November 3rd was my birthday. I’ve been on the planet for a quarter-century! Whoa! In honor of the occasion, I went to Noel’le Longhaul for a tattoo that I’ve been dreaming of for the past year or so. It was a magical, painful, important experience.In the days leading up to my birthday, however, I started sleeping fitfully. I became more and more anxious about my impending tattoo, to the point that I could barely sleep because of tattoo-related nightmares. I was excited for my time with Noel’le, but I was also racked with a nagging fear. It boiled down to this: what if this tattoo made me hideous?
In retrospect, this fear was almost entirely unfounded, because I already had a tattoo and my life had been just fine in the years since I got it. Even so, I was worried that getting a new tattoo would in some way ruin my body — a body that I’ve worked hard to love and appreciate.
Where did this fear come from? In my case there’s a pretty easy answer: a few of my (ex) partners have flat-out said, “I’m not attracted to tattoos.” They seemed to be attracted to me just fine, but because of their words I’d always felt that my existing tattoo was a mark against me, only tolerable because I had an “attractive” body and face. There was a painful calculus to it all — how much could I express myself before I became unattractive? How many more tattoos could I get before I became ugly to potential partners? Or rather: how much of my body was for me, and how much was for them?Obviously, I decided to go through with it anyway. And I’m glad that I did, because somewhere during the five or so excruciating hours of being tattooed, I realized something stunningly simple: bodies change. I had been so concerned about about “ruining” my body or my sex appeal that I’d forgotten that bodies are not static things; they are constantly changing, both in appearance and in function. In other words, my fear of damaging myself was inherently wrapped up in the idea that there is such a thing as a “good” or “attractive” body, and that everything else is bad or, at the very least, less desirable.
I’ve written about how toxic the idea of hotness can be, but this was the first time that I truly understood why. Whether or not I want it to, my body is going to change in the coming years. Sometimes those changes will be predictable — my skin will wrinkle, my hair will bid me adieu — and sometimes those changes will be unpredictable — I might have to start using a wheelchair or go through cancer treatment. But the one thing that I can be sure of is that who I am now is not how I will always be.
On some level, I’ve been grappling with this for my entire life. My mother used to joke that based on her brothers’ experiences, I would be bald by the time I was 25. Turns out she was wrong (suck it, mom! Just kidding), but for the past five or so years I’ve been struck by an existential fear every time one of my hairs falls out. I used to contort myself in front of the mirror every night to check on the progress of my hair loss. I would strategize about the best way to stay attractive as a young person with thin hair. No matter what I did, though, my inevitable fate loomed over me.
So here are my options: I can either resist change, or I can embrace it.Embracing change is really the only viable choice, but it isn’t easy. When our bodies change, we often lose access to things that we truly enjoy. For instance, one of my favorite things about my body is my hair. It’s the first part of my body that I truly felt I had control over, and it was the first part of my body that people started complimenting. One day, when my hair is gone or my muscles are atrophied, I will be sad as heck. But in the spirit of embracing change, I will try not to wallow in that absence or mourn it for longer than is necessary. Because the truth is that change can be exciting — painful, but exciting. When our bodies change, we get to experience the world through entirely different lenses, ones that can reveal new wisdoms and open up new ways of thinking.
If that all sounds a little woo-woo, think about it like this: you won’t always be as “hot” as you are now, so you’d better start preparing for the future. Embracing change — even when it means embracing something inconvenient, ugly, or painful — is your chance to stay in love with yourself, no matter what.
And here’s the flip-side: your partners’ bodies will change, too. You don’t get to control that, and frequently neither do they. So, by extension, embracing change in your partners is your chance to stay in love with them, too.
Back to my tattoo.
There comes a point during every long tattoo session when the pain is so excruciating that you don’t think you can bare it any longer. You want to give up, but you’ve got a partially-finished piece of art permanently etched into your skin, so there’s really no way but forward. A few hours into my time with Noel’le, that’s where I found myself. Tears rolled out of the corners of my eyes as I wondered if my body could maybe just give out and let me die already.
Suddenly, a though floated above all of the pain: I am so lucky that this time, I get to choose how I change.
Tattoos aren’t for everybody, I’ll readily admit that. But for the first time, I understood just how deeply self-expression is connected to survival. When we choose how we change, we are saying that we can survive the violence and pain and pressure of the world without breaking. In fact, we are asserting that our survival is art. It is beautiful.
So here’s the upshot: I don’t care if a boy doesn’t find tattoos attractive. One day the things that make me “attractive” will change, anyway. If a boy wants to lose a loving, caring partner because of something so inevitable, that’s his prerogative. But I’ll soldier on, because I have learned how to embrace change.[Note: A special thanks to Ericka Hart, Rebecca Hiles, and Harmony Eichsteadt for getting me thinking about these things as far back as Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit in August!]