo is cool, because it reminds him that he used to be a "badass.")

Historically, women's tattoos have been much more controversial than men's. According to Margot Mifflin, the author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and the Tattoo, tattoos conflict with the belief that "women should be pure, that their bodies should be concealed and controlled, and that ladies should not express their own desires, which is implicit in the very act of permanently marking the skin with imagery that reflects individual tastes."

The "tramp stamp" label might be an outgrowth of social change — one of the last, desperate gasps of a tradition of policing female body art.

Maybe that's why it's so popular for women to get tattoos in places that can easily be covered by clothes. As little foresight as I put into the design, I did make a strategic decision about its placement. This dragonfly wouldn't hurt my aspirations of climbing the corporate ladder. It wouldn't become a shapeless blob if I got pregnant, or gained weight.

Recently, the tramp stamp has been joined by the skank flank, a term for a tattoo on the side of a women's ribcage — a similarly strategic choice of placement, with a similarly insulting name. If you are a woman, and you want to control who can see your tattoo, that still rankles people. If it's visible, you'll be judged, but if you're careful about keeping it from being too prominent, you'll be judged too. I haven't yet heard of a term for tattoos on women's stomachs, or thighs, but I'm sure that as a society we'll find clever rhyming slurs for those spots, too.

Still, tattoos on women are much more accepted today than they were even 15 years ago. In a sociology journal, it was estimated that in the 1990s, only seven percent of women were tattooed, compared to 10 to 20 percent of men. The year 2012 was the first that more women than men got tattoos.

Kids today might scoff at this, but we — the LBT havers of the world — paved the way for today's wider tattoo acceptance. The "tramp stamp" label might be an outgrowth of social change — one of the last, desperate gasps of a tradition of policing female body art. Fifteen years later, millennial celebrities from Rihanna to Lena Dunham to "good girl" types like Hilary Duff are covered in tattoos, and nobody cares. Somehow, being heavily inked is cool, being tattoo-free is cool, but having one demurely-placed symbol is just embarrassing. Think about that next time you see our butterflies, Chinese characters, and ying-yangs.

I have waited — patiently — for LBTs to swing back into style. It's been over 15 years now and so far, nada. Instead, I've witnessed the rise of the stick 'n poke tattoo and septum piercings. So the question remains: Now that I have the means to laser this sucker off, should I? Or would that be folding in the face of the patriarchy, and erasing a significant chapter in my life?


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