Thin black lines

How tattoos have helped me reclaim my body

Aubrey Rhoadarmer, Falcon Navigator

Aubrey Rhoadarmer shows off her various tattoos. (Courtesy of Joelle Berger)

I grew up being told my body was not mine. I spent 18 years of my life scared of myself. Then I walked into a tattoo shop.

My first tattoo was small and lame and some days I regret it a little bit, but I still thank 18-year-old me for getting it. Those first little lines were a revelation, and now I have seven tattoos, an appointment in July to get three more and a note on my phone with an endless list of ideas.

Purity culture has been a force in my life as far back as I can remember. My body was always God’s to love, God’s to own and the church’s way to shame me into silence. The adults that should have been there to lead me in my faith were instead there to critique the edges of my hips and the curves of my shoulders.

As I got older, my body grew and changed, and if I didn’t cover it I was insulting every person who had no other option than to look at me. In high school, I was told my body was a beggar, screaming for attention. I was blamed for having a body, but I was especially blamed for not hating it.

In the early 1990s there was a backlash to the sexual freedom that many women had found during the Second Wave of feminism. It was in this era that purity culture was born. Although purity culture now manifests itself both in and outside of the church, it was originally founded by evangelical Christians. The movement was initially meant to encourage teenage abstinence, and took its first form in a program called “True Love Waits.” How sweet, right?

Not so much.

The goal of the purity movement may have been to decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and prevent teen pregnancy, but it has done little in actually achieving that goal. In fact, teenagers who take a ‘purity pledge’ are more likely to contract an STD or get pregnant.

Additionally, government funding for comprehensive sex education has plummeted since the ‘90s as a consequence of purity culture. That means young people are not learning what they need to know about their own bodies. I haven’t taken a health course since I was in eighth grade, when we spent a majority of the time talking about how wet dreams are normal and self-care is important.

Purity culture taught me to be afraid of my body because I didn’t understand it. And it also taught me I wasn’t supposed to.

But now when I look at myself in the mirror and see thin black lines criss-crossing my skin, I know that my body belongs to me. Permanently changing myself on my own terms has been unexpectedly liberating.

Sometimes I think about my youth group leaders who thought it was a sin to wear leggings to church and I wonder what they would think about me now. They spent all that time making me despise myself for things I couldn’t change, but then turned around and promised me God’s love would fix it all. It wasn’t God’s love, but a tattoo gun that seemed to do it.

This is not to say that I am entirely free of purity culture, but its presence is far less easy to see these days. I no longer blame myself when someone looks at me in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I no longer squirm and blush when talking about the normal, natural functions of my body.

Instead, I take a look at all my pretty tattoos and remember that this body is mine, and not even God can take that from me.