Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Female Ink

By Faye Forman

On Thursday March 21, the author of Bodies of Subversion, Margot Mifflin came to St. Thomas Aquinas College to discuss the history and relevance of tattooed women. Bodies of Subversion was written, she said, to dispel common myths and prejudices society holds about women with tattoos.

Mifflin opened her presentation with a picture of Olive Oatman, the first documented western tattooed woman. Mifflin explained to a mixed crowd of students and professors that Oatman was captured and enslaved by a group of Native Americans in 1851. Oatman had distinct markings on her chin engraved by Yavapai Indians, early tattoos that symbolized captivity. After Oatman’s return to the white world at age 19, women have been emulating her story and crafting tattoos for publicity and money. Mifflin explores how, ever since the 1850’s, female pioneers have inked themselves in the name of feminism, rebellion, and even as a career.

As Mifflin shared various stories and examples of tattooed women over time, for example Ruth Weyland, Mildred Hill, and Edith Burchett. She explained that she personally does not have any tattoos. Mifflin rather focuses her attention and interest on the positives and negatives of tattooing. She explained through her writings for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and The Believer she is able to define the “self-determination” of women and the variety of feminist and anti-feminist tattoos she’s encountered.

In her updated edition of Bodies of Subversion (3rd Edition), Mifflin offers interesting statistics regarding the popularity of tattoos and their prevalence in certain age demographics. For example, as of 2011 a study shows 33% of women have tattoos while only 29% of men are inked, and 40% of women under the age of 40 are currently tattooed.

She also quickly noted the difference between women that are marked with demeaning tattoos versus those with empowering feminist symbols. She focused on one empowering story in particular of a woman in Ontario after going through a bilateral mastectomy. 

Inga Duncan Thornell’s photo of a beautifully intricate chest piece was controversially removed from Facebook, Mifflin explains, because it violated Facebook’s nudity policy. Thronell’s chest tattoo has been an inspiration to women who have undergone similar surgeries, and according to Thronell’s blog, “This tattoo was a collaboration between Tina Bafaro, the tattooist, and me to cover the scars from a bilateral mastectomy.  It took one Sunday a month over two and a half years to complete.”

Although Mifflin was only with us for a short 60 minutes, she aptly conveyed her work as an author and professor about the contemporary culture of female body art.

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