Tattoos and Painted Nails: Taking Back My Body

*Trigger Warning: self-harm, depression, anxiety*

I sat down on the carpet and pulled the coffee table up close. Picking my supplies up off the floor next to me, I placed them on top of the paper towels; it wasn’t until later that I discovered I needed another layer, or maybe just different paper towels. I stared at the bottles of nail polish with a sense of anxious excitement that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Of course no one noticed my awkwardly painted nails, or maybe they did and just didn’t care. But to me, they meant so much more than I could explain at the time. They were small symbols of a rebellious femininity I refused to acknowledge for decades.

The good thing about nail polish is its impermanence, the way it fades as it meets the realities of day-to-day living. It feels more suited to my hands after it’s started to chip – more raw and honest. However, when I started this transition – from adolescent to adult, from living a lie to unapologetic authenticity, from intensely hating my body to passionately loving myself – I chose a much more permanent symbol.

I never wanted tattoos as a kid. I remember asking my dad why he had one on his shoulder if the church didn’t allow them, and his explanations always involved the word “mistake.” The shame in his voice was palpable, a reminder of the divine laws and eternal consequences for how we use our bodies.

Despite the teachings of my childhood, I no longer felt the same way about my body. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say that I finally felt in control of my body after I came out. I finally started to love my body and myself, and that made all the difference. After more than seven years of self-harm, I resolved to treat my body the opposite way I was taught to treat it.

In other words, I was not going to force harm upon it anymore, especially not through self-injury.

It was an important moment for me. It was two and a half months later than my one year mark, but at least I followed through (something that seldom happened for 19 year-old me). I felt like the June bugs from my childhood, leaving behind a shell that I had finally outgrown. But it was more than that; it was a triumph I never thought I would achieve during the first six-months of my year long battle. I was celebrating overcoming an intense bout of depression, anxiety, and seven years of self-harm.

When I got the courage to open myself up and tell people I was gay, I changed. The negativity that had festered in my stagnant blood was being washed out in the flood of relief that came with my decision. It left me with a profound lightness that felt more to me like freedom than a slice of apple pie on the Fourth of July.

Before that six month mark, they were shards of broken glass beneath my skin that felt weightless under the sun, but turned to heavy iron in the short days and long nights of winter. I spent years searching for them, and yet I was never quite sure they existed.

The day finally arrived. I pulled into the tattoo shop parking lot 30 minutes early, and argued with myself in the car for half that time. I got out of my car 15 minutes before the appointment, and nervously walked toward the door.

I noticed how clean the shop was as I walked to the counter. Each artist had their own station, every bottle of ink its own label, each piece of equipment a designated place. It had a sense of order that was refreshing. It felt productive where before it felt restrictive.

My tattoo artist was in her late 40’s. Her silver hair matched her gauged ears and made the various colors that graced her skin look even more vibrant. After my consultation, it turned out that I couldn’t make my dream happen the way I envisioned it. Partly because the design concept couldn’t be translated into a tattoo like I imagined, and even more because I found out that I was too poor to afford a full sleeve. She asked me to come back the following week with another idea, and she would be happy to work with me.

Was I ready for something permanent? In a way, I had mastered permanence. I was always the “sorry, I can’t make it” friend who called an hour before the party. I was permanently the backseat driver to my mental illnesses and my addiction. I wasn’t sure I would live long enough to even consider a tattoo permanent.

In light of those fears, the answer was clear: I was ready to reclaim my body.

I was ready to leave behind the ideas that this body was a temple that belonged to someone else’s God. I was ready to pull of the wallpaper, get rid of the shag carpet that always creeped me out, and paint the walls in bright, loud colors that screamed “THIS BODY IS ALIVE!

I was ready to destroy the reflexes that made me skeptical of my intuition, see myself as unworthy of this body, and feel like a renter who would never be able to afford the payments. I was ready to be comfortable in my skin.

That’s what tattoos have been for me. The first one was a dedication to revolutionary self-love that my illness and addiction couldn’t hide from me. As she placed the stencil across both my wrists the following week, I knew it was perfect. I could look down at any moment and see the reminder, the mantra that would get me through the rest of my life: “LOVE” (with a rainbow in the E, of course).

Once I started feeling at home in the body I once hated, I truly fell in love with it. It’s like pulling sheets off furniture you didn’t know was there. It’s a surprising intimacy, a security, an excitement for the future unlike any other. Above all, it’s fulfillment, and I continue to decorate it.

When I sat down to paint my nails for the first time, my partner helped me. It felt like a skill my 3 year-old niece was likely to master before me, but that didn’t change its weight. The color brought out something I hadn’t felt in a while – confidence. It made my hands feel less like weapons I would turn against my body, and more like agents of compassion.

My tattoos and painted nails are so much more than surface changes. They are reflections of my struggles, my strength. They are manifestos of radical self-love, resilience, compassion. They are the symbols representing my revolution to take back a body that I was told didn’t belong to me.

They are proof that I won.

2 thoughts on “Tattoos and Painted Nails: Taking Back My Body

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