A Marked Misconception: Tattooed Women & The Male Gaze

by the avi salem


Though tattooed women have been a part of American culture since the late nineteenth century, their recent dominance within the tattoo industry and in the media at large has been a phenomenon of the past twenty years. The evolution of the tattooed woman from circus freak to celebrity and her overall acceptance in society has been a marker for what many feminists believe to be great progress for women’s equality. What is the basis for her sudden acceptance into tattooing, an elitist club that was solely reserved for men for over a century? It would be naïve to assume that women have reversed gender roles within tattooing in the past two decades while gender equality in the workplace and in households is still far off in the horizon. From a second wave feminist perspective, the newfound popularity of tattooed women in the media has turned gender stereotypes on their head and allowed space for women within a subculture that has historically been dominated by males. This is led by the belief that women as the subordinate gender can subvert dominant gender roles that work against them by resisting them from within their own gender. I postulate that white women are not empowering themselves by showing off their tattoos because the act of displaying their body art in itself entraps women into the gender stereotypes they wish to resist. Additionally, women who tattoo themselves as a form of self-acceptance, resistance, or rebellion against dominant gender ideals actually conform to preexisting gender roles by falling into or outside of the defined boundaries of femininity, perpetuating sexism.

Over the course of this essay, I will establish that representations of women’s bodies in American society today are part of a constructed ideal that sexualizes and marginalizes them. After determining the root factors of women’s body construction, I will apply this theory to tattoos to show that the same unsaid rules that restrict women’s bodies in more conventional and normalized rituals such as dieting and fashion apply to tattooing as well. I will continue with explaining second wave feminism and its shortcomings, most importantly highlighting its unintentional acceptance and allowance of the male gaze’s permeance in tattoo culture. Finally, I will grapple with the idea of sex positivity in relation to tattooed women by introducing ideas by the third wave of feminism that argues female body liberation perpetuates existing gender roles. It should be noted that tattoos in modern American society are a much different experience for women of color than they are for white women, and for the purposes of this paper I will focus on the interconnected relationship between white tattooed women and a white feminist movement that together have perpetuated gender inequality within the subculture of tattooing because of the privileged perspective they come from.

The idealized image of women’s bodies has been established and constructed historically in a way that sexualizes and marginalizes them because they have been deemed the subordinate gender in American society. Because of this, women are subject to an array of rules and regulations that govern their bodies, as it is the most external part of them and allows men to gaze at them. The woman’s gendered body becomes a site on which images, ideologies, and principles of the dominant male gender are displayed. The skin acts as the first external barrier to the outside world and is therefore a highly contested site where marginalization takes place. The shape and appearance of women’s skin is manipulated and “shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex” to satisfy the dominant gender’s ideals (Butler 129). These political forces aim to maintain existing gender roles in order to sustain their own dominant power, asserted by upholding strict idealized and sexualized forms of the female body that only benefit men’s desires. Images are figuratively and literally transcribed onto the female body, presenting a variety of unattainable and opposing ideals women are told to follow. Women must be thin in certain places and voluptuous in others; they must use makeup to be attractive but not too much makeup so as to not appear “fake.” Women must adhere to strict diets to maintain “desirable” figures and appear in form and personality as appealing to the male gender. Women abide by these unsaid codes because it is their societal expectation to do so; going against the ideal image constructed for women ostracizes them. If women stray outside what is defined by men as “slender” or “feminine” they are categorized as undesirable.

The ideals projected onto women’s skin extend to the literal marking of the skin through tattooing, creating the same unrealistic and oppressive standards within the subculture. As Patricia MacCormack describes in her essay “The Great Ephemeral Tattooed Skin,” “Skin refers to everything from genetic sex to gender enactment…skin itself marks the body as both taking up space and existing within a particular space…it is impossible to refer to one without the other being included” (60). Skin itself is loaded with a plethora of literal and figurative meanings and images. From its adornments to its color to its curves, bumps, and protrusion, skin is a “loaded” part of the female body that makes a political statement simply by existing. Female skin is gendered skin, existing as subordinate to men’s and embracing every stereotype or negative association made about women within in. The associations historically established and perpetuated in society between women and their flesh is ingrained in all aspects of life, even subcultures that consider themselves counterculture or against the norm, such as tattooing. Women are trapped in a cycle of maintaining sexuality and femininity as defined by men. Not conforming to the stereotypes of femininity also traps women labeling them as “other,” which is considered undesirable. Escaping gendered and generalized associations made with women and their skin is unattainable because even disengaging with stereotypes further traps women in a history of sexism that is perpetuated by both male and female genders. These stereotypes classify and define women into categories of desirable versus undesirable depending on how women choose to respond to the idealized versions of the female body. Regardless of whether or not women fall into or outside of these categories is irrelevant because they are stereotyped in either scenario.

“Skin rebellion” through the act of tattooing is actually skin conformity within the existing hierarchy—the attempt to subvert dominance simply entraps women further into gender stereotypes. The praise tattooed women receive from society is not empowering but is a direct representation of the dominant male-driven ideologies that sexualize and fetishize the female body for having tattoos. Women who believe they are empowering themselves or other women by doing so are trapped in the sexist mentality that perpetuates their subordinate position in society. Acceptance and praise for tattooed women through their presence in the media is a negotiated form of empowerment. Momentary “power” in the form of praise and acceptance is granted to women on a very small level while males still grasp the dominant power over women within society as a whole. Women’s “power” over their bodies through tattooing does not negate the myriad ways women are oppressed by men. For example, women’s participation within the tattoo industry through tattoo contests becomes less about women owning or liberating their own bodies and more about the spectacle it presents for men. In Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, Margo DeMello explains that in witnessing a tattoo competition “women who enter their tattooed bodies in the contests are being judged as much for their physical appearance as for their tattoos, and the women who garner the most attention…are generally the most attractive and/or have the most skin showing” (31). The “positive” attention women garner from entering such competitions provides them with praise and momentary power; this can easily be interpreted as also having power over their bodies. This power is, however, false. It provides more complacency within the existing hierarchy than actually reversing gender roles. Women possess no power over their bodies when they are positioned in a way that only benefits men’s desires. Society reinforces the belief that positive attention can be translated into power but the definition of “positive” in relation to women’s bodies is convoluted and skewed. The attention women get is not based off of any factor that elevates their societal position but solely benefits men’s desires to gaze and hold ownership over women’s bodies.

Another example of this is the focus on women’s physical bodies and appearances in tattoo publications. Inked Magazine is a tattoo and culture magazine that self-describes its content as “packed with stunning photography, cutting edge content, and the latest in fashion, music, art, and pop culture” (InkedMagazine.com). However, the contents of its magazine and website focus much less on substance and more on the scantily clad women that adorn its pages. In fact, the navigation bar on Inked Magazine’s website lists “girls” as a category for viewing before artists, videos, articles, and tattoos (Appendix 1). The magazine’s claim that its webpages and print cover topics of culture and art is debatable when tattooed women are the bulk and highlight of its content. Furthermore, users have the ability to view nude tattooed women, filtering them by ethnicity, body type, and tattoo style. Women are literally filtered and categorized by limiting and demeaning descriptions like “A Few Extra Pounds,” “Average,” “Athletic,” “Latin” and “Asian” (Appendix 2). These descriptions filter women for the sole purpose of making it easier for men to effectively search for a “type” that appeals to them. These tattooed women are posing for pornographic material under the presumption that their body art constitutes self-ownership of their bodies. The reality is that the tattooed woman’s body has been objectified and commodified to the point that it can be refined on a search engine. A woman’s tattooed body no longer serves the purpose of displaying the artwork but instead enables a fetishization and domination of the female body by the dominant male ideology and gaze. Inked Magazine displays nude or almost-nude tattooed women on their print magazine covers as well; in the seven issues released from June 2013 to present, every cover has been adorned by a nude woman. Ironically, most of the women featured are barely tattooed (Appendix 3, 4). This further proves the point that tattooed women are positioned in highly sexualized roles that ultimately end up demeaning or trapping them in the existing stereotypes that are present in a male-driven American society. The tattooed woman is given a negotiated amount of “freedom” in that she is not typecast as demure, obedient, and submissive, which are now deemed stereotypes of the past. She is given the power to be “edgy” by extension of her body art but is still very much a part of the existing power structure because she is still fetishized and sexualized for the tattoos she is told are going against societal norms.

Moreover, women are further repressed by the dominant male ideologies in western society as applied to the styles and placements of tattoos on the female body. Women are again categorized and “allowed” certain types of tattoos that fall under the gendered categorization of women—straying outside of these defined boundaries of femininity ostracize women and marginalize them as unattractive and unworthy. In Michael Atkinson’s extensive study of white tattooed women in Canada, he interviews forty white women who give firsthand accounts of what their tattoos mean to them. He notes that overall, tattooed women perform established femininity through their tattoos in their attempts to subvert it, concluding tattoos are “acts of consent to the underlying structures of figurational power distribution” (Atkinson 224). Tattoos serve less of a rebellious purpose and give into existing stereotypes much more than they subvert them. Attempts at “rebellion” often lie within the existing gendered schema and the power rebellious women wield is fetishized. Similarly, more conventional and societally normalized body modifying rituals like dieting and plastic surgery reside under the same metaphorical roof as tattoos as they are all subject to the power and gaze of men, which subjugates women to “self-improvement” under the specifications of a dominating gender’s sexist beliefs. The fact that tattoos are less common and more taboo leads women to believe that this form of body modification falls outside the gaze of men and therefore gives them power to subvert the male gaze and “own” their bodies. This ownership is still highly negotiated. Women modify through tattoos to enhance aspects of themselves that have already been sexualized which further marginalizes them. Tattoos become just another “reproduction of the established cultural standard that women conform to men’s desires and sexual interests—to the extent that a woman will radically modify her body in the process of such conformity” (Atkinson 225). This is evident in the encounters Atkinson has with tattooed women and the many interviews he has with them. Some women admit to tattooing themselves to please their significant others, others admit they do not get tattooed in certain places because their significant others would disapprove or even threaten to leave them (Atkinson 224). Celeste, 24, admits: “I want [my boyfriend] to be attracted to me, and appreciate how I look, and I don’t want a tattoo to ruin that” and Ashlyn, 28, says: “I chose tattooing because it makes me look great, and it draws attention to my body…guys are really cool about my tattoo, and no one has ever said that I look less of a woman for having it. I mean, as long as I don’t go out and tattoo a snake across my neck” (Atkinson 224-225). Both women have negotiated their terms for tattooing themselves to fit the preexisting hierarchy that prefers men’s ideals over women’s. The limitations these women have on getting tattooed is obvious yet is not questioned by either subject. The rules women must adhere to are unsaid but powerful; the former subject alters her self-image based on what her male partner tells her and accepts it as reality. The latter subject believes she is choosing tattooing because looking great gives her power, yet suggests that the idea of a tattoo on the neck (where it would be noticeable at all times) is wrong, stemming from a preexisting belief that imagery deemed unattractive by men is inherently wrong. Tattoos are acceptable only if they compliment the constructed female form or sexualize it, and women accept this as reality. This establishes that women are unknowingly centering their personal belief systems on a hierarchy that is already in place, conforming to a strict body code that rules their decision-making. Ultimately, women’s quest to tattoo themselves is not to self-empower but to transmit power into the hands of the dominant gender in society.

The role of second wave feminism and its belief that “loud and proud” women subvert stereotypes is partially to blame as it perpetuates the male gaze and further entraps women in gender roles. The belief that gender roles can be subverted by resisting them from within the existing gender hierarchy is ineffective; it calls to act against the complacent, obedient, and demure stereotype of women by acting in the opposite way as resistant, loud, and promiscuous. I am not arguing that one stereotype is better than the other; instead, I suggest that all feminine stereotypes are ultimately controlled by the same overpowering male ideology. Second wave feminist belief demands equality between sexes by encouraging women to participate actively in a way other than what is societally expected of them, but that, too, is dominated by patriarchal beliefs. Judith Butler, a highly praised gender theorist during the second wave of feminism, notes in her book Gender Trouble that “the deregulation of such exchanges accordingly disrupts the very boundaries that determine what it is to be a body at all” (133). Butler’s theory argues that a deregulation of normative body practices changes gender roles and therefore forces a reanalysis of what “normal” is, yet does not take into consideration how the terms by which women “subvert” power further restricts them. “Sex positivity,” a tenet of second wave feminist belief, essentially invites the male gaze to take center stage—by doing the opposite of what is expected of them, women end up attracting attention, and by extension, the gaze they wish to break free from. The beliefs promoted by second wave feminism are inherently problematic because of whom they come from; comprised of mostly white and middle-class women, second wave feminism promotes feminism from a place of privilege in society. The claim Butler and many of her colleagues make is representative of their status as white women in society. Women of color face an array of greater challenges that white women do not, proving that this subversion is rather ineffective for women as a collective group. In relation to tattoos, the same privileges apply. Unlike factors for discrimination women are born with like their sex and skin color, tattoos are self-inflicted and could even be described as self-subordinating. This is a phenomenon unique to white women as it is done out of privilege in society as compared to women of color. The belief that changing the gender hierarchy in society through sexual subversion is false. There is only false power in sexuality because female sexuality is defined and enforced by men. Objectification still exists when tattooed women are only accepted in the media when their tattoos compliment their conditioned bodies. Their power is still negotiated—the praise they are given for gracing magazine covers or starring in films is a small freedom they are given but their bodies are still dominated by a patriarchal society that defines what femininity is or is not.

Third wave feminism argues that sex positivity is not equal to women’s progress and challenges the sexism second wave feminism perpetuates. The pro sexuality movement spurred by second wave feminism continues to spectaclize women and keeps them oppressed through preexisting gender roles. Elisa Glick explains in her essay “Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression” the problems the sex positive movement has caused for women instead of helping them rise out of oppression; she argues that women’s “…refusal to ‘draw the line’ actually remains within the schema of sexual hierarchy and value that sex radicals set out to critique in the first place” (24). Acting promiscuous and “showing off” (in opposition to covering up and acting modest as certain stereotypes suggest) traps women in the same cycle of sexualization and marginalization. The female body is already established as a highly criticized and constructed ideal in our society; women who assert their sexuality as an act of rebellion inadvertently sustain men’s ability to dominate that gendered form. Third wave feminism seeks to find different subversive tactics for reversing gender roles in arenas that power can be ascertained such as the workplace and in politics while maintaining that second wave feminism’s damage has divided feminist thought and led many women to believe that what they are doing is bettering themselves and other women. The influence of second wave feminism and its unintended negative effects on women is apparent today through groups like Suicide Girls. Suicide Girls is the result of a sex positive movement that has given false power to women under the pretense that they are liberating themselves through sexual promiscuity and openness. Featured on a website that users can only access by paying a membership fee, Suicide Girls is a collective of modified, tattooed, and pierced women who are selected as models and are paid based on their popularity on the site. Suicide Girls claim that “what some people think makes us strange, or weird, or fucked up, we think is what makes us beautiful. This is our idea of beauty redefined” (SuicideGirls.com). Their mission statement demonstrates the inherently problematic issue with sex positive feminism that third wave feminism calls out—beauty “redefined” intends to change or overturn gender stereotypes but actually contributes to the preexisting sexist hierarchy that fetishizes tattooed women. The “Suicide Girls” consider themselves unique because of their body art positions them outside of normal feminine stereotypes yet are still subject to objectification by the dominating gender. Tattoos become another avenue for dominating women, “forming another plane of the traditional ornamentation of women” (MacCormack 64). Tattoos become another accessory of many aimed at creating an idealized female form that is completely unrealistic. White women who choose to tattoo as a means of redefining or taking ownership of their bodies end up contributing to the same dominating force that they attempt to undermine. Women are still made into a spectacle or something to look at regardless of their intent for self-adorning.

Whether women are praised for displaying their tattoos freely, or criticized for asserting themselves when men gaze at their tattooed bodies, they fall under a larger scheme of hierarchal power that has always had control over them and their bodies. The female body has been established in a way that makes it lesser; chopped up, reconstructed, and packaged as something unattainable that women still strive for in almost all aspects of life. But in what ways is the white female body constructed in relation to tattoos, a ritual once deemed acceptable for men? As a tattooed woman who looks white but is ethnically foreign, my interests in exploring the experiences of tattooed women today in American culture stemmed from my own identity and my questioning of my place within tattooing. When I first became tattooed, I hid my body art from friends and family in the fear that I would be criticized because of it. As I became more involved in tattoo art and began tattooing parts of my body that I normally show such as my upper arms and knees, I began to garner unwanted attention, not from my family, but from strangers. I was heckled, touched without my permission, and harassed for wearing tattoos and almost all of that attention came from men. These men often positioned me in extremely uncomfortable situations. When I would avoid them, call them out, or talk back, I was told that I should expect the attention because I had made the decision to tattoo myself—the consequences of such an action were inevitable. My interests in body politics and feminism attracted me to researching the relationship between tattooed women and the positive attention they receive by men for having them, a phenomenon of the past two decades. I felt empowered from getting tattoos but felt threatened wearing a sleeveless shirt outside. Why did I feel like I had to cover myself up for having tattoos unless I played along with getting all the attention from men? This question led to me find the inherently problematic issues with tattooed women and the male gaze, something I found especially problematic in relation to white women whose motivations for tattooing themselves came from privileged perspective of rebellion, self-acceptance, and empowerment. The “empowerment” women feel does not translate to actual power as a gender in society. Instead, it is a negotiated power that makes women feel praised and accepted by men in exchange for men’s ownership over their bodies. Tattooed women are promoted in the media as edgy and rebellious but their acts of freeing themselves allows men to fetishize their edginess, contain it, and keep women subordinate. Tattooing for women has always been and continues to be a form of entertainment for men. Sexual or otherwise, tattooed women serve a purpose for men’s gaze and desires. Tattoos have proven to be just another accessory to women’s body adornment, disguised as something powerful and liberating simply because it is not as ritualized as women’s beauty standards are.


Works Cited

Atkinson, Michael. “Pretty in Ink: Conforming, Resistance, and Negotiation in Women’s Tattooing.” Sex Roles 47.5/6 (2002): 219-233. Web. 1 May 2014.

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 25-44. Web.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990. Web.

DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.

Glick, Elisa. “Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression.” Feminist Review 64.1 (2000): 19-45. Web.

Inked Magazine. Inked. Quadra, 2014. Web. 1 June 2014.

MacCormack, Patricia. “The Great Ephemeral Tattooed Skin.” Body & Society 12.2 (2006): 58-80. Web.

Saint, Warwick. The Sex Issue. Feb. 2013. Inked Magazine. JPEG file.

—. The Style Issue. Mar. 2010. Inked Magazine. JPEG file.