By Pieter de Wit
In recent years, there has been a rising trend of people getting tattoos, especially among the younger generation. In the United States, a quarter of the population has a tattoo, compared to only 8.5% in Germany and 10% in France.
When I was little, I felt intimidated by people with tattoos. Maybe it was because of stereotypes on television, or because my religious parents were prejudiced against inked people, associating them with ‘immorality’.
As an adult, tattoos don’t affect my attitude towards a person, even if I don’t like their choice of design. Still, every so often I am mesmerised by a piece of art that blends in perfectly with someone’s body, mind and soul. I am intrigued by the underlying personality and curious about that person’s life story.
But why is there still so much prejudice and judgement towards people with tattoos—especially women? And why do some men find women with tattoos intimidating?
Why Do People Get Tattoos?
Throughout human history, tattoos have had important meanings and symbolised strong values or beliefs. People from various tribes or classes used tattoos to signify the community they belonged to. Later, tattoos became a symbol of nonconformity and rebellious behaviour, sometimes seen as an act of protest.
Nowadays, people get tattoos for many diverse reasons. A recent poll showed that 45% of Israelis got a tattoo because it was fashionable, and 40% said it distinguished them from others. The motive to look different was more important to women in the study than it was to men.
Perhaps, this explains why men rarely see tattooed women as housewife or mum stereotypes—many get tattoos mainly to battle these cliches!
Others get a tattoo as a form of self-expression, artistic freedom, visual display of a personal narrative and as reminders of spiritual or cultural traditions. Some even get addicted to the pain or simply get one on a drunk night out (which explains why many tattoo studios are open ‘til late!).
Do We Judge Women With Tattoos More Than Men?
It seems so! According to one study, women with tattoos feel more judged than men do. Men, specifically, tend to see women with tattoos as less athletic, honest, religious, intelligent, and artistic than women with no displayed tattoos. And, while men may be less attracted to tattooed women, they see them as more promiscuous.
I feel compelled to admit that men are now, officially, the most complex gender! Other research indicated negative attitudes towards women with visible tattoos, even by study participants who had tattoos themselves! Baffling!
We are all wired to develop prejudices. In prehistoric times, this was a beneficial quality that helped us quickly assess if an encountered stranger could be trusted. In modern and multicultural societies, someone’s appearance can still trigger this primitive instinct and lead to the brain’s misinterpretation of a piece of art as a threatening tribe’s symbol.
I think that if we see prejudice as a primal form of common sense, we can reverse its response and connect with people, rather than let it divide us. A person with an ocean-wave inked on their shoulder might be expressing their passion for surfing. This common interest could lead me to start a conversation and perhaps a new friendship.
Let’s face it, men value appearance a lot more than women. Some women use tattoos like they use clothing and make-up—as an embellishment to look more attractive to others. Yet men often have a negative predisposition or prejudice against women with tattoos and see their ink and link it with their desire to be different and independent. They subconsciously feel that this is not the typical submissive housewife, but a strong emancipated woman. And the thought of “handling” the latter is what’s intimidating!
Judging people may have a biological explanation, but it is not a valid reason for modern-day humans to hold on to negative prejudices. I think the media should take more responsibility and share more diverse images of people, including those with tattoos.
At the end of the day, the best way to find out if a person’s character matches their appearance is to start a conversation. Every time I do, I’m left amazed by how my prejudices had misled me and by how much we can learn from a person, even if our interests don’t match.
My best advice is to stay open-minded and take the time to see people for who they really are. Because whether it is visible ink on our bodies or only rooted in our souls, we all have an amazing story to tell.