"I want to get a tattoo or a piercing, but my parents won’t let me. How do I explain to them that this is how I want to express myself?”
-Question submitted by Anonymous
Allyee Whaley Says:
When I was 13 years old I wrote my parents a 10 page paper on why getting my belly button pierced was an expression of my true self, with lots of facts and research supporting my argument. My parents didn’t really know what to do with the paper, but they did end up letting me get my belly button pierced. Then my nose. Then my lip. Then my eyebrow (you get the picture). Tattoos were always off the table. Around 16, I went behind my parents back and got a tattoo anyway, and my parents felt like their trust was broken. Now almost a decade later, I am covered in tattoos and piercings, my hand is fully tattooed and all hope is lost that I will ever fit into mainstream society. And guess what? My parents still totally love me and support me. But not everyone grows up in Oakland, California with feminist queer parents who always encouraged us to be fully and authentically ourselves, so here are some things I would keep in mind when navigating this path:
1. Always try and partner with your parents first. If you want a specific tattoo that means something to you, explain what it means and why it is important. My first tattoo was a quote (that I misquoted, on my arm), “For Failure Isn’t Falling Down, But Staying Down.” I was def a “wild child” who was committed to being the best at being the worst, but I was trying to turn things around. I explained to my parents this was the first quote I ever heard that made me feel like I could change, that I could be more, I could be happy. I explained that every time I wanted to give up, I couldn’t, because I would look down at my arm and be reminded of my commitment to betterness. As mad as they were that I lied to them, it was pretty hard for them to fight this explanation. I definitely don’t think tattoos haveto have meaning to be important, I think body modification in itself is a meaningful practice, and has been throughout human history.
2. It is super important to weigh that people with tattoos & piercings still do face discrimination, especially if you count in other forms of oppression working with them (race, religion, ability, orientation, gender, location, etc). Only in recent years has the culture around tattoos shifted in America, as they are becoming mainstream. Parents often don’t support their kin getting tattooed, not only because they don’t want them to suffer (from the pain of body modification), but because they often don’t want us to be seen as “society’s deviants”. A lot of people say this is why family can get initially spooked when LGBTQ+ young people come out, because they instinctively want to keep them out of harms way and they know by being LBGTQ+ they will live a harder life. The same logic can be applied for tattoos/piercings. If you let your parents know you have considered this reality, it can help them understand you are weighing all the consequences and still think it’s important.
3. “But what if you regret it?!” – the number one argument against body modification. The most common response to this argument tends to be, “tattoos can always be covered, they can always be removed,” but I think it is important to point out to your parents that body modification can also teach us a hell of a lot about acceptance. I think it is pretty normal to have different feelings towards our tattoos/piercings as we grow. For years my lip piercing was such a part of my identity, my face, my reality, I never once thought to remove it. Now that it’s been out for years I laugh at old pictures of myself like “why world!!!!” but I don’t regret it. I appreciate how much it meant to me, it showed the world from the get go that I was different, I was badass. Body modification has taught me to not only accept myself, my past, my future, but celebrate each part of my journey as uniquely my own. Beyond regret, let your parents know that body modification can also be a tool for radical self love & care. Getting tattooed was one of the first times I realized what it felt like to actually love myself. With each new piece, I stare in the mirror filled with joy thinking, “damn, look at how awesome I am!” Tattoos and piercings were also one of the first things to show me how to physically care for and nurture my body (because body modification takes lots of daily care, anywhere from 2 weeks-9 months, and beyond). Radical self love, radical self acceptance, those are things body modification can teach us if we let them.
4. Not all parents are going to be okay with tattoos or piercings. Some might never be okay with them. Your safety and the value of your relationship with your parents are super important to weigh as you decide to embark on this lifestyle. I have adult friends to this day who hide their tattoos from their parents. Most of the time my friends hide their tattoos so they can retain their relationship with their parents, and therefore also their community/culture/religion. That is their choice and something they have considered the pros and cons of, so I encourage you to do the same. Some parents might say stuff like “if you ever get a tattoo, I will no longer speak to you.” This is something to weigh: is getting a tattoo/piercing right now worth losing XYZ?
5. If all else fails and you decide to go behind your parents back and get one anyway, please consider a few things. Any tattoo/piercing shop that is working on someone under the age of 18 without their parents consent is doing something very illegal, and could lose their license for doing so. From my experience, these shops tend to also be doing other illegal things, including but not limited to, not being up to health codes, as well as not being very experienced at giving out tattoos or piercings. These things increase the chance of infection, injury, transmission of things like HIV through needles, and very very very worst case scenario can lead to death (usually from infection). Also, they tend to not give out very good tattoos, but hey, that’s relative, right? All this to say, I’m totally a harm reduction gal and if you weigh all these things and still think it’s worth it, then go for it. That is your choice. I know my first tattoo saved my life over and over again when things got dark– I wouldn’t take it back for the world. I also would have gone about it TOTALLY differently if I was to get it now, but whatever, that’s all a part of growing up, learning and changing.
Wanting a tattoo and/or piercing is totally normal. You may or may never convince your parents to let you get one while you live under their roof/they feed you or finically support you. They may never acknowledge, support or appreciate your body modification even after you move out. If you’re lucky, they may come around one day, but if that day isn’t soon enough for you, it’s up to you to weigh all the pros and cons and move forward. It is your life, your body, and your choice.
Allyee Whaley has long strived to create balance in the universe by listening attentively, advocating ruthlessly, and loving compassionately. She is an openly polyamorous queer based in New York City who will talk your ear off about anthropology, human sexuality, social justice, and mystical creatures. Please help support her and all of our incredible contributors here on Patreon.
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