First published in The Huffington Post 25th September 2013
Since Cheryl Cole’s tattooist published a picture of her newly inked backside, the reaction from British tabloids has been consistent in its finger-wagging negativity. The Metro described the tattoo as a “garish new inking” and The Express mocks Cole’s twitter postings urging people to accept her choice of tattoo, snidely remarking “and let your buttocks do the talking, Cheryl?” The Mirror’s August 2013 headline screams “with a bottom most men dream about why on earth has she inked this rose garden?” Here lies the problem. The headline, irrespective of poor grammar, clearly suggests that Cole’s tattoo might impinge on her sexual desirability, which I believe is part of a wider culture of associating tattooing on women with their sexuality.
Cheryl is shamed for having ‘spoilt’ her bum with a tattoo whilst a study cited in the Daily Mail in July 2013 suggests that men are more likely to approach women with tattoos, believing them to be more sexually promiscuous. The terms ‘tramp stamp’ and ‘slag tag’ are almost exclusively attributed to women with ink, rather than men. Tattoos on women make them ‘easy’ or ‘ugly’, but both labels are sexually motivated and completely arbitrary. In its most basic form, a tattoo is writing or a picture that goes somewhere on your body and because the words or image can be and mean a myriad of different things, the idea that a tattoo makes a blanket comment on female sexuality is entirely ridiculous. Unless a tattoo is specifically erotic, like Tulisa’s ‘you should be so lucky’ situated above her crotch, we shouldn’t assume that a woman’s ink has anything to do with her sexuality at all.
Alex Blimes, published in the Daily Mail, goes further and writes: “show me a girl with a tattoo in 2008, and I’ll show you a girl who spends far too much time looking at paparazzi pictures of starlets falling out of minicabs, updating her Facebook page and voting via text message in television talent shows”. Personally, I’ve never voted via text for anything on television, I don’t have the time to follow LiLo’s drunken stumbles and prefer Twitter to Facebook, but because I have tattoos I guess I must be some kind of anomaly in this massive homogenous population of airheaded women with inked bodies. Blimes’ sweeping statement is deliberately offensive. Women with tattoos are as varied and diverse as any other group defined by a physical marker.
It’s interesting that we don’t read the same bad press or react with any surprise when Adam Levine or David Beckham or Robbie Williams or the Madden brothers add to their ink collections. Is Cheryl Cole’s tattoo garnering so much red-top disapproval because she’s been saddled with the ‘nation’s darling’ epithet? She’s permitted the dusting of small inks but anything larger is deemed unfeminine. Becky Pugh, writing for The Telegraph in April 2009, deems her own tattoo “as unfeminine as a hairy beard”. Fair enough, if she wanted her tattoo to look girly, but the language used fits in with the idea that only a specific kind of inking is appropriate for women. She explains that she got her ink on holiday in a disreputable parlour that she had not done the research on, and she did not bring a printed image with her, merely describing what she wanted to the tattooist. It’s hardly surprising that she wasn’t pleased with the end result. My argument is not that bad tattoos don’t exist, but that good, well-planned, well-designed tattooing is a form of art and should not be arbitrarily connected to female sexuality.
We’ve all heard parents’ and grandparents’ warnings about regret and saggy skin. Tattoos are no longer the preserve of sailors, lorry drivers or prison inmates. It is estimated that one fifth of Britain’s adult population sport one, making tattooing neither unusual nor newsworthy. Although this may be an unpopular opinion with more conservative commentators, I’m willing to come out and say that I believe tattooing to be a valid art form. Lucy Greville-Smith, at The Parlour Tattoos in Warwick, is responsible for my ink and her impeccable drawing skills, dexterity and real care for every project she undertakes is clearly demonstrative of the aesthetic and creative merit of tattooing.
If Cheryl Cole wants to have some roses tattooed on her ass, that’s entirely her business. Tabloid judgements of female bodies and body choices are symptomatic of a culture in which criticism of the physical appearance of ourselves and other women has become so commonplace that we too rarely pause to examine it. To shame women for their ink is at best, hopelessly old fashioned and at worst, downright sexist.