The most personal tattoo on my body is a shadow of Peter Pan and the second star to the right, surrounded by the text, To live will be an awfully big adventure. For this tattoo, I spent two hours bent over the artist's chair at a small shop in Baltimore, squeezing my best friend's hand during the worst of those white-hot bursts of pain from the needle.
"Do you need a quick break?" the artist asked. But I worried that if he stopped, I would lose my nerve and be left with a half-finished tattoo, only to force myself back in the chair weeks or months down the line.
"Keep going," I said.
When my editor asked about my new ink, I explained that it was in memory of my brother, who shared my love of Peter Pan and had passed away the month before. She rubbed my shoulder and nodded. Thankfully, I didn't need to elaborate.
It isn't my most recent tattoo — I got it five years ago, four years before the one on my left foot — but it's the one people seem to comment on the most.
That might be because it's on my lower back: a so-called "tramp stamp."
All four of my tattoos are etched in spots on my body that I must deliberately expose: a lift of my shirt, a slight lowering of my jeans. I never seriously considered that anyone close to me would reduce the work put into my back tattoo to a term like "tramp stamp."
When I showed off the tattoo, I wasn't trying to be seductive. I thought my friends and family would understand this — and yet they still made jokes:
"Pretty sexy, eh?"
"It's nice ... for a tramp stamp."
"Is it weird that your tattoo turns me on?"
I never know how to respond to these comments. I usually freeze up or change the subject. But I'm not the only woman who has endured these would-be compliments that (more often than not) come across as uncomfortable criticisms. I decided to interview other women with these kinds of tattoos to see if their experiences mirrored mine. Here's what I took away from our conversations:
1) The "tramp stamp" cliché came out of a fashion era that exposed these tattoos far more than they do today
The term "tramp stamp" came into popularity in the late 1990s as low-rise jeans — worn at the hips rather than the natural waist — became the go-to trend for women's denim. The curious peek of a lower back tattoo seemed to make a statement to onlookers; its location and visibility suggested this woman was indiscriminately promiscuous: a tramp.
For some of the women who chose to tattoo their lower backs in this time period, it was often frustrating to have their otherwise private tattoos peeking out from beneath their trendy jeans. Jennifer Block, author of Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care, remembers her trip to Ireland in 1998, one that resulted in a self-designed Celtic knot tattoo on her lower back.
"I spent hours at the library researching the images. I picked out a knot that is made of four closed shapes, symbolizing the friendship and individuality of myself and the three other women," says Block. "I chose my lower back so as not to offend my Jewish family, but the low-rise trend blew my cover."
Gabriella Garcia had a similar experience. In 2005, she tattooed her lower back with a pinup girl, using the same artist who had given variations of this tattoo to several of Garcia's close friends. "There were definitely not high-waisted jeans at that time, unless you were going vintage," she says. "And honestly, going vintage or thrift wasn't as easily accessible in the early aughts.
"My choice to get it done on my lower back was really because I wanted to have a large tattoo that I could cover up easily. I didn't know that this was a 'tramp' thing — my lower back just happened to be the largest part of my body that I could tattoo something that wouldn't be visible."
It wasn't until Garcia saw the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers that she realized there was a stigma. In the film, Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) points to a tattoo on a woman's lower back and cracks a joke: "Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a target."
Garcia's then-boyfriend turned to her and said, "Exactly."
Once he made that comment, Garcia says, "I actually stopped wearing low-rise jeans because of my tattoo."
For those worried about an unwelcome resurgence of the low-rise, allow me to calm your fears: In a May 2015 column for Jezebel, Madeline Davies referred to low-rise jeans as "the style of pants that are the most abusive thing to happen in fashion since the whale-bone corset."
The style blog WhoWhatWear.com also supports this perspective, claiming that high-rise jeans are here to stay: "Brands are taking the rise to the next level, increasing the inseam from 9 inches all the way to 11.5 inches."
Clearly, our tastes in clothing have evolved. Another change in the cultural landscape worthy of consideration: the growing population of women who are getting inked.
2) While tattoos are becoming more socially acceptable, it's still a radical act for many women to claim the body's blank canvas for themselves
For the first time in decades, women are more likely to have tattoos than men. In 2013, 47 percent of women under 35 reported having a tattoo, compared with only 25 percent of men. And this rising demographic isn't solely due to the trendiness of tattoo culture. In her Guardian essay "Painted Ladies: Why Women Get Tattoos," Jenn Ashworth writes, "If skin is a screen, and a woman writes on it, she is telling the world (or even just herself) that her own standards of attractiveness are more important to her than the standards of anyone else who might cross her path. She is taking ownership."
Feminists have long broached the idea of tattooing as a political statement for women rebelling against conventional ideals of pure, unmarked bodies. In the essay "On Ownership, Marking the Body, and Tattooing as a Feminist Act," s.e. smith writes, "Women are generally taught that tattooing and piercing are not ladylike. They are repeatedly reminded that tattoos on women are not socially acceptable, that women who want careers or want to be taken seriously need to think carefully before they get a tattoo. ... Women, in other words, are not supposed to mark themselves, or to stake out their bodies as their own property."
Some might argue that men face similar constraints with performing the ideals of masculinity. But in tattoo culture, it's not an analogous comparison. Why?
3) There's no equivalent for a tramp stamp on a man's body
A tattoo on a man's upper arm is generally not considered more erotic than one on his elbow or leg. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of any unflattering nicknames for men's tattoos, let alone terms that are as ubiquitous as "tramp stamp."
But if a man chooses to tattoo his lower back, he's embraced a seemingly absurd feminine ideal. In the season three episode "Wait for It" of How I Met Your Mother, Ted (Josh Radnor) goes on a drinking binge in an attempt to make his ex-girlfriend jealous — and winds up with a butterfly tattoo on his lower back. His friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), who tagged along for the drunken misadventure, is the most traditionally masculine character on the show, a guy so obsessed with being macho that he has his own "Bro Code." And Barney doesn't mince words when it comes to mocking Ted about his new tattoo. "That, dear boy, is a tramp stamp," says Barney. "You know, a ho tag. Ass antlers. A Panama City license plate."
The rest of season three focuses on Ted's romance with the doctor who performs his laser tattoo removal. After all, no leading man with a butterfly "tramp stamp" would be, well, man enough to make someone a mother.
This very demonization of femininity is what makes a term like "tramp stamp" so harmful. In her Ms. magazine essay "Empowering Femininity," Julia Serano writes, "Demeaning or dismissing people for expressing feminine qualities is often condoned and even encouraged. ... Much of the sexism faced by women today targets their femininity (or assumed femininity) rather than their femaleness. It is high time that we forcefully challenge the negative assumptions that constantly plague feminine traits and the people who express them."
4) Lower back tattoos are not usually about sex
In the eyes of some, the curve of a woman's back presents an eternal suggestion of bending over, promiscuity, supplication, submission. But that doesn't mean women are tattooing their lower backs to turn someone else on.
The typical reasons for getting a tattoo cover a wide range of personal experience. Like me, Cynthia Shulak tattooed her lower back with tributes to recently deceased family. In her case, the tattoo was a memorial to both of her grandfathers. Shulak was familiar with the "tramp stamp" slur, but says she "happily ignored" its existence — until an ex-boyfriend started incorporating her tattoo into their sexual fantasies.
"He started getting into detail about defiling my back tattoo, even though I explained how important it was to me," says Shulak. "We eventually broke up ... but that really stuck with me, and has left me in an uncomfortable position ever since, like when I'm at the beach in two-piece, or even when being intimate with a new partner. Like, are they thinking what he thought?"
Fifteen years ago, writer Sharon Haywood chose to get a lower back tattoo as part of a healing process to recover from an assault. "The tattoo and its location hold special significance for me, and I find it frustrating to have to field comments by men who 'jokingly' refer to it as a 'tramp stamp,' as if the reason I chose to get inked was to seduce men," she says.
"Tattoos are not superficial accessories but rather powerful symbols that can be used to reclaim one's body. My tattoos are part of my identity, part of my body, and my body is mine and mine alone. When a man calls my lower-back tattoo a tramp stamp, I don't view it any differently than someone commenting on my breasts. It's unsolicited, unwelcome, and clearly sexist."
5) There are personal and professional reasons for not choosing a more revealing spot on the body to ink
If I'm completely honest, part of the reason I got a lower back tattoo is rooted in personal inhibitions. I set limits for myself based on other people's idea of what it means to be taken seriously, to be seen as normal.
I didn't want to lose a chance to work in a more conservative office setting. I didn't want a tattoo that would hinder my ability to wear sleeveless shirts or dresses without total strangers asking about my ink. And I didn't want to run the risk of stretching out a tattoo if I got pregnant.
"Choosing the right placement for a tattoo is complicated enough," says writer Joy Martin. "Women who are considering having children have the additional issue of choosing a location that won't be stretched beyond recognition or damaged due to pregnancy/birth."
I admire those who feel comfortable enough to put their tattoos in more exposed and visible places on their bodies, but I like the privacy that a tattoo on my lower back affords me. There are things I'd like to stand out for: my writing, my accomplishments, my personality. The idea of anyone gawking at my tattoo — something so personal on my body — makes me deeply uncomfortable, and so I made my choice, the one that left me open to crass jokes about "tramp stamps."
It occurs to me now that I don't always have to worry about being appropriate, classy, demure. As I learn to project less embarrassment and more confidence over a cultural stereotype I never opted into, it won't stop the world from passing judgment, but it might make someone think twice before calling me a tramp.