And it got me thinking about…bodily autonomy in African society
My first tattoo was at the age of 23, and I got it after contemplating for 3 years. I went back and forth with my decision, thinking of whether my mother would disown me, whether my ancestors would reject me, whether God would judge me (consider Leviticus 19:28), and whether any of it mattered.
See the thing about me is, I was a “good child” growing up. I loved nothing except school, church and family. I’m talking school Monday to Friday and homework after school, church services Friday and Sunday, and whatever youth ministries events taking place on Saturdays. Uninterested in parties, going out except with church mates, alcohol or drugs. I was the typical ‘first daughter’ and was used as an example to my other cousins. Even when I moved away for college and experienced the hustle and bustle of life in eGoli, I was unmoved and unshaken in my conviction of being the model child. My mother never needed to worry about me.
Imagine the look, then, on her face, when I returned home for school holidays and assaulted her vision with the devil’s ink on my wrist. One could have mistaken her reaction with that of someone who had just found out a loved one had murdered someone in cold blood. It was shock, betrayal, disgust! She could not believe that her model daughter had done something so offensive, so evil, so malicious. And she’s not alone.
The ‘e’ in tattoo stands for ‘evil’
Many people hate tattoos. It is an abomination to soil one’s body with permanent markers, as this body is believed to be a temple. Rooted in Abrahamic religious writings, marking one’s skin intentionally is vehemently opposed and seen to be an invitation to evil. Women with tattoos are viewed as rebels, bad girls, unattractive to the good, nice Christian man. (And perhaps another reason I chose to get my second tattoo was for that very purpose – to present myself as less attractive, less agreeable, to men…perhaps.)
My first tattoo was an act of rebellion. I did it, not only because I had been wanting to get it done for three years but also, because I wanted to escape the box I was contained in, to remove the ‘good girl’ title I held in childhood, and to establish who I was outside my family’s ideas of me.
My second tattoo was an act of autonomy. I have been granted this one body, this one canvass, and it is mine. Not my mother’s, not society’s, and not my future husband’s. Mine. And I will look back, 40 years from now, at my saggy skin and wrinkled ink, and smile, remembering the crisis I had in my early twenties regarding whose body I inhabit – my mom’s, society’s, my husband’s, or my own. And I will smile because I chose mine.
As one of my favorite podcasters once said, “maybe your body is a temple, but mine is a canvass.”