women

An Ode to the Misunderstood Beauty of the Tramp Stamp

Please read this. It is important!

Originally published in Broadly, Photo by Evil Pixels. 

I faced backward with my legs splayed open like Britney Spears in her “Stronger” music video. Behind me crouched Tessa BX of Gnostic Tattoo, who was adorning my lower back with my 11th tattoo—colloquially known as a “tramp stamp.” Spears also has one; hers is a fairy. (I was getting a snake, based on a piece by one of my favorite artists, Alejandra Sáenz.) Much like Spears’ infamous 2007 meltdown (which in my opinion was a valid mental reaction to her circumstances and metal as fuck), the lower back tattoo is largely—and unfairly—viewed by society as trashy and even tragic.

Women in Western society began inscribing ink on their lower back in the late 1980s, according to Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, tattoo historian and director of the Center for Tattoo History and Culture. “Due to lingering mid-century stigmas about tattoos, they wanted to get them in a place that was easily concealed,” she explains. Jill Jordan, one of the most well-known female tattoo artists to emerge in the 1980s, called them the “chick spot,” according to Margot Mifflin in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. The trend crept into the early 1990s as more women started getting tattoos and by the mid-90s, the tattoo’s popularity soared due to an influx of tattoo magazines featuring models with lower back ink.

I recall growing up during this time and hearing men refer to the tattoo as a “target” or “bull’s eye,” insinuating it was the sign of a slut and that the bearer was “easy.” While I’m sure some women have gotten tattoos to lure lovers, body modifications from makeup to cosmetic surgery are choices women make to feel more powerful or comfortable in their body. “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why,” Mifflin writes. But our patriarchal society assumes women’s body modifications are less about their own agency and more about catering to men’s preferences, so women with lower back tattoos are simultaneously sexualized and shamed.

Selecting the image and placement for a tattoo is personal. It’s a decision rooted in reasons ranging from healing after sexual assault to simply wanting something pretty to adorn your body. In Bodies of Subversion, Jordan says that lower back tattoos are “a tremendously sexy and really flattering way to be tattooed—it just narrows your waist.” In The Witch’s Book of Power , professional witch Devin Hunter writes that the primal soul “sits within the lower soul of our being” and explains that in dharma, a concept with multiple meanings in Indian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, a “giant serpent known as Kundalini lies coiled within our root chakra, acting only out of primal instinct.” Kundalini deals with basic life energy, or prana, writes Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa in Kundalini Yoga: The Flow of Eternal Power .

I wanted a tramp stamp of a snake to commemorate a time in my life when I was unchaining myself from patriarchal restrictions like toxic relationships and finding my authentic self. The snake imagery and body placement represented my primal self and “living deliciously,” like Eve accepting forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The tail of my tattoo begins at the root chakra but the rest lies mostly on the second chakra, like all lower back tattoos. While the root chakra represents primal energy, security, and survival, the second chakra represents sexual energy (and is located by our reproductive organs). “That area is sacred; it’s called sacrum for a reason” says Ashlee Davis, a Kundalini yoga instructor and holistic health coach that specializes in helping clients that struggle with emotional eating and body image.

Before the boom of ’90s tramp stamps, 20th century examples of lower back tattoos could be found as early as 1937. In an article titled “Tattooing Among the Arabs of Iraq,” originally published in American Anthropologist by Winifred Smeaton and republished in The Tattoo History Source Book . Smeaton writes of a midwife from Al-Kadhimain (a Northern area of Baghdad) who he called “one of the best informants on the magical aspects of tattooing.” The woman, who Smeaton did not name in his ethnography, explained the practice of tattooing a small design of three to five dots on women’s lower backs “just above the buttocks” as a fertility ritual to ensure childbearing.

By 2000, when Spears and her fairy tattoo were owning a chair in “Stronger,” the tramp stamp began falling out of fashion, says Dr Friedman. “When low-rise jeans exploded around the year 2000, making these tattoos very visible, it clinched the association with slutty sexuality,” she explained. Mifflin writes that by the new millennium the “chick spot became the tramp stamp and lost its charm.” When I asked Dr. Friedman for a contemporary equivalent of a ’90s tramp stamp, she answered rib cage tattoos. While speaking with Tessa prior to my appointment, she said that one of the most popular tattoos for women is the feather, so the butterfly above the butt has given way to the feather on the ribcage.

“I have done fewer lower back tattoos than I have forearm tattoos or other places, but since I’ve grown up, that’s always been a stigma. It’s a ‘ tramp stamp.’ From someone that loves tattoos, both giving and receiving, I find it hard to have an opinion about the placement of a tattoo,” Tessa says. As she inscribed a snake on my lower back, it made me feel protected and powerful, and I wondered if Britney felt a similar kinship to her fairy. (I hope so.)

While I (and the rest of the tattoo community) strongly advise against getting a paramour’s name tattooed on your body, the rest is up to you. Good luck trying to shame me for my tramp stamp—my snake has charm, and the 90s are back in fashion.

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A Love Letter to Planned Parenthood

Dear Planned Parenthood,

When I was in 10th grade and my friends and I were beginning to discover the power of the blowjob, we heard rumors that this hot senior, who I’ll call Mike, had chlamydia. One of my friends had gone down on him and was scared she had the clap in her throat. I quickly drew out of a chart of our high school’s web of hook ups and concluded that if she had the clap in her throat, I most certainly did too. We were panicked and uneducated and couldn’t go to our parents, so we went to Planned Parenthood. None of us has chlamydia, but everyone was really nice, taught us all about chlamydia and safe sex practices, gave us a fuck ton of condoms, and we left feeling a little more grown up. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that first visit and what I learned about safe sex (they taught me a lot more than my high school was) helped inform what would become a career largely based on writing about sex.

Over a decade later, I still go to Planned Parenthood, now in New York City, for all my reproductive health needs. They do my annual pap and HPV test (although now it’s recommended only once every three years). They do my breast cancer screening, they answer all my anxious questions. They test me for STIs and HIV about once every six months (most people don’t go that often – but I am mega-OCD when it comes to my health). They also provide me with affordable birth control (as a freelance writer I’m on a form of Medicaid so it’s free) and give me heaps of condoms for free too (that shit’s expensive).

To get (extremely) personal here, I’ve (knock on wood) never contracted an STI or experienced an unwanted pregnancy, despite having a rather active sex life for over a decade now. Many people I love have, to no fault of their own, it just happens sometimes. STIs are sneaky and pregnancy is what women’s bodies were designed to do, so sometimes we get pregnant. Maybe I’m so used to taking pills for other reasons (lol), one more at the same time everyday is no biggie for me. But the whole damn reason I have access to the birth control and thus have never needed an abortion is Planned Parenthood! Thank you, Planned Parenthood. Why don’t more people talk about this side of it?  During Friday’s debate, Trent Franks, R-Ariz showed Congress a graphic poster of an aborted fetuses in Congress (I’d like to see a graphic poster of a 17-year-old child who lives in low-income housing giving birth to a ten pound kid after getting knocked up by her mom’s boyfriend. Then I’d like to ask Congress about the funds we’ll need to take care of her and her child, and if they play the “work hard and get a job” card to bitch about welfare, let’s talk about income disparity for women – especially women of color – and how we’ve created an education system and low employment rates following a crash caused by, guess who, rich white men, that more or less sets children birthed to such parents as the aforementioned 17-year-old up for failure and a life of crime, oh and if there’s time, we can talk about how much prison costs the taxpayers. End rant). Oh one more rant – do we show graphic posters of all the dead civilians (dead babies too) before approving war missions and drone strikes? Anyone? Bueller?

The legislation approved Friday would end federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year, during which some time investigators will snoop around and see what they can find out to be true from those edited videos, basically. As a freelance writer, ending federal payments will directly affect me and my ability to love and fuck the way I want and I am outraged. Yet, I recognize my privilege. I’m a cis white girl with supportive parents and a Dad who is a lawyer. If something happened and I needed an abortion, they’d make sure I was able to see someone safe. I am one of the lucky ones. The majority of the women and families who need Planned Parenthood don’t have parents with the funds to step in in such a scenario.These politicians are using overtly edited videos for political gain, and imposing some condescending moral high ground that is completely unsupported by science pretty much because they think it makes them look cool to their Republican constituents and twisted version of God. It’s evil.

Planned Parenthood, I thank you for keeping me healthy, safe, educated, and not pregnant for the whole time I’ve been having sex. I love you, and I stand by you.

Love,

Sophie Saint Thomas