Women Have a Complicated History With Tattoos (That You Probably Didn’t Even Know About)

Women Have a Complicated History With Tattoos (That You Probably Didn’t Even Know About)

It’s a subject I find myself discussing frequently with friends, family, or even people I’ve just met: Tattoos. Whether it’s hearing the elders of my family condemn such body art or asking a friend about the meaning behind their new ink, tattoos never fail to intrigue me.

Each design is filled with symbolism, and I enjoy hearing the stories behind them all. Sometimes they honor a family member (my grandfather was one of those navy guys with “Mom” etched into his arm, quite an original idea) or they’re a drunken mistake (“I honestly don’t know why but my friends and I decided to get leprechauns on our butts!”). Either way, they’re permanent marks that tell someone’s story, and that’s what makes them beautiful.

The history of tattoos is especially interesting—the body art was used almost exclusively for women. In ancient Egypt, many females had tattoos, though some scientists believe it was to mark prostitutes. The body art, these people believe, served to protect women from contracting STDs. In fact, many people dismissed tattoos as a marking to distinguish concubines, simply because they were finding only women with tattoos, no men.

However, less misogynistic scientists claim that the markings were therapeutic symbols that would act as amulets to protect women during pregnancy and childbirth. This theory is supported by the placement of the tattoos, which are found on the thighs, breasts, and up the abdomen. These tattoos were mainly networks of dots or diamonds and during labor the pattern would expand and stretch with the skin, symbolizing a net of protection, not unlike bead nets that were wrapped around mummies to protect them.

Sometimes tattoos didn’t hold such a spiritual purpose. Rather, they symbolized ownership and were used exclusively for slaves and criminals in ancient Greece and Rome. Eventually they became popular for even the royalty, but were banned by the Christian church around 300 A.D. What’s amazing is some cultures today, such as Samoans and Algerians, continue to use the same tools and images as they did thousands of years ago. Tattoos have appeared all over the world and carried significance, whether it was a punishment, means of healing, or just an artistic statement.

Fast-forward to 1891, when a New York inventor created the first electric tattoo machine. At this point in time in the West, tattoos were still considered outlandish spectacles that were often reserved for circus acts. Even well into the 1900s, tattoos were reserved for rebels, soldiers and sailors. Nowadays, anyone could have one. Take supermodel Kendall Jenner, for example, with her “rebellious” decision to get a tiny dot in white ink on her finger. Or just check out the plethora of Pinterest boards dedicated to tiny, tasteful tattoos with images of little suns and moons and isosceles triangles.

More and more girls my age (early 20s) have been interested in the ink, including myself. Soon after turning 18, I strutted into a tattoo shop in Jacksonville Beach, intent on getting a small tattoo on my left rib cage. I didn’t need my parents’ permission anymore, I thought. This would be the perfect opportunity to get something I had wanted for a long time while practicing my newfound adulthood. I was warned of the pain—a tattoo on the rib cage is a sensitive spot, especially for a first tat, but I was determined. The pain was noticeable, but I was too consumed with feeling badass to even think twice about my decision. I don’t regret it one bit.

However, tattoos are often still taboo in the workplace. Historically, tattoos were viewed as signs of rebellion, so it was fair for employers to immediately judge their potential employee with skulls and crossbones covering their arms.

But now, as we know, tattoos are much more common, especially for both men and women, and the designs come in all forms—discreet to outlandish. Today, many businesses try to be more accepting when it comes to the body art because it’s become so common. It depends on the company you work for and the job you’re hired to do. Someone working with clients will most likely have to hide their tattoos, while someone working behind the scenes all the time would not.

In some cases, women with visible tattoos face discrimination in the workplace because traditionally, it was mainly men with visible tattoos on their arms or legs. Religious discrimination is also an issue—is it right to deny someone a job because of a religious tattoo on their wrist? Isn’t America supposed to support religious freedom? In fact, while browsing around a tattoo parlor in Austin with a friend last summer, I asked an artist about finger tattoos. This man, tattooed from head to toe, told me that I would probably have a hard time finding a good job with an exposed tattoo on my hand. I stared in dubious disbelief, was he saying this because I was a woman? Excuse me, but I was in a tattoo parlor for goodness sake, who knew that they would actually discourage a tat?

Overall, tattoos continue to amaze me and I never shy away from asking people what they all mean. At my hair salon, it seems like getting at least 17 tattoos is a job requirement. It’s fascinating to watch the stylists work with Siberian tigers on their thighs, constellations on their arms, or compasses on their ankles. Whether it’s my grandpa’s “Mom” written on his arm or a Buddha on your back, tattoos are inky masterpieces that color the body’s canvas and represent secrets untold.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.