I’m standing in line at an airport Starbucks, shifting my weight back and forth as I try to leverage the bulk of my backpack-stuffed-with-too-many-outfit-choices-for-a-weekend-trip, peering over the counter to see if they have any packets of earl gray tea left.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. So I turn around.
A man who I do not know is crouching and gawking at me. “Can you turn a little this way?” he asks. “I’m trying to look at your legs.”
And right now, I’m sure that anyone reading this with even just a single feminist bone in their body is picking their jaw up off of the floor.
Because in absolutely no situation would it ever be appropriate for a stranger to request a closer inspection of a woman’s thighs.
But here’s the thing: I was wearing shorts (or short-shorts, as my mom would probably call them).
And, like any good feminist, I should say this first and foremost: It doesn’t matter what you wear. You should never, ever be subject to harassment.
But in this case, it’s pertinent to the story.
And – as dependable as clockwork – when you’re a tattooed woman in public, a dude eventually will shout at you, “I like your tattoos!” And within minutes, so will another. And another. And another.
And I know this for sure because last week, I tweeted about it.
I was frustrated and uncomfortable that I couldn’t just go for a simple walk without being left alone, so over the course of 40 minutes, I tweeted (using the hashtag #tatcalling, which my clever friend Cathy came up with) every tattoo-related catcall I received – just to prove a point about what a day in the life of a tattooed woman out in public in a patriarchal society feels like.
The total came to ten.
Ten times in 40 minutes.
Ten times, a strange man shouted at me “Nice tats!” or “I love your tattoos!” or “Where do you get your work done?” One guy even literally stopped to show me his tattoos.
And while I responded, genuinely, “thank you” to each and every one of them, and although it started to become comical after awhile, the truth is: When you think about it, that’s really not okay.
So, since I’ve written about the public’s fucked up responses to tattoos before, I thought I’d write a follow-up piece – about how “tatcalling” really sometimes is just that: street harassment.
While it may seem like an innocent, honest compliment, sometimes it can actually employ all of the same dynamics of catcalling.
And that isn’t to say that every single time someone compliments your tattoos, they’re being oppressive – not at all. And that also isn’t to say that sometimes people aren’t just being genuine and nice. Nor am I saying that this is something that only men do to women, or something that you necessarily need to get riled up about.
But it is to say that my experiences with being catcalled are incredibly similar to my experiences being tatcalled – and a lot of other tattooed women have expressed to me that they feel similarly awkward about it.
So let’s talk about why – because I think it’s a conversation worth starting.
1. It’s an Invasion of Space, Time, and Bodily Autonomy
I’m not sure how many times women have to say this, but I guess it bears repeating: When we’re on our way to the gym, to the post office, to work, or to the farmer’s market – daring to set foot outside – we don’t suddenly become public property.
As such, it’s really never okay for men to shout at us – unless it’s to say “Watch out! You’re about to get hit by a truck!” or “Excuse me, miss, but you dropped your wallet.”
It doesn’t matter what on our bodies men want to shout to us about, they shouldn’t do it.
Just like any form of street harassment, when you holler at a woman over her tattoos, you’re (albeit most likely implicitly and unwittingly) asserting your dominance by way of reminding her that she can’t simply exist without having to entertain the whims of men. Otherwise, you’d let her walk in peace.
Even if you think you’re just paying her a compliment (more on that later), you’re actually reminding her that men, on the whole, feel entitled to her space, time, and especially her body. Because you’re invading all three when you comment on her appearance.
Unlike the “Hey baby” or “Where you going?” catch phrases of everyday catcalling, tatcalling is a direct comment on a woman’s body – because tattoos are literally part of our skin.
And while maybe your tiny, insignificant invasion only lasts mere seconds, when you combine how many other times it’s happening to her in a day, just like street harassment, it adds up to a whole lot of “Hey! I know you thought your space, time, and body were yours and yours alone, but lemme just talk to you for a second.”
And it might feel less offensive, but it’s still exhausting.
2. My Tattoos Aren’t For You – They’re For Me
Although tattoos – similar to statement tees – are an outward expression of artistic preference, politics, nonconformity, or snarkiness, they actually don’t exist for the pleasure of the viewer.
When I wrote my last piece on tattoo etiquette between strangers, I vividly remember getting a comment along the lines of “Bitches get tattoos for attention, and then they complain about the attention.”
So, let me be clear: I don’t have tattoos because I want attention.
Just like I don’t wear makeup because I want attention or don’t wear yoga pants outside (#TeamLeggingsAsPants) because I want attention or don’t—well—do anything because I want attention.
I have tattoos because I like them.
And while I definitely appreciate it when other people like them too, to be honest, I don’t give a fuck whether some random guy on the street likes them enough to find me attractive or not. (Shout out to the dudes who open with “I don’t usually like chicks with tattoos, but…”)
I have tattoos because they make me feel good. I have tattoos because they feel like love letters written to the parts of my body I grew up hating. I have tattoos because they make me feel pretty. And just like anything else, that’s not for you. It’s for me.
And when you shout “Nice tats!” at me on the street, what that translates to in my mind is “I think you care about my opinion of your body, so I’m going to share it.”
And I’d really rather you didn’t.
3. It’s #NotJustNiceInk Because #DudesArentGreetingDudes
Back in November, after the release (and subsequent virality) of that-street-harassment-video-that-shall-not-be-named-because-it-was-racist-as-fuck, the incomparable Mikki Kendall started a hashtag: #NotJustHello.
And both conversations brought up a similar point: If, when men street harass, they’re really just paying a friendly “hello” to the women they encounter on the sidewalk, why aren’t they paying that same respect to men?
Similarly, if it’s really my tattoos that you’re fascinated by, why aren’t you paying other men the same “compliments”?
As one of my Twitter followers pointed out to me: “I take it that men don’t show their tattoos to other men on the street.”
When men say hi to me on the street, it’s not frustrating that they said “hi.” We can all tell the difference between a genuine “hi” and a suggestive one – and only one is offensive.
It’s frustrating when there’s meaning attached to that “hi,” when men aren’t saying it as a general courtesy, but rather only to women that they find attractive. At that point, it’s #NotJustHello – it’s an opening line.
And the same can be applied to “Nice ink!”
Sometimes, it’s genuine. And that’s nice. Thanks!
But when you’re pointing at my thighs, nodding with a grin on your face, and giving me a thumbs up or an “okay” sign, what you’re communicating to me is that you like my thighs – not that you necessarily give a shit about the artistry (and time and money and pain) that went into the work itself.
And maybe I’d be more inclined to believe that you’re genuinely interested in all of that if you—ya know—said the same to men.
4. It’s Not Actually a Conversation Starter
When someone politely excuses themselves for being interruptive and asks me if I’d be comfortable answering a few questions about my tattoos because they’re thinking of getting one and are curious, I always (very kindly) oblige.
And when someone who also has tattoos comes up to me and asks, in an impressive tone, who does my work, I also always (very kindly) oblige. (By the way, if you’re in the Philadelphia or New York areas, I highly recommend my artist, Gia Rose, at Ceremony Tattoo Society and Grit’N’Glory. She’s rad.)
Because those are actual conversation starters. Those are actual people with actual interest in tattoos. I can recognize when comments are coming from an honest place, and I’m happy to discuss my tattoos to a certain extent with those folks.
But oftentimes, unsolicited questions and comments about a woman’s tattoos are invasions of privacy – not genuine attempts at conversation.
Did it hurt? It involves a series of needles poking in and out of my skin in order to transfer ink into it for hours on end, and the healing process involves treating the raw skin as an open wound. What do you think?
How much did it cost? I’m sorry. Do I know you? What makes you think you’re privy to my personal financial information?
If you saw a dude walking down the street with his arm in a sling, would you stop him to ask him if it hurt? When you see a guy coming out of a car that you think is sweet, do you ask him how much the down payment was?
No. Probably not.
Because you respect their space, and you respect their time.
But when you ask similar questions of women with tattoos, you’re letting us know that 1) you’re probably not interested in the tattoos, so much as something else, 2) you’re not Google-savvy, and 3) you assume that we owe you conversation.
And while I can certainly decide whether or not to engage in conversation, being put in a position multiple times a day when it’s assumed that I’ll want to engage isn’t cool.
(And, just for the record, everyone, “What do they mean?” isn’t a conversation starter either. It’s generally a conversation shut-down-er. Because that’s an incredibly personal question. Don’t ask strangers that. Like, ever.)
5. It’s an Invasion of Space, Time, and Bodily Autonomy
I’m sorry for inciting déjà vu, but yes, you read correctly: My point #5 is the same as my point #1. Because if you had to read past the initial point in order to “really get it,” then it sounds like you might need a refresher in basic human decency.
At the end of the day, if your comment or question cuts into a woman’s right to space, time, or bodily autonomy in a way that makes her uncomfortable or distraught, it’s street harassment.
And there’s a big difference between “You better take good care of those tattoos, baby” (actual comment from a random man on the street) and “Excuse me, I hope this isn’t intrusive, but I really like the line work on that tattoo” (also an actual comment from a random man on the street).
And while there are a lot of awesome reasons to get tattooed, most women (I dunno – there might be some of you out there!) don’t do it in the hopes of dudes shouting at them on the sidewalk.
So please don’t do it anymore.
We’re just trying to order an earl gray latte.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She holds a BS in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.