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Should A Boyfriend Influence Your Tattoo Decisions

This week, Inkluded follower Ingrid Anna Marvin got in touch because she had been asking some important tattoo questions in her own mind and wanted to share them with our community. “A snake curls over her skin. As I watch, its tongue flicks, and I see that it’s a mark inspired by her boyfriend; in fact, it looks as though it might have been chosen by him. I can sense the way the snake’s scaly body jars with the softness of her soul and the way it dominates her, taking up too much space on her leg. I feel relief as I read that she’s not with this guy anymore, but filled with sadness that he has left such a mark on her.”
Ink, Alice Broadway. I feel totally independent and entitled to make decisions over my own body. What I wear. What I eat. What contraception I use. The men I form relationships with are usually respectful and laid-back about these decisions. If they are not, I feel fully entitled to remove them from my life. Despite this freedom, men still seem to expect that when I mark my body with a tattoo, they will be consulted. Since getting my first tattoo 10 years ago, I feel increasingly aware of men’s attempts to control my body choices.

I wondered – am I allowed to choose my clothing and make-up influence-free because they are female territories? Realms that men do not feel qualified to dictate? Tattooing is still often sadly considering masculine territory into which women are steadily intruding with our ‘feminine designs’. Is this why, when I tell a partner I want a new tattoo, the assumption is that it will be a collaborative project where I present my ideas for their judgement? In my own experience, this hasn’t just occurred in serious relationships. After two dates, one individual who described himself as a “feminist” on Tinder, felt like he deserved input. Was his assumption that because we’ve had sex, he now has a market share in my body and how I change it?

I decided to ask other women about their experiences. I have had many drinks with friends who have told me about abandoned tattoo plans based on their boyfriend’s lukewarm responses. Similarly, I have a friend who has covered up her much-loved DIY tattoos with a generic skull to appease a partner. Perhaps it’s the permanent nature of tattoos that allow men to feel they have a stake in a project? Do men think they will ‘suffer’ if their partner gets a tattoo they do not like?On the extreme end are men who object to women having tattoos completely. Despite us no longer living in the 1950s, this is still a common occurrence. One woman I interviewed said: “My ex told me on several occasions that my existing tattoo I had gotten prior to the relationship was ‘disgusting’. He even offered to pay for laser removal and said if we got married it would have to go. When I talked of getting another tattoo, he would refuse to speak to me, as I was ‘disrespecting’ his views. I felt ashamed of my tattoo for the entire 2 year relationship.”

This is an unacceptable. A man who dictates if his girlfriend can or cannot be tattooed is removing the agency she has over her own body. It is a man ensuring his partner remains aesthetically the version of herself that he likes best, with little regard to her preferences. What I see happening more often is the micro-aggression and subtle control exercised by men who ‘like tattoos’ but feel fully entitled to influence. Men who expect female partners to consult and run tattoo ideas by them for approval, as if a temporary relationship should have any role in dictating a permanent mark on a woman’s body.

It doesn’t matter that this may happen the other way round. Women may sometimes control boyfriend’s and husband’s tattoo choices but this isn’t the same because, well… history. Women’s bodies are historically co-opted and our agency taken away from us regularly. This is why it’s dangerous when men so casually assume they can dictate our tattoo decisions. Despite having pride in my independence, I have felt anxious revealing a new tattoo in the most casual of relationships. Because of previous responses, I always feel like I should tell the man I am dating that I have booked an appointment. I find myself worrying that a male partner might think I need to ‘slow down’ or that I am ‘going through a phase’. One man said to me: “I like tattoos but I find it de-masculating that you have more than me”. Going on to say “I think you’d look better if you only got smaller tattoos, like, an inch or smaller.”

Another interviewee explained to me the shared nature of her tattoo planning:

“I ask my boyfriend if he likes the design and run by him my placement to see what he thinks of them. I always take on board his thoughts and although he would never stop me getting a tattoo that I wanted, I do feel obliged to ask. I would be more likely to choose a design that we both like as I’d prefer him to look at the tattoo on me and appreciate it as much as I do. If he disapproved of an idea it would put me off choosing it.”

There is a scale – From men who totally reject tattoos, to those who feel they are entitled to control what a woman gets. Downright rejection is often more opaque and easier to dismiss as controlling, whilst the subtle attempts to hold authority over a woman’s tattoo choices often slips under the radar. It is often only after leaving relationships (that I understood as respectful and consensual) that I have realised, in hindsight, how much a man’s expectations to be consulted guided my decisions. Our agency over our bodies is removed when we feel we can no longer make independent decisions about how we mark it. And let’s face it, experiences show our tattoos will last longer than most of our relationships. I reflected on all of this in a recent sitting with an amazing female tattoo artist. She said to me, “we have a word for men who control their girlfriend’s tattoos.” “What?” I asked eagerly; always keen to hear insider terminology. “Cunt,” she said.

Words: Ingrid Anna Marvin

Editor’s note: Huge thanks to Ingrid for opening up this conversation. I think it’s one of the most interesting subjects we have ever covered on Inkluded and something I have heard about from women I have also spoken to myself. I have been with own partner for over five years – he is exceptionally laid-back about, and supportive of, my own tattoo decisions, but does still feel that he should always share his genuine opinion. If he doesn’t like it or think I shouldn’t get it, he will say. I am always quite determined to not be influenced by his advice and doing what I truly want myself, which he respects, but it’s still really a interesting topic to discuss nonetheless. For my own life, it’s less of a ‘male control’ thing and more of a ‘everyone has an opinion’ thing. I don’t think this discussion extends to just men and boyfriends but anyone in our lives – I receive these strong comments about my tattoo decisions from friends, parents and other family members too. Why can’t they just say, “whatever you want to get, it’s your decision…”?

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