Come to today: one of my best friends calls me, asking how I’ve been along with other generic “catch-up” kinds of dialog. At some point in our conversation I tell her about my designs to get a full sleeve tattoo on my left arm. There’s a moment of dead silence on the other line before my friend asks why I would want to do this to myself. Why would I want to hide away my “beauty” (her word, not mine)? Don’t I realize that having that many tattoos send mixed signals? The way she sees it, I’ve worked so hard to become a girl that getting all these tattoos counteracts my transition. In other words, my tattoos make me more masculine or otherwise negate my femininity and hide away any traces of beauty I may have at the same time they provoke others to see me as an aggressor or a biker chick. Oh, and the tattoos will make it impossible for me to find employment. As if to stress just how fucking manly I am, upon hearing all these arguments I begin to cry. This is like all those other times people have gendered me incorrectly—assigned a masculine gender to me or seen through me—seen me as a boy or a freak. So what was that I was saying about not feeling “trans” anymore?
I wasn’t really planning on doing my post about body modification just now—I still have a lot of research to do, especially concerning intersections with Queer Theory and the Cyborg Manifesto. With that in mind, this will only be a mini-introduction, seeing as it’s mostly a response to gendering bodies. Whether or not you recognize it as such, genital reassignment surgery (GRS)—indeed the totality of transitioning—is a form of body modification. Generally trans people view the transition process as a kind of transformation—the butterfly’s metamorphosis has been used as a trans symbol so frequently it has become cliché. Getting tattooed, in some ways, is analogous to the transition; Kip Fulbeck, a professor at UC Santa Barbara said, “Choosing to get tattooed transforms you—sometimes innocuously, other times with profound significance…Getting tattooed transforms how others view you, and often how you see yourself.” If you replace the word “tattoo” with “gender transition” you have, in a nut shell, the transsexual experience. In a more queer sense, body modifications such as tattoos or GRS are means of reclaiming the body. We are born without any consent or control over how our bodies look or how society will gender our bodies. In these modifications we transform and redefine our bodies on our terms to fit our designs.
There’s a problem with the reclamation, however, in that through these modifications other doors of judgment are opened. Each of my tattoos means something significant to me—each carries with it symbolic representation of my soul; to have this intimate expression then turned back around on me—for others to use it as a means of re-gendering me back into masculinity and as a fixture on which to base assumptions and meaning about me—it’s a gross abuse. Why should being born with a male exterior make me any less of a girl? Why should a plethora of prevalent tattoos detract from either my femininity or my beauty? Get to know me first: though I’m fairly ambitions and assertive I’m anything but an aggressor. I can cry easily and I have a touchy-feely girly side resting just below the surface. Bodies matter, but the heterosexist values used to create assumptions based on those bodies are misguided. My tattoos have marked me on a very visible level as permanently trans; tattooed bodies are today seen as an act of transgression, they are (on women) often associated with a challenging or rejection of traditional gender roles. In this way they are assigned, even in the queer community, a more powerful and masculine meaning, therein propagating the traditional gender hierarchies. The question still remains: who has control over my body; who has power to assign or reassign meaning to my body? Regardless of how we modify ourselves there are always those with power to assign their own meanings to us despite our actions of transformation or reclamation. This is the burden of visible difference—this is the consequence of open transgression: a constant disport in social oppression.