Cover That up! The Stigma around Body Modifications and their Potential as a Form of Resistance

Sage Reynolds

We all have marks on our bodies that distinguish us from others: birthmarks, freckles, stretch marks, wrinkles, veins, moles, scars, and much more. Some people show these unique marks while others do their best to hide them. Some people define their bodies through their marks while others don’t even recognize the freckles on their backs or birthmarks on their butts. The idea that we can add body marks through body modification — “altering the body via adornments” — can frighten, disgust, intrigue, or gratify, depending on the person (Hill et al). The body as a canvas is an idea that some people live by, and in those cases the body modification choice options are endless. This article, however, will focus on tattoos.

How can having body modifications such as tattoos, be a form of body activism and resistance? No matter the stigma, tattoos will always be man-made ink added to one’s skin; this can be seen as unnatural and therefore resistant to body norms. Mindy Fenske, in “Movement and Resistance: (Tattooed) Bodies and Performance,” adds that: “when the parts of the body unite in their active potential for movement… The movement is not designed to intentionally resist discourse; rather it illustrates the inherent incapacity of discourse to control the performance of the body’s materiality as well as the potential for the body to act out through discursive control.” The actual tattoo(s) are not a form of resistance but rather recognizing the body’s modifiability and taking control of the materiality of the body is perhaps an act of resistance and deviance from social norms. Judith Butler, in “From Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” continues this discussion of performance when comparing performativity and performance. Performativity is the rule or how it should be while performance has the potential to be resistant. Taking control of the performance of the body makes space for resistance rather than sticking with the performativity, or the prefigured roles and rules of the body (442).

Resistance varies from person to person. Micheal Atkinson discusses this variety of resistance in terms of gender. In his article/study “Pretty in Ink: Conformity, Resistance, and Negotiation in Women’s Tattooing,” he argues that “women’s tattoos are layered with culturally established, resistant, and negotiated images of femininity” (Atkinson 232). Within a heteronormative, cis-gendered society, women may feel pressure to modify their bodies for the pleasure of the man (hairless, small waist, big boobs, unblemished, etc.). For instance, According to Betty Friedan, in the mid-1900s, women would refuse cancer treatment because it was said to be unfeminine and also “eat a chalk called Metrecal instead of food” to shrink their waist” (Friedan 173). So, for some women, according to Atkinson, making individual decisions to body-modify through tattooing can be a mechanism of resistance to feminine norms. Merely challenging the association between masculinity and tattooing may be a form of resistance and activism within itself.

This idea of control may be the very essence of how tattoos can be a form of resistance. Fenske and Atkinson could be in conversation about mechanisms of resistance. First, Fenske encourages people to recognize the body’s modifiability and therefore take control of its materiality. Taking control of your own body, using personal autonomy, and therefore self-governing your body is a form of resistance against the social norms within a heteronormative, cis-gendered society that Atkinson speaks to. We are all born with natural birthmarks, but the stigma still surrounds how humans decide to mark their skin. When something is stigmatized, room for resistance opens up — resistance against social and gendered norms, against workplace discrimination, and stereotypes around people with body art.

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