Taking Ownership of Myself: My Tattoo

This article is part of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.


A week before starting my sophomore year at Kenyon, I got my first tattoo.

I always knew that if I were to get anything permanently inked into my skin, it would be something truly, deeply meaningful.  It wasn’t something I wanted to do on an impulse or whim, nor would I get one “just to get one.”  However, I’d been wanting to get something, as long as the moment was right and I was sure that I wouldn’t get disowned.  After a small group trip to Laos and Cambodia this summer, I knew precisely what I wanted.  It’s a tiny tattoo on the inside of my left wrist that reads “ງາມ” (pronounced ngam), a Lao word for beautiful.  It refers and applies to multiple things, including the things I learned and experienced, and the place itself, and serves as a constant reminder of how I want to live my life.

In the first part of this three-part series, I discussed my history with body dysmorphia and eating disorders.  Before we left for our journey, I was starting to slip into a dark place—I was hyper-aware of my figure, and a recent development of a circulatory system disorder meant that I hadn’t really been able to exercise until a couple of months before, interfering with the fitness goals I had set in preparation for the trip.  My main concern, of course, was not really for how I would look, but rather how I would be able to physically handle the conditions and the activities ahead, though it got easy to slide into harmful thinking.

Trapped by the illusion my anxiety soon created, I was genuinely afraid that people wouldn’t like me or want to talk to me because they’d think I was fat and ugly, especially compared with the three other gorgeous girls in our small group.  We would be spending most of our time working with other youth and young adults, so interaction was going to be constant.  New situations with new people always make me a little edgy, but that effect is doubled when it’s a room full of people who speak a different language and have a vastly different culture.

But when I got there?

All of my worries had been absolutely pointless.  They were among of the kindest, most welcoming people I’d ever met, and every single person was thrilled to have us there.  Ten minutes in, I couldn’t even remember why I was so concerned.

But for me in particular, it was more than that.  Because in addition to sharing smiles all around, people would call out that I—me, specifically—was beautiful.  It happened not just once or twice, but repeatedly throughout our stay, from traipsing through Pha That Luang, to going up during a Q&A session and hearing our interpreter translate, with a warm chuckle, “And now, the beautiful woman Emily will tell us about fundraising!”

It seems like a silly thing to have such resonance, but as someone who has struggled to accept my own beauty for years, it really struck a chord with me.  With body dysmorphia or any related condition, external validation doesn’t really help you feel any more secure, even with the best of intentions.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate people saying, “Wow, you look nice!”  I do.  It makes me feel good.  But it’s not going to do much to change the way I look at myself.  That work has to come from within.

The reason why our Lao friends’ remarks meant so much to me is that they were under absolutely no obligation to do so.  If a friend or family member gives you a genuine compliment, it still tends to feel like they’re saying it because it’s their job to love you.  But these were people that I had known for less than a week, even less than a day for some, and they saw me, singled me out of the group—something that never happens to me—and told me how beautiful I was.  And in those moments, as someone who is religious, it felt as though God saw me struggling, and reached out to them to say, “Hey.  Stop.”

Combined with the powerful experiences I had throughout the rest of our journey, ones that I always want to remember and that fuel my drive to return soon and work there for a more extended period of time, it was a word that felt absolutely right (and I still love it two months later, so hopefully that’s a good sign!).

But why would I go so far as to ink it into my skin?

Good question.

I’ve dealt with a lot of problems physically as well as mentally, often tying into each other, and it often feels as though I have no autonomy over my body.  My chronic pain and fatigue are unpredictable, and when I actually have time to work out, I don’t have the physical capacity, and when I have the physical capacity, I don’t seem to have the time.  As previously stated, I have long dealt with body dysmorphia, but also have curves and a slow metabolism that makes it extra tricky.  It’s hard to feel good about yourself when pop culture agrees that the body you have isn’t good enough, and it sometimes seems that I just can’t win.

But regardless of every bit of havoc nature wreaks upon my skeleton, muscles, and nervous system, I try to remain positive.  Part of that is not letting myself feel like a victim, but rather trying to take the reins of my mind.  I wanted something on my body that I put there, and even if it ends up being another stupid college-kid mistake, it’s my mistake, and a choice that I made.  It’s a reminder not to sink into old habits.  It’s my way of claiming my body as my own, and asserting that no matter what nature throws at me, I’m the one in charge.

Even my mom, who has been vehemently against tattoos for as long as I can remember, came around to support me when I explained what I wanted and why.  That gave me the last bit of courage I needed to go through with it, in addition to my sister holding my hand during the actual tattooing.  

I have no regrets at all—I did briefly, once the actual shock of oh-my-god-this-is-actually-on-me-forever set in, but since then I have come to love it.  It’s tasteful, it’s personal, and it is, to put it plainly, beautiful.  In short, it’s a part of me now, and I wouldn't have it any other way.


Image Credit: Annmarie Morrison