Archive: Sep 2015

It’s different for women to collect tattoos than men. Back in the 1970s when tattooing was just starting to become an interesting, edgy way for people to express themselves, tattoo shops even had a special section of art dubbed, “for the ladies.” Little hearts and cute animals were something for women to hide away on a breast, hip, or shoulder.

Image Source:
Image Source: PCS Blog,

Janis Joplin popularized the small tattoo style for women after she got a  delicate Florentine bracelet tattoo on her wrist from famed tattoo artist, Lyle Tuttle at his shop in San Francisco. He went on to put the Joplin bracelet on hundreds of women. After awhile, having one or two “small, cute and hidden” tattoos became “gender appropriate,” and if the tattoos were visible, like the Joplin bracelet, small and mild was still the norm for years.

Over the last few decades, women’s ink started to creep out from under their shirts to cover their bodies in earnest, with images that are not so meek or mild. In fact, for the first time in recent U.S. history, women are beginning to outnumber men as tattoo collectors, and they are also becoming “heavily tattooed.” But if women are supposed to strive for beauty, then collecting large, visible, and not-so-cute imagery such as snakes or skulls crosses a socially appropriate gender line. It is not uncommon for heavily tattooed women to be sexually harassed with public comments, like: “You’re such a pretty girl, why would you do something like that to yourself?” In other words, why would you “make yourself ugly?” Women should be objects of beauty.

Kristen Wall
Kristen Wall, a student in Texas.

Embodied gender transgression is the topic of my recently published book, Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women, and the Politics of the Body (NYU Press, 2015). While other tattoo ethnographies study people with one or more tattoos, Covered in Ink exclusively focuses on “heavily tattooed” women or those who violated that traditional mandate to keep their ink small, cute, and hidden.

I started this research as a heavily tattooed woman who herself wondered if her experience was representative of other women who chose to cover their bodies in ink. Did other women hide their tattoos from their fathers, or carry around a sweater in their car for last minute tattoo hiding, as they went about their day? Did strangers approach them and to touch their skin without permission? Was it common for them to worry about losing their jobs, in the chance that a tattoo might pop out from under their sleeve?

Tampa Tattoo Fest 2007 hosted a tattooed women beauty contest.

From 2007 when I attended my first Marked for Life all-female tattoo convention held annually in Orlando in January until 2010, I traveled to tattoo studios, conventions, and the homes of seventy women tattoo artists and collectors.

Shorty and Kody Kushman are tattoo artists at Outer Limits Tattoo in California
Shorty and Kody Kushman are tattoo artists at Outer Limits Tattoo in California. They are sitting in font of a picture of Lyle Tuttle and Burt Grimm, famous tattoo artists who spoke out against women working in the profession in the early days. The women are giving the middle finger to these old timers views on women.

These beautifully tattooed women were an inspiration to me, and their stories did overlap with my own in many ways. I share their experiences in this book and also a documentary film, Covered. []

Each chapter of the book opens with a personal story of my own before sharing the similarities and differences across women’s experiences in the varied contexts of their lives — the family, the workplace, and the larger societal beauty culture within which women define themselves. It wasn’t surprising for me to learn for example that for other women, too, there is a world of difference between having a small, safe tattoo and sporting something like a large skull on your forearm, especially in terms of the negative social sanctions we receive.

“What does that say on your arm?” A man asked me as I sat in a coffee shop, deeply immersed in a textbook, studying for an exam, when I was eighteen years old.

“Feminist.” I replied, looking up at him, cringing as I awaited his response.

“Oh? Does that mean you hate men?” He asked with a frown, shaking his head.

“Something like that,” I replied.

The lettering this man was so interested in evaluating was my second tattoo, a stylistic, cursive script that stood alone on my arm until I collected more tattoos around it, making it harder to discern. It always leads to questions. And whenever I clarify that it says “feminist,” well, you might imagine the interactions that follow, with men attempting to define the word and me offering up sassy answers, growing more insolent depending on how bold I feel at the moment. The chapter “Tattoos Are Not for Touching” shares this story and the voices of other women who have been reprimanded for their tattoo collection, including the stares, comments, and touches that sociologist Erving Goffman demonstrated in his research on public self presentation.

Beverly Back ArtDuring my fieldwork I found an amazing artist who spent five years giving me a back piece tattoo, in her own beautiful style, that represented my academic journey.

Since Covered in Ink has been published I’ve been hearing more women’s stories of their artwork and the social struggles, both positive and negative, that accompany them.

What’s yours?

Listen to Beverly Yuen Thompson’s interview on KERA’s Think with host Krys Boyd.

Beverly with her book Covered in Ink

Beverly Yuen Thompson is an Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Siena College, Loudonville, New York. She earned a PhD and MA in Sociology from the New School for Social Research in New York, a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from San Diego State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Eastern Washington University. Her first book, Covered in Ink: Women, Tattoos, and the Politics of the Body, was published by NYU Press in 2015. Her research interests include subcultures, visual culture, and gender.

I traveled to Winthrop University five months after my baby was born to talk to faculty and students about women’s unique needs during disaster. I was flying with my electric breast pump, which would both save me from the horrifying pain of engorgement and allow me to avoid dumping what women’s health practitioners call “liquid gold.” I am not a “breast is best” advocate; I’m a “whatever-the-mother-wants-to-do” advocate. Women, after all, already experience a lot of pressure around what it means to be a good mother, and research shows that the discrepancies between their expectations (like breastfeeding) and their experiences (finding breastfeeding difficult, impossible, painful, frustrating, and just plain not wanting to do it) causes stress, unhappiness, feelings of failure, and affects their overall experiences of motherhood.

Look how easy it is/
Look how easy it is/

Older women have oohed and ahhed over my pump, wishing they had something so efficient when their children were babies. Indeed, I came home from the hospital with a manual pump that was completely useless (the only pump my insurance covered), and I wondered how the generation before me didn’t chuck them in the fire just to watch them burn (yes, they are that bad). To these women, I was a “good” mother—a mother so dedicated to breastfeeding my child that I was able to bridge my work and my motherly duties. If I was going to insist on working outside of the home, they suggested, at least I was still putting my baby first. There is no short supply of family and friends who applaud mothers of infants for toting their pumps to work, and who tsk-tsk women for forgoing breastfeeding (or, ironically, for breastfeeding “too long”).

The portable electric breast pump symbolizes the supposed freedom of contemporary mothers and conjures up the image of the Supermom who juggles it all seamlessly: work, family, husband. Supermom’s repertoire notably does not include self-care, which reflects the cultural conflation of motherhood with martyrdom and ignores women’s experiences of postpartum depression, anxiety, and OCD. (see also, Trina’s post on maternal mental health). What these women didn’t see, though, was me anxiously looking for space to pump while I traveled. Considering that we as a society are so quick to demand women breastfeed, the lack of such space is both curious and telling.

In the United States, we promote conflicting and constraining ideas about women’s bodies as heterosexually titillating or maternal—and which never really belong to them. We show breasts when they are represented as for men, but mothers should hide their breasts by investing in shawls or nursing in dirty public restrooms. On the verge of tears, I stood in a dark humid bathroom stall of the Atlanta airport. My pump hung from a small hook on the stall door, drooped open while I stood there pumping into the toilet. There was no way I could get a clean catch in the bacteria filled lavatory. I snapped a blurry selfie with my iPhone and sent the photo along with an expletive filled text to my husband, expressing my frustration with living in an androcentric society built “by men, for men.” The absence of spaces dedicated to traveling families and nursing mothers does not make the airport gender neutral. On the contrary, by not accommodating nursing and pumping mothers, we push them into the recesses of public spaces and contain their bodies in the home. We imply that public spaces are not meant for them and consequently normalize and privilege adult male bodies. At the same time, demanding that women breastfeed marginalizes their physical, emotional, and psychological struggles with motherhood. It also ignores the multifaceted character of women’s lives, which creates pressure to succeed at both home and work.

Supermom/Christopher Boswell/PhotoSpin
Supermom/Christopher Boswell/PhotoSpin

During my layover returning home, I walked swiftly around the American Airline terminal, desperately looking for a place to pump. I would have just plugged into the nearest cellphone charge station but was sure that the site of me pumping, even if not showing my breasts, would offend someone. When I passed a room dedicated to smokers—with comfy couches and a flat screen cable television—I was tempted to incite protest. An airline representative looked surprised when I asked her, “Where do nursing mothers go?” She finally pointed me to a small family restroom, where I could lock the door. It was dirty and there was no place to sit or set up my pump, but at least it was private—that is until people started knocking at the door to get in and jiggling the handle to hurry me up. I hung my head as a woman yelled through the door, “Other people need to get in!”

Lactation Room Sign
Lactation Room Sign

Should airports have lactation rooms? Absolutely. So should universities, workplaces, and other public and private spaces. Sometimes all it takes is a clean room, a cozy chair, an electrical outlet, and a mini-fridge. Of course this requires shifting ideologies around women’s bodies and who has a right to be comfortable in social spaces. Lactation rooms don’t make Supermom an attainable ideal and do not excuse people who pressure women about breastfeeding. But they do signal to women and their families that this world is built for them, too. Of course, what might also help is conceptualizing women’s bodies beyond a binary in which they are either exposed heterosexual objects or hidden maternal nurturers. But that’s for another post.

On September 2, the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach circulated internationally on social media. Amid discussions of whether or not it was ethical to post, tweet, and share such a heart-wrenching image, The New York Times rightly noted that the powerful image has spurred international public attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali noted:

“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”

The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.

Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is—for the moment, at least—something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.

Aylan’s image has galvanized attention from around the world, especially the west. The public’s concern and outrage after the photo circulated on social media has already had a significant impact on the refugee crisis. This single tragedy has become the symbol of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The image and subsequent public outcry has led to an increase in charitable donations, impacted election campaigns, and prompted the public to demand more of their governments, resulting in western nations around the world pledging to increase the number of refugees they will take.

Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.

The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image.  Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.

Dangerous GiantsWhen we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact.  Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world.  See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below).

Aylan Kurdi and Refugees WelcomeSo, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.

Swan Study image I sit opposite Lila [1], the 25-year-old research assistant, in a small room at a satellite office of Mass General Hospital. She is warm and professional, and we have already discovered that she went to college at the same university where I went to graduate school. She took classes with some of my favorite professors, and we may have been in the same room at one point, when I came back to give a talk on campus. This is a nice ice-breaker. But now, in this room, Lila is in the driver’s seat. She has just finished asking me a load of questions about my health, lifestyle, and social networks. I will be there a total of four hours by the time I complete the entire process, which includes a bone density scan and a few other tests they’ve added this year.

SWAN AA woman hot flashIn 1996, right after I completed my Ph.D. in Sociology, I was randomly selected as one of 3,302 women from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds to participate in this mid-life women’s health study called SWAN – or Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation. The study is following women as we transition through menopause, to better understand the physical, biological, psychological and social changes we experience during this period. SWAN aims to help scientists, health care providers and women “learn how mid-life experiences affect health and quality of life during aging”. [2]

SWAN participants or “subjects” were all between 42 and 52 years old “at baseline” – that, is, when the study began – and we represent seven cities around the country, including my own city of Boston.

When I got the call inviting me to join the SWAN study, I had just completed a lengthy project that involved a lot of interviewing. I welcomed the opportunity to answer someone else’s questions! It also felt great to be a part of important research that had the prospects of influencing medical science. But when I said “yes” to participating in SWAN nearly 20 years ago, I could not have predicted that I would be interviewed by at least 10 or more 20-something research assistants, most of them en route to medical school following this “real-life” experience.

Last year, there was a funding hiatus for the study. I was having a tough year myself and barely noticed that I hadn’t gotten my annual call to set up an appointment. Then a month ago, a letter arrived. SWAN was back in biz, and I’d be getting a call soon! I was thrilled that the study was re-funded in this era of budget cuts for basic science and social science research. I was also feeling grateful that my health was back on track. It struck me that SWAN gave me a regular opportunity to reflect on my life’s circumstances, and to think about how I’m handling growing older, even if it’s only because of a series of questions read to me by a young research assistant whom I’ve just met.

Lila was trained to draw blood, and as she jabs me with the needle, I think, wow, she’s pretty good. We continue to chat, as she measures my waist and hips, clocks how fast I can walk down the narrow hallway, and how long I can balance in a variety of different positions. I’m feeling pretty cocky, until we get to the cognitive test, which they instituted about four years ago. Even though I think my memory is pretty good, being quizzed by a millennial is unnerving. I tell Lila that this test makes me anxious, and she says “yeah, everyone hates it”. That’s only somewhat reassuring, but I appreciate her attempt to normalize my response. Once it’s over – after I spat back a series of numbers and letters in order, and re-told a story about three children in a burning house being saved by a brave fire fighter – I tell myself, “good enough”. That was something my father used to say in moments of stress.

The SWAN Study has taken care to ensure that we are a diverse sample of participants.

Prevalence of hot flashes by race/ethnicity
Prevalence of hot flashes by race/ethnicity

In Boston, researchers over-sampled African-American women, meaning that the study has intentionally included a larger percentage of African-Americans than are represented in the general population. Other cities have ensured that the sample includes large numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanic women. This oversampling strategy allows researchers to investigate the influence of race and ethnicity on health outcomes of women as we age.

SWAN-affiliated researchers, Drs. Robin Green and Nanette Santoro, found that most symptoms of menopausal women varied by ethnicity. They write,

“Vasomotor symptoms were more prevalent in African-American and Hispanic women and were also more common in women with greater BMI, challenging the widely held belief that obesity is protective against vasomotor symptoms”.

They also found that vaginal dryness was present in 30-40 percent of SWAN participants at baseline, and was most prevalent in Hispanic women. But even among Hispanic women, “symptoms varied by country of origin”. The researchers conclude that “acculturation appears to play a complex role in menopausal symptomatology” and that “ethnicity should be taken into account when interpreting menopausal symptom presentation in women”.

By including an ethnically diverse sample, the SWAN Study is able to compare the experiences of women from varied backgrounds, which has pointed to important differences that should be of great benefit to health care practitioners. Moreover, SWAN researchers provide participants with information about our health, and flag issues we should explore further. For example, I discovered that I had high cholesterol, something that runs in my family. I’m now being monitored by a specialist, who asked me to take a very lose dose of a Statin. And overall, I’m more conscientious about my diet. The upshot is that my cholesterol levels are under control.

Gathering the SWANS…

Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General
Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General

In the past couple of decades, the SWAN team held a number of gatherings to bring Boston SWAN “subjects” together. It’s awesome to be in a room with hundreds of women with one thing in common: we are mid-life women who have gone through menopause! What fun to talk about all the crap we are experiencing without feeling judged or worrying that we might be boring someone.

The first gathering I attended offered workshops where “experts” could answer our questions about sleep (like hot flashes keeping us awake) or provide us with alternatives to Hormone Replacement Therapy. One year, SWAN researchers organized an event that featured the brilliant and outspoken Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General who was a lightning rod for speaking her mind, in support of legalizing marijuana, the distribution of contraceptives in schools, and even suggesting that masturbation might be a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. Sitting in a diverse crowd of mid-life women and cheering for Elders, whom I have admired for years, was positively thrilling.

Lila tells me a little about this year’s gathering, which I unfortunately missed. I learn that one of the Boston-based Principal Investigators, Dr. Joel Finkelstein, is a serious art aficionado and at the last SWAN Study gathering, he showed a series of paintings by an older woman. His message was that we can continue to grow and be creative as we age. When the interview is complete, Lila hands me my gift. In past years, it has been a cup or a small tote bag, marked with the graceful SWAN logo. But this year, it’s a small box, the top graced with a floral design from this artist.

Gift from SWAN Study
Gift from SWAN Study

In the abstract of his 2014 application to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Finkelstein concluded by saying, “SWAN will fill important gaps in understanding the impact of the menopausal transition and mid-life aging on women’s health and functioning in the postmenopausal years. Accordingly, it will provide useful information to guide clinical decisions in mid-life and beyond in women who have diverse life experiences and socioeconomic and racial/ethnic characteristics”.

I’m grateful to be a part of this longitudinal study, to know that the aggregate data being collected reflects a diverse population of women, and that we are collectively contributing to scientific knowledge that can improve the lives of women as we age.

Finally, here’s a great clip from Menopause, the Musical!, just for fun

[1] Fictitious name

[2] The SWAN Study is co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.