“I just don’t want you to look like a lesbian,” said my husband as I revealed to him that I was thinking about getting another tattoo. “You know…butch. I don’t want you to look like that.”
I reassured him that the tattoo I had in mind would not decrease my thin supply of femininity nor increase a manliness about me. “I want a pretty and frilly tattoo. Not a cobra or a dragon,” I said to Jerry.
That was a few years and a few tattoos ago. At some point in the marriage, Jerry accepted that I liked tattoos and that I had become skillful in picking good artists and developing tasteful, artistic concepts. Not a single time has he looked at any of my skin art and said, “Yuk. Take it back.”
Our marriage has a long history of tattoo art. When Jerry proposed to me, I was a young twenty-something living in the exotic port city of Hong Kong. Jerry and I were both full time volunteers with an outfit called Youth With a Mission. As our wedding day approached, I began to fret about the stick ‘n poke tattooed initials of a high school boyfriend on my lower leg. The boyfriend was long gone, but the tattoo stared up at me everyday. When he first offered to tattoo his initials on my leg I took it as a sign of true love. But months later when our puppy love romance fizzled out, the tattoo began to look more like I had been branded like a cow. I hated it. And now, years later, I was on the threshold of my wedding day with the man who would be my partner for life.
“I want to go to Wanchai and get this covered up with a rose,” I confessed to Jerry one evening. He had assured me that the tattoo didn’t bother him, but I pressed the point because it bothered me. And so, one sultry Hong Kong night, we headed down to where the sailors like to go and found Ricky’s Tattoo Parlor who advertised with a hand-painted sign, We specialize misfit tattoo. I took that to mean fixing misfit tattoos. Not creating them!
And so, one of the first decisions we made together that concerned my body went fairly smoothly. But as the early years of marital bliss evolved into decades, my desire for for tattoo art increased.
I began to get small tattoos – always in consultation with Jerry for his blessing – hidden on the lower part of my legs. It always felt a bit awkward talking to him about it. Was I getting his approval first? What if he said No? What if I didn’t talk to him about it at all? How does marriage partnership deal with body stuff? What if he wanted a nipple ring (ew!!) ? How far do we go with sovereignty over our bodies in the marriage relationship?
We’ve been married twenty-four years. I still don’t have definitive answers on this. I can only tell you what’s worked for us and it’s this: Mutual Respect. I respect Jerry in that I consider his feelings and thoughts about tattoo art on my body.
Relationships and marriages are partnerships and we each have to find our way in belonging together yet not owning the other.
I am not the only tattooed Christ following woman with a husband who is under-inked or virgin skinned. My friend Donna is also a tattoo afficionado, while her husband Chuck decidedly is not. They, too, have been married twenty-four years and have learned to navigate their partnership through the canyons and highlands of the marriage journey. Chuck, like Jerry, accepts that his wife likes to have tattooed skin. Our men honor us with their respect. They recognize that we own the house of our body. We share it with them in the marriage relationship, but at the end of the day, each of us is are in charge of the skin we walk around in.
I think most marriages get this. We don’t try to control the other’s body functions or body health. We may encourage one another – did you take your vitamins, did you go to the doctor for that, wanna go work out with me?– but in a healthy, mutually respectful partnership, we submit our preferences to the other. I would love it if Jerry was heavily tattooed (with the kind of tattoos I like!). I enjoy an illustrated human being to look at, and I look at him everyday. But Jerry is in charge of his body and he would prefer to only have a couple tattoos scattered around his frame. Do I get to tell him No, I want a tattooed husband. Go get inked. Now.
Of course not. That would be ludicrous. And why would it be ludicrous?
Because it’s Jerry’s body. Not mine.
And so, my body belongs to me. I get to decide how to decorate it. I may be married, but I am in charge of me and Jerry is in charge of himself. We check in with each other out of preference and mutual respect for one another.
“My boyfriend really wants me to get a tattoo?” said the young woman in line at the grocery store. People often tell me their tattoo stories when they see mine. “But I’m afraid of needles. He says it will make me more sexy, but I don’t want to do it.”
“Then don’t do it,” I tell her. “It’s your body. Not his.”
She nods and as I look at her, I see my 16-year old self sitting at that kitchen table with that guy Eddie who I let mark my body as his own. “He doesn’t own your skin,” I add as she moves forward in line.
“I know. But it will make him happy if I do it. He’ll even pay for it,” she says as if this is a selling point. “Maybe I’ll get a small one on my lower back. That’s what he really wants me to do. He even has it picked out for me.”
“I don’t know you, but I’m going to give you some advice anyway,” I told her with the boldness that only women in their forties can get away with among women in their twenties. “Never get a tattoo for someone else. It has to be for you. What you want. What you like and what you can live with. It’s your body. You get to decide.”
I hope she sorted that out. Relationships and marriages are partnerships and we each have to find our way in belonging together yet not owning the other.
This is one of the things about Christian marriage : I was taught that my husband owned my body and that I owned his. This was based on the verse from I Corinthians 7:4
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
I have heard many references to this over my church-drenched life being taught
that in the marriage relationship, you give up rights to your body. But here’s the rest of the passage:
It’s good for a man to have a wife, and for a woman to have a husband. Sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder. The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality — the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to “stand up for your rights.” Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out. (The Message)
Context is everything. The writer here is not telling us that your spouse has say-so over your body. The writer is advising married couples towards a partnership of mutuality and sexual unity. But through the filter of Christianized patriarchy, many women have been conditioned to accept that what their man says Goes, that their husband has authority over their lives and even over their bodies. One can imagine how short the leap is to an abusive relationship in a dysfunctional, unhealthy marriage. A person with a controlling temperament (or one who’s overly submissive) can easily take this message of giving up the rights to your own body to a toxic place of dominance. I do not believe that Paul, the writer of this passage, had that in mind. The core message of the Christian Gospel is Love One Another.
Tattooed women are women who are publicly declaring sovereignty over our bodies. Tattoos are territorial markers : this is my skin. The husbands who love their tattooed women are men who respect that boundary. They are men like Chuck and Jerry. That kind of mutuality in a marriage is far more permanent than any tattoo will ever be.
**Here’s the companion article to this blog post, Tattooed Body and Soul