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Society, and the pressure it exerts on its members to conform, must not be underestimated. We, as lesbians (and women), know this only too well. Many of us were discouraged from playing with so-called "boys toys", and many of our families still have a problem with the length of our hair, or the way we dress, or both.
I recently overheard a woman in a bus queue asking a little girl who can't have been older than four or five, whether she had a boyfriend yet. The subtle (and not so subtle) social pressures are there right from the word go.
Despite changes to the law and also changes in society's general attitude towards us, those of us in the LGBT community are still the butt of jokes in the media and in our everyday lives. Even when this is not the case, our once unacceptable lifestyle is now subject to convention and stereotyping. In order to assert our individuality and our unconventionality, many of us choose to do "unconventional" things to our hair and dress, and we use body art - piercings and tattoos. So, it may come as a surprise to learn that body art began as a way of expressing not your individuality and rebelliousness, but the exact opposite. For example, nostril piercing (a very popular one these days) is thought to have begun in the Middle East, 4000 years ago. In India, in the 16th century, the type of jewellery you wore in your nose was a clear sign of which caste you belonged to. And in the ancient temples of the Aztecs and Mayans, tongues were pierced as part of a ritual to communicate with the gods.
The Victorians were crazy about tattoos and piercings, and women in particular had a craze for having their nipples pierced (gives a whole new dimension to those Victorian period dramas, doesn't it?) Prince Albert famously had a genital piercing so that he could tie his penis to his leg (it made his trousers fit better, apparently!), and the "Prince Albert" piercing is still a great favourite with gay men today.
Even more surprisingly, far from wanting to be unconventional, or buck against society, many of the people I questioned when I was researching this article, and also those whose stories I read on the internet, got tattoos or piercings because their friends all had them (i.e. it was fashionable amongst their peers). Many others got them to assert their own individuality and increase their self-confidence. It came across to me that this was not because they wanted to be unconventional, but rather that they saw their tattoos in particular as a semi-private expression of themselves. As one of my correspondents wrote:
"My tattoos are very personal to me and I designed them all myself, so yes.....they are part of my identity. They tell a story, I suppose, of my life."
This "story" is not something she shares with everyone, only she knows the meaning of her tattoos. In a way, they are a message to herself, rather like Guy Pierce's character in the movie "Memento", tattooing his memories onto his body so he doesn't forget who he is.
Of course, there are consequences to having tattoos and piercings. This is particularly true of tattoos, as they are (in most cases) permanent, or at least extremely difficult to get rid of. Many of the women I spoke to said they had tattoos of their ex-girlfriend's name, or a special tattoo which they decided to get together, and now they wish they hadn't done it. One woman even had a tattoo which was supposed to be a dolphin, but ended up looking more like a kipper, and now she's stuck with it! Piercings can often be considered less acceptable, particularly lip and nose piercings, most often in the office environment. One of my correspondents has had to remove several of his piercings for his new job. There is also the more unpleasant medical aspect of piercing in particular. A recent article in "The New Scientist" (5th March 2005), discussing the dangers of piercings in "an intimate place", states that:
"Although only 3 per cent of people with such body piercings ever seek medical advice, about 60 per cent suffer associated health problems, according to a survey of 147 people with nipple or genital piercings, or both."
However, many people seem to take these risks on board, and even describe them as "part of the fun". After all, something which is a bit dangerous can also be exciting.
Leading on from this love of danger, some of my respondents also talked about the pleasure/pain aspect of piercings and tattoos, and the fact that piercings are often used during sex, where that fine line between pleasure and pain can be arousing for some people, particularly when that piercing is in an erogenous zone such as a nipple. Several people also talked about the endorphin rush they got from having their tattoos done, and how this had made them a bit addicted to having them. However, just as many people said they only have one tattoo, as it hurt so much they would never consider having another one! Again, it comes back to personal choice, and it seems it's impossible to say that all of these people have tattoos and piercings simply because they are gay or lesbian. Many of the people I spoke to were actually offended by this suggestion, and didn't want this important aspect of their individuality to be "reduced" to just another part of their sexuality. Some did get tattoos and piercings specifically to celebrate their coming out, but many of these people already had some body art. The new ones simply marked this next important stage of their lives.
It seems that so-called "straight" society also views tattoos and piercings in this way. I got a large amount of the historical information above from an article on the BBC Suffolk website - hardly the place you'd expect to find an article on something considered subversive and wildly unconventional. One quote from the article possibly explains the new fashion for tattooing at least: "
Many celebrities have tattoos. Role models, such as Eminem, David Beckham and Jennifer Aniston have probably raised the status of tattoos."
I feel this is just as true of piercings; so it seems that body art has become very fashionable, and you have to cover yourself from head to toe with holes and ink to be seen as particularly unconventional these days. However, tattoos and piercings can still be very individual, and this is what I think their meaning is for most people today. They are a way of preventing ourselves from becoming faceless, from blending in. Those lesbians who want to wear their sexuality for all to see choose body art which expresses this important part of themselves (labrys tattoos, rainbow earrings or nose rings). At the same time, those of us who want to express our lesbian identity in a less overt way, choose tattoos which mean something to us, but are not obvious to the outside world (one particularly popular one seems to be a string of Chinese characters meaning "woman" or "lesbian", often tattooed in a place which is not immediately visible). It is the versatility of body art which helps it retain its popularity in both the lesbian and gay community and society at large.
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