On hair dye, piercings, and tattoos: a lifetime of creating my self

“With my tattoos, I get to say, these are my choices I make for my body, with full-throated consent. This is how I mark myself. This is how I take my body back.” –Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

I was 14 when I first dyed my hair. It was 1991 (a very long time ago, dear lord). Brightly dyed hair was not as ubiquitous as it is now, certainly not in my tiny rural town in southern Minnesota. I started out with burgundy, from a box, then quickly moved on to every shade imaginable of Manic Panic (though always favored purple). My hair is, right now, at 39, dyed. It’s the kind of red that makes people ask if it’s my real color, as though any person on earth could grow a red this cherry red out of their own head. I wish. 

I was 16 when I got my first piercing in a place other than my ears. I had, by the end of high school, 14 earrings in my ears. I still have 8. At 16, I got my eyebrow pierced. It was 1994. My mother (who happily poked around record stores and thrift stores with me, who dyed my hair repeatedly for me) let me make an appointment for some dude (some dude!) to pierce my eyebrow in his basement apartment in Uptown Minneapolis. I sat in a wheelchair when he did it. My mother sat outside on the front steps. Again, there were not a lot of kids walking around yet with piercings in my small town. I eventually got my lip pierced too, right after high school.

The tattoos started when I was 19. Thanksgiving break of first year of college, 1996. My first tattoo was of a female symbol with a fist in the middle. I now have 6 tattoos and am always wanting more. My most recent one was this beauty to our left, done this past winter by my lifelong friend Sara Witty of Dr. Witty’s Ink Emporium. If you don’t know what my tattoo means, please go read Bitch Planet.

Here is the thing: I am a feminist. I was a teenage feminist. I had lots of deep thoughts about how we (society) view, gaze upon, inspect, judge, and control women’s bodies. There is always a conversation, even (especially) if unspoken, about women’s bodies. So let the conversation be where I lead it, I thought—my hair, my piercings, my adornments, my clothes–things that felt like very intentional giant middle fingers to the world. I wanted my message to be clear: This is my body and it is mine and I do with it what I want and I do to it what I want. My dad hated my hair… and my piercings and my clothes and and and. He never understood why, if I found society so abhorrent, I would intentionally do these things to bring attention to myself, to make people look at me, to invite judgement. Because this is my body and it is mine and I do with it what I want and I do to it what I want, I tried to say in ways that would make sense to someone like him. Because I just didn’t care what people thought; because I so desperately cared what people thought. I wanted control. I wanted to present my most authentic self, a surly, weird, creative girl who knew I was being viewed anyway, and wanted to control part of the viewing.

I tend to dye my hair, or get a tattoo, or do something else drastic (chop off all my hair etc) when I feel a disconnect from myself—a stress that splinters me, a sadness that cleaves me in two (this horrific brain that makes me feel terrible and this body that houses the rest of me, whatever “me” is), an uncertainty of who I am or how I move forward. I take back my self with these changes, every change somehow making me more myself than before. There is so little we actually control. I live inside of a body where my brain controls my ups and downs, my levels of misery and anxiety. I can’t do much to control that. But I can wrestle back a little bit of that control every time I make myself more my self. I know this makes no sense to most people, but I also know lots of my friends operate this same way, have these same impulses, do not feel like themselves unless they are making these same changes. These changes are me. I grow older, but I cling to the things that helped define me when I was younger. Things done as angry responses, as middle fingers, as potential phases became the constants that make up me. And as I watch my son do the same things, I think, yesssss. I think, I’m sure I’m doing a ton of parenting wrong, but I am right in telling you the message that this is your body and it is yours and you do with it what you want and you do to it what you want. 

Now, back to daydreaming about my next tattoo.