On having tattoos and being a female athlete

I suck at selfies.  Sorry.

I suck at selfies. Sorry.

This past weekend, my tattoo artist Derek and I started work on what will ultimately become a half-sleeve, meant to commemorate my experience at the Keys ultra. The first stage is done, a bouquet of tropical flowers and palm frond on my left shoulder that is currently itching and peeling under my cardigan. When everything is complete, my upper arm will be a tropical jungle of brightly-colored flowers and birds.

When people find out that I have several tattoos, they are often surprised.  “You don’t seem like the kind of woman to have a lot of ink,” they say.  I get it.  I have that kind of middle-class, wholesome, blonde-ponytail, white-teeth aura specific to those of us brought up as Utah Mormons.  My people do garments, not tattoos.

Truthfully I don’t have any of the markers that would indicate I belong to a tattoo-friendly subculture.  I don’t do the rockabilly-pinup thing, or any sort of musical subculture, really.  I hate motorcycles.  Whenever I go to punk-ish things, I’m usually the least punk person in the building.

But the thing is, I am part of a tattoo-friendly subculture.  It’s just one that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of.

If you ever find yourself lining up at a race or milling around on a beach before a triathlon swim, you’ve probably noticed the same thing, which is that a lot of the people taking part in the races have tattoos.  Big ones, ones that cover thighs and backs and upper arms and shoulders.  Tattoos that are usually hidden by business casual clothes or race t-shirts or khaki shorts.

A lot of the athletes who have them are women, particularly women like myself, who occupy that vast chronological terrain known as “middle age.” One female triathlete with a sleeve of roses and ivy twining around her arm competes in the 60-64 age group.  A runner who races in the 40-44 age group has a big piece on her upper thigh that peeks out from her running shorts.  And the back pieces!  So many back pieces!

I see this so often that I’ve started wondering if there’s a connection between the two.  I feel like there is, but every time I’ve tried to pin it down, I feel like I’m missing something, like maybe I’m trying to make the leap to a conclusion that isn’t there.  That said, I know there is a connection for me, so here’s my attempt to articulate that connection. I hope that those of you who are athletes with lots of tattoos will weigh in on this as well.

I’ve liked the aesthetics of tattoos for as long as I could remember, as my stepfather had several from his time as an enlisted Marine.  I rarely saw them otherwise, as I lived in Utah, but when I did see them I always marveled at how beautiful I thought they were.  So when I turned eighteen, one of the first things I did was get a tattoo on my lower back.  Now those tattoos are hatefully referred to as “tramp stamps” but at the time I liked the placement because that’s where Drew Barrymore had one.  (So 90s, omg.)

I would have gotten more, but then I met my future ex-husband.  My future ex-husband hated tattoos on women.  Every time I brought up the idea of getting another one, he squashed it.  “I’m the one who has to look at it, and I say no,” he’d say.  So for several years, my skin remained needle-free, until two months after I left, and a woman named Jill etched a phoenix in solid black lines on my upper back.  It was one of the first of several “fuck you”s offered to my old existence, a way of reclaiming my body for myself.

Saying “fuck you” to perceived authority is fine when you are younger – or, in my case, a newly-free divorcee – but at some point it becomes wise to allow principles aside from gut-driven defiance to guide your life, which is what I did.  Over the next few years, I etched my body with symbols of my love of writing, my loyalty to my best friend Brandi, my pride in the woman I was becoming.

At the same time, I was slowly transforming myself into an athlete, first a runner and then a triathlete.  I lifted weights and started eating for strength, and grinned at my reflection in the mirror as I posed and flexed all of my baby muscles. The woman in the mirror looked strong and capable, and eventually I started to understand that she – that I – was strong and capable, and that it wasn’t just the muscles or sinew, but that it was who I actually had become.

In a way, I feel like the tattoos are a visible reflection of that toughness and that strength.  There’s a part of me that rolls my eyes a bit at equating tattoos with toughness, but let’s be realistic – anyone who can sit still while being stabbed with a needle a billion times in a row is probably pretty tough.  (In fact, a coworker paid the best compliment to me the other day after seeing my new tattoo.  He said, “You got this done…and you ran fifty miles?  You look like a choir girl, but you’re as strong as three men!”)

Tattoos and athletics are also two ways in which I’ve taken back ownership of my body, after years upon years of feeling as though my body belonged to everyone but me.  The recent Isla Vista shootings brought up a mess of gnarly feelings for me, not least of which is this gnawing ball of resentment that surfaces when I am confronted with someone who believes that women are trophies, like we are stuffed animals that can be won by scoring enough manhood points at the county sex fair and then taken home to sit on a shelf alongside the BMW and the condo in South Beach.

I’ve been with men who saw me as proof that they had “won” at being men, and it was the one of the most dehumanizing experiences I have ever had.  In these relationships, my thoughts, my opinions, and my feelings didn’t matter.  It’s not that they were secondary to my partner’s.  It’s that they didn’t even exist at all.

To be a human being, I had to learn how to say “I want…” and “I like…” and “I need…” and “I feel…” I had to learn how to even figure out what it was I wanted and what I liked and what I needed and what I felt.  I had to learn how to give precedence to my own tastes and desires over those of others, and to be comfortable with the fact that doing so might make some people not like me as much, or like me at all, really.

This bent toward self-determination marks me – and others like me – as a bit of a gender rebel.  We’ve had a few decades of liberation movements in our society, and while a lot has changed, some habits still die hard, and among them is the belief that a proper woman is focused first and foremost on becoming the prettiest little ornament she can possibly be.

We female athletes know the limitations that come with being an objet d’art in someone else’s collection. We know how it constrains you and makes you small and makes it hard to breathe.  We know the joys that come with shin scrapes from the barbell, hair fried from sun and chlorine, tan lines not easily hidden under clothing, toenails that make pedicurists shudder slightly, traps and quads that can barely be constrained by our clothes.  We know how big and powerful this makes us feel, how it makes the world seem like it can barely contain our immenseness. The idea of giving all that up just so some random guy can find us attractive for a minute…well, it hardly seems like a fair trade at all.

So I don’t get upset when I hear people talk about how unattractive they find tattoos on women; I just think, “Good, it’s not for you anyway.”  When I hear derision about women with muscles or female athletes, I think, “That’s too bad for you.”

I don’t believe I owe prettiness to any person who walks past, that I am obligated to be as sexually appealing to as many people as possible.  I don’t believe any of us do.

What I do with my body, I do to please myself, whether it’s working on developing the strength to do a pull-up or practicing smooth application of liquid eyeliner or sitting for four hours while a tattoo artist injects ink into the skin on my arms or running ten hours through the Florida Keys in the summer heat.

You don’t have to like or understand any of it, because again, it’s not for you.

67 responses to “On having tattoos and being a female athlete

  1. LOOOOVE your tattoo and love this article. I’m tat-free because I haven’t thought of anything I like enough to be permanently part of my body and also because I’m a big ole chicken.

    • Thank you! Yeah, tattoos aren’t for everyone. I think it helps to think of it as art you wear on your body, especially if you find a really talented artist who does good work. But again, they aren’t for everyone! (And they do hurt like whoa, omg.)

  2. Yes! I got a crow tattoo on my back last year (first tattoo, early 30s), and it was very much tied to running becoming a serious part of my life. Something to do with acknowledging the physical-ness and the goodness of my body.

    • “Something to do with acknowledging the physical-ness and the goodness of my body.”

      Oh good, so you feel this way too. It’s so interesting to me that so many of us seem to have made a similar connection. I love it.

  3. I totally agree with you and a tattoo is very personal and has to have its timing. My tattoo I finally got because I was able to have the experience of an amazing artist Sampson Harp to traditionally hand tap my turtle. I love it but now I want to add to it

    • I just did a search, and are you referring to the artist who works in Maui? If so his work is GORGEOUS, and no wonder you leapt at the opportunity. I’ve seen video of hand-tapping before and the work is always so amazing. (And also ❤ turtles.) Do you have a photo of your tattoo that I can see?

  4. I love this article. One of my goals to accomplish before I turn 30 (when I will make new goals) is to get a tattoo and I am working hard to decide on what/where to get. (Also run a marathon, learn a foreign language, pay off credit card debt.)

    • Those are all worthy goals! What foreign language are you thinking about learning? One of my great sadnesses in life is that I only speak English. 😦

  5. I love the beginning of your tattoo — I know it’ll be a long process but I can’t wait to see the finished product, it’s beautiful! And I absolutely love this description. You have such an eloquent way with words, sometimes it’s like you’re peeling thoughts out of my head and giving them a makeover 🙂 Anyway, I adore tattoos. I only have 2 on myself (one, a tramp stamp, but like you I got it before they were called that!) and one on my foot that reads “joie de vivre”. Whenever I look down I have a little reminder to enjoy this life I have, and I love that. My aunt recently asked me if I was sober when I got it — I just smiled and nodded, because it was obvious she just didn’t really get it that it wasn’t just some silly ink, it’s something that I want to carry with me forever. And even if it was just silly ink, it’s my silly ink, and I love it!

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad this resonated with you.

      And your aunt, LOL. I’ve seen some tattoos where I’ve thought similar things – like, the lady who tattooed “EXIT ONLY” above her butt? Had to be drunk or high, HAD TO – but I’ve never said it out loud, and I can’t imagine saying it out loud about something as sweet as the tattoo you described.

  6. It’s hard when someone dislikes what you choose to do with your body so much. I’ve always admired tattoos, but my family not so much. I’ve received comments about the potential dangers of tattoos, the associations, and overall implying that there is something fundamentally wrong with me for getting tattoos. My favorite comment however was the “how do you think it makes ME feel??”.
    It took me a long time to be able to stand up for myself and demand that my body (and the art that it’s adorned with) is not to be an unsolicited topic of discussion, but so liberating.

    • I totally hear you. I hid my first tattoo for a long time because I knew that part of my family would not approve at all. I suspect that they still don’t, but they also respect that I’m my own person who gets to make her own decisions, which is all anyone can ask for. Even so there comes a point at which you just have to own your decisions and be comfortable with the fact that not everyone will approve of them. The alternative – trying to constantly please everyone – is a really unsatisfying and difficult way to live.

      I feel sad for the person who said that comment to you. It’s not as if you are doing hard drugs or something that actually could have harmful repercussions on your life and the lives of those around you. I’m sure they are just concerned, but still.

  7. I absolutely love this post! I have several tattoos, but I haven’t gotten one in about 5 years. I’ve recently been wanting to get one again, but it’s *different* now that I’m on the fitness journey. It means something more than what my tattoos ever meant before. Now it’s about that strength and taking-up-space-ness that you’re talking about here, and I love to hear that others feel the same way! In a way, my tattoos before were more… aspirational? They filled in spaces that I wanted to fill, both literally and figuratively. Now, the tattoos that I want to get are to accent and celebrate the spaces that I’ve filled on my own, through my hard work and dedication.

    • “They filled in spaces that I wanted to fill, both literally and figuratively. Now, the tattoos that I want to get are to accent and celebrate the spaces that I’ve filled on my own, through my hard work and dedication.”

      Ahhhh, I love this. Perfect.

  8. Such a great post! I love that you took back your body, regarding this issue, esp. after the ex-husband incident. I would have LOVED to have a tattoo, feel some are so beautiful and well done (like yours!) but have always been afraid. Afraid of needles and also afraid of choosing something that I’ll love forever. But have dreamed it would be nice, no actually empowering, to have one. Subtle. But something nonetheless…thanks for your post!

    • Thank you! I will say that while they do hurt, the pain isn’t unbearable. Just do some deep breathing and maybe take a stress ball to squeeze. So if you ever do come across something you’d like to get as a tattoo, don’t let the pain deter you. 🙂

  9. LOVE THIS! I have a large piece on my back that’s generally hidden with clothes AND I get told all the time that I don’t seem like the kind to person to have tattoos. That being said, while I proudly show mine off when I think it’s appropriate, I didn’t get them for others. I got them for me and that’s enough.

      • I have a collection of dogwood flowers and cherry blossoms punctuated by moths (that most people think are butterflies) and bees. It starts at the top of my right shoulder and flows down right side and curls under my right shoulder blade/under arm where my bra strap hits. So, technically not a back piece per se, but a large one on my back for someone who’s 5’2″.

  10. Wonderful, wonderful post! I don’t have any tattoos (or piercings, not even earrings, haha) but I can definitely empathize with you. Women should do whatever makes them comfortable and what they like – whether it is tattoos, not shaving, funky short haircuts (I chopped off 16 inches recently), clothing choice – without any pressure to please ~the mens~ or anyone else.

    I’ve thought a lot recently about appearance while working out. I’ve trained with women who were really preoccupied with how they would look while running. I definitely used to care too when I began running more seriously and would stress out about how my running outfits looked but I’ve gained a lot of confidence since then (thanks running) and now I know I am working out for me, screw how others think I look since it absolutely doesn’t matter. Not that my complete lack of attention to my appearance prevents the cat calling, but that’s another topic…

    Hope you love the final outcome of your sleeve! Seems like you will. 🙂

    • Yeah, you really can’t care too much about how you look when you run. I mean, it’s one thing to put together a snazzy outfit for a race or whatever, but you really can’t worry about how red your face is or your hair getting jacked up. Not only does it ruin the enjoyment that comes with running, but it also is a good way to ensure you’ll never get faster. I’d suggest any woman who is concerned about those things to watch the frontrunners of a race and see how little those women seem to care about how sweaty they are or whatever. Take care with your appearance when it pleases you, but don’t let it confine you or limit your abilities!

  11. Fuck. Yes. I don’t have any tattoos (also among those undecided as to what to get permanently), but I LOVE the idea of getting a big-ass tattoo that takes up a good deal of visual space on the skin, much like those of us who are interested in things like weightlifting and the like are largely OK with taking up more physical space than a woman “should” in order to appear desirable. Calling attention to those areas that defy the shoulds vis-a-vis tattoos is even better.

    • “Calling attention to those areas that defy the shoulds vis-a-vis tattoos is even better.”

      This is awesome. Love it!

  12. I. Love. This. I’ve gotten two smallish tattoos on my wrists and want to get bigger ones, and I get the reaction you mentioned above pretty often. I didn’t get them to show off, I get all of them for me because it’s my body and I like them.

  13. Great post! I just have one tattoo — a big old sunflower way up on my right leg — but it reminds me of strength and optimism every time I look at it. Keep calm and ink on 😉

  14. Fantastic post! I think that, regardless of the mode of expression, many women like myself can strongly identify with the urge to “mark our territories” and physically stake a claim to assert that our bodies are our own. For me, it’s my long hair that does this (although I know that might sound oddly non-rebellious.) when I first rejected the idea of the role of women in patriarchal society, I thought that it had to mean rejecting womanhood altogether, so cut my hair super-short and wore men’s clothes for a few years. I came to realize that I wanted to embrace womanhood in an empowered way, but that I was afraid to – we only have to look at how women are blamed for all kinds if make misconduct to see why. Growing my hair long again – as inconvenient as it is for an athlete – was my way to slowly grow into a more empowered experience of womanhood.

    So I can totally identify with your story about tattoos! I think most female athletes have to go through a similar process of breaking out of societal limitations, and perhaps use tattoos in a similar way.

    • You know, I totally get what you are saying about growing out your hair long. I’ve been going through something similar regarding makeup. I rejected it for a long time, mainly because I was not comfortable with social constructs of what it meant to be feminine or a woman, but as I became more confident in myself, I decided to explore all of the things coded feminine that I had avoided in the past. One of the things I discovered that I love is makeup. I find everything about it so enjoyable, and I’ve wholeheartedly embraced it as part of who I am. So I very, very much understand and identify with your feelings about your hair, because I’ve got similar feelings myself.

  15. What a wonderful post. I love the idea of connecting tattoos to being an athlete. My four are all over 13 years old, got them long before I became an athlete, but I enjoy having some of them on display while running or working out.

    One of my favorite comments ever was from a guy who looked at me and said, “you do not look like someone who would have tattoos!”

  16. So much yes in this post. Although I didn’t do it through tattoos, I connect so much with what you said about reclaiming ownership of your body. Anorexia, depression and an abusive relationship made me feel like my body didn’t belong to me any more, and it took me a while to work out how to claim it back. (Strength training and wearing cute underwear on days you know nobody will see except you are both very empowering!) Also your tattoo is GORGEOUS and I can’t wait to see the full thing!

    • Thanks! And good on you for being able to recover from so much, and to find a way to thrive, cute underwear and all. 🙂

  17. One of my friends just got a sleeve and she gets so many nasty comments about it from strangers who just walk up to her and express their unwanted opinion. I don’t have any tattoos but I’ve been thinking about getting one for 18 months – if I make it to two years without changing my mind, I’m going to go for it. I look forward to seeing the finished product of yours.

    • My best friend has tattoos all over her forearm, and she told me about a guy who approached her at a bar and asked why she basically wanted to deface herself like that. She laughed at him and walked off. Honestly, the lack of manners exhibited by some people consistently appalls me.

      Also, I think two years of being settled on a design/placement is a good standard. Any ideas as to what you might be getting and where?

  18. I don’t have any tattoos, but I go through periods of being sorely tempted. I guess I worry that I’ll regret it (although I’m 37 and don’t regret my stretched earlobes!) or – pathetically – that my mum will disapprove (I’m 37, FGS).

    I totally agree with you on the “not for you” thing. God it annoys me when people assume everything we do is for the benefit/pleasure of others. When I decided not to have kids (had my tubes tied at 24) I knew it was the right decision for me, but most people’s horror came from “But what will your future partner think?”. Well, if he wants kids then he’s not the one for me, is he?

  19. You have managed to flawlessly articulate everything I have felt about my tattoos and what they mean for me. As a young woman and a survivor of assault and an eating disorder, I have – like virtually every other woman – been made to feel as though my body is not my own. Tattoos and piercings for me were a way of reclaiming that space of my physical being and beautifying and appreciating them in the way that I wanted to. Essentially, body modifications, as well as the physical changes brought about by healthy diet and exercise, helped me feel at home in a body that has for most of my adolescent and adult life felt foreign to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • And thank YOU. I’m so glad you’ve recovered from as much as you have, even as I am sorry you ever had to go through it in the first place. But that which does not kill us etc. etc., right?

  20. love your design up there, very pretty. 🙂
    I don’t have any tats, but the only reason for that is that my tastes tend to change drastically every few years so I can never decide on a design that I’d want to wear forever. XD

    and I seriously don’t understand people who say things like “I don’t like it when women wear tatoos/makeup/particular piece of clothing/…” so? want an award for forcing your views on women’s bodies or what?

  21. Caitlin, I have been a regular reader of yours for about a year, and so much of what you have written has resonated with me and made me feel empowered in my own fitness goals. But this post almost brought me to tears; you completely articulated that feeling that so many of us have. That feeling that results from the lingering message that we owe our attractiveness to others is so uniquely dehumanizing and demoralizing. And your piece so eloquently shows why that message wrong, and how we have so much to gain from rejecting it. Thanks so much for sharing this, and your beautiful new body art!

  22. I so appreciated this post. I never thought about the connection before but with this great articulation I can totally see it. I myself have one tattoo and have plans for more. I love feeling that I can choose to adorn my body as I see fit. I can’t wait to see how your half sleeve turns out!

  23. Such an awesome post. The idea that our bodies are for us to do with as we please can be applied to so much – tattoos, athletics, sex, display, and so much more. I love it. And I would love to see more pictures of all of your tattoos!

  24. Love this. I’ve only recently been dipping my toes in the fitness pool, but I have two tattoos. One that I got when I was 25, the other just last year when I turned 40. I drew both of them myself. I didn’t know that so many women athletes have tattoos, although it does make sense when you think about it. A tattoo is a risk and a declaration, both things women athletes would accept. Thank you for the wonderful post – it really resonated with me today. (And I needed a little reminder of how tough I am.)

  25. Reblogged this on The Healthy Smart Ass and commented:
    This just resonated with me. I’ve heard all sorts of “opinions” on my body, my tattoos, or what I do for fitness and fun.

    Just have to smile and say “well, that’s just fine. I didn’t have you in mind when I did it.”

  26. YES.
    I first started with tattoos for a similar reason, after being in a relationship full of no, I relished owning my own skin. Fitness has become the same thing for me. You said this so much more eloquently that I could. I love every word of this.

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  28. I guess I don’t get tattoos. For myself, it’s reclaiming fully being Canadian of Asian descent and that in itself can be a life journey. Being non-white is fully accepting one’s racial physicality and not bowing to society’s unconscious preference to media messages of being more white as the beauty standard or desirably in that direction.

    So to me, the tattoo is a wonderful cosmetic decoration ..that can be removed later. (though I realize that’s major also for some folks). Race cannot be changed unless it’s major surgery.

    My definition of feminism is and needs to be well integrated positively with my racial physical reality. And yes, it has nothing to do with athleticism/sport…which has become important for health reasons but is secondary to my identity.

  29. This post really made me think. I have several tattoos. All of them are connected in some way with strength. The tree that covers my back is about strength and being rooted in myself and I have a self-explanatory realistic-ish looking derby skater who reminds me of what sport and strength means to me. This post made me realise that tattoos mean that I have projected myself onto my skin – and it’s a clear sign to the world that they don’t get to project what they think I should be onto me – that’s uniquely my prerogative. There is a sense that as a woman you should be a blank canvas – to be written on by others. I hate the phrase ‘ I don’t like tattoos on a woman’, likewise when people say you might regret it in the future. It actually implies that you are not ‘finished’ yet – that you shouldn’t like who you are right now, that you’re not quite good enough….. I love EVERY tattoo I have, they are all a part of me, of who I have been and none of that is anything to regret.

  30. Your tatt looks great by the way! My mom often surprises people when she shows all of her tattoos. She has 7 now I believe? Not bad for 45 year old, I’d say!

  31. My wordpress login isn’t connecting, but I wanted to say thank you for posting things that are genuine and helpful. I really enjoy the way your mind works, and how you solve issues. I am tattooed myself, and I always wondered at the connection between those who choose ink and those who refuse to. Not that there’s anything wrong in either direction, but it seems that athletes in particular don’t just get them for no reason at all. Most seem to have a very compelling reason to do so. Yours is gorgeous by the way!!! Thanks for keeping it real here.

    • Thank you! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who wonders about the connections between athletes and tattoos, because it’s definitely there. I don’t know how much of my own experience is applicable to others but I definitely wanted to try to articulate my feelings about it!

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  33. I loved your article which is beyond tattoos. It re confirms my belief that everyone has the right to do what is right for them without having to be bound by societal norms of what is right. I have let my get dictated and made myself change by relationships that crippled me. I am now proud to have broken from all that and I find myself living a cleaner mental life.

  34. I’ve read this article a million times and I love it each time. I am in the process of getting a full-sleeve and have other big tattoos on me, and it’s all about the empowerment. I love telling people I sat for 6 hours straight and them looking at me like I’m the toughest person in the world.
    My first one was a cardinal bird on my back, and I got it done a month after I broke up with a man who sounds very similar to your ex-husband. (He said he didn’t want me to get a cardinal because he hated the colour red, he also hated punk subculture and made fun of it whenever he could so I would stop going to shows and listening to punk)
    When I finally did get it though it made me feel in total control of my body, which was a feeling I didn’t have for a very long time.
    Also “I’ve been with men who saw me as proof that they had “won” at being men, and it was the one of the most dehumanizing experiences I have ever had.” is when I verbally exclaimed “fuck yes!”
    Amazing article! I will share it amongst my fit, tattooed friends.

  35. This is so beautifully written, and I just came back to it after getting my first tattoo on Saturday! It’s a line from “I’m an Animal” by Neko Case: “yes, there are things that I’m still so afraid of, but my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun.” That song, for that line in particular, is what I turn on when I need to feel a little more steely and invincible, so I thought why not carry it around always? It’s in red ink on the outside of my left calf, above the scar from my ankle surgery.

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