Recently I read this article about tattooing as a way to reclaim your body and your autonomy. This resonated with me on a professional and personal level.
Young (1992) argues that for a person who has not experienced trauma, the physical environment is divided into ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ The physical boundary between ‘me’ and the outside world (not me) is at the site of the skin. Therefore, ‘me’ is embodied by the sensations and experiences in the body as well as the mind.
However, for someone who has experienced CSA ‘me’ is only in the mind, as they have learnt to expect little control over what occurs to the body. ‘Not me’ then extends to include the body. This can be worse if the body responded during abuse or if the child dissociated which extends this fissure between mind and body.
Our society pumps out a lot of messages about our bodies; how they should look, act, how we define them, treat them, etc. I think that this can be very negative for people who have experienced CSA because being told what to do with your body is exactly what happened in the first place!
Feeling safe is fundamental to re-establishing a sense of ownership over your body and I don’t think that these messages help at all.
Clearly as part of healing some sort of reconciliation with the body and an improved sense of ownership of it is desirable. Here’s where tattoo’s come in (obviously there are many other ways to achieve this too and if you don’t like tattoo’s that’s fine). Some of my research participants talked about using body modification and decoration to reclaim ownership of the body. Maxwell et al. (2019) also found that tattoos are valued by survivors of sexual trauma to embody their ownership of their body.
In many cultures tattoo’s have spiritual significance with many designs having different meanings. When I had my first tattoo, in my 40’s, my tattooist said that some people he saw their tattoo had deep meaning for them, whilst others it was just a random whim! For me my first, a triquetra, was a design with multiple meanings that I’d wanted since I was a teenager. My second tattoo I designed myself based on the north star. For me personally, my tattoos have been a way of saying that this is my body and I can do what I like with it – reclaiming the autonomy I lost.
Maxwell, D., Thomas, J. and Thomas, S. A. (2019) ‘Cathartic Ink: A Qualitative Examination of Tattoo Motivations for Survivors of Sexual Trauma’, Deviant Behavior. Routledge. doi: 10.1080/01639625.2019.1565524.
Young, L. (1992) ‘Sexual abuse and the problem of embodiment’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 16(1), pp. 89–100. doi: 10.1016/0145-2134(92)90010-O.
Beryl Cook ‘Two on a Stool’ Durham County Council (art.uk)
Diane Kruger ‘Your Body is a Battleground‘
The Tattooed Woman copyright me