Tattoos and the Quest for Authenticity

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It’s been forever since I have posted. I’m inconsistent. That’s my thing. Let’s move on.

I got a new tattoo last week which got me thinking about why I get tattoos. I get this question a lot, whether explicitly or simply through a raised eyebrow and head shake of disapproval. Everyone has their own reasons for getting tattoos and I can’t speak to all of them, but I can at least shed a little light on what led me to get tattoos and what they mean to me.

For most of my life, I placed a high value on what other people thought of me. When I was a kid, I was always a little weird and different from everyone else. So when I started to grow up and become more aware of other people’s opinions of me, I started toning down my weirdness and trying harder to fit in. I’ve always been good at reading other people, so I used this skill to my advantage and figured out what other people wanted me to do or say, and generally went with that. The result was that I had lots of friends, or at least very few people who disliked me, and very few people who really knew me.

As I became an adult, this compulsive need for other people to like me became more burdensome. At least in high school, I didn’t have to try very hard to be like my friends because we were all pretty similar to start with. College presented me with a whole new, more difficult, arena of people to imitate: people in Lily Pulitzer dresses and Jack Rogers shoes, with Longchamp purses and Patagonia fleeces. I knew immediately that I didn’t fit in, that this wasn’t me. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the people I was meeting, but I was worried my differences were too apparent, and that they wouldn’t like me. My confidence during this time was at an all time low.  I had all the things you’d expect a college student experiencing an identity crisis to have: a tendency to drink too much, an emotionally unhealthy relationship, and the remarkable ability to pretend that none of it was happening. That ability to detach myself and say “this is what I’m doing, but it’s not who I am” was the enabling force in my identity crisis.

I had a couple experiences that felt like bright spots in the middle of this identity crisis. First, I studied abroad (I know…so basic), and got to experience independence in a brand new city where I felt like I could be whoever I wanted. During that semester in Scotland I felt more like myself than I had at any other time in college. It was liberating. I commemorated the feeling with my first tattoo. It was a compass, to remind me that sometimes you have to get lost in order to find yourself and that the journey to self-discovery is a never-ending one.

The other experience that allowed me to be more myself was meeting my now husband, Umur. Anyone who knows Umur knows that generally, he doesn’t give a fuck what other people think. He is unapologetically himself regardless of the situation and regardless of who he’s with. When I met him, I watched in awe how joyful and easy life can be when you aren’t living in your own head. He didn’t constantly gauge other people’s reactions and adjust accordingly the way I did. He didn’t replay interactions for days after the fact, wondering if he’d said something he shouldn’t have. He is easy to get to know, and he is the kind of person that makes other people feel more free to be themselves. And with his contagious authenticity, I started to let go of my fear of standing out and embrace the freedom that comes with that.

After we were together for about a year and a half, he asked me to marry him. I said yes and I was thrilled, but my happiness was tainted with anxiety. Even though I knew this was the guy I wanted to spend my life with, the overwhelming fear of what people would think came flooding back. Coming from an upper class highly-educated community, getting married at 23 is not exactly viewed favorably. I knew that in the eyes of my peers, I was supposed to be focusing on my career, on traveling and living a fabulous instagram-worthy life. I knew that people would secretly think that I was somehow throwing my life away or settling. Though I wanted to marry him and I felt that it was the right choice for me, I obsessed over what people would think. Were people talking about me behind my back? Did they disapprove? What did this make them think of me?

Later after we were married, I realized that I almost let this uncontrollable need for people to approve of my decisions ruin what should have been the best day of my life. I loved Umur deeply and I knew in my heart that marrying him was the right choice for me, and yet I couldn’t push away the anxiety that came along with taking a different path from most people I knew. And I let this anxiety consume me. I let it infect and diminish my happiness. And though at times I wish more than anything that I hadn’t felt this way and that I could go back and do it all differently, I think it was the wake up call I needed to change. I stopped caring what other people thought initially because I had to, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to move forward in my life. But I also stopped caring because I was horrified at what that compulsive need had turned me into. I had become a person who almost let other people’s opinions dictate the course of my life. And then I almost let other people’s opinions stop me from enjoying one of the most important moments of my life. Since then I have decided to be different. I have decided to value my happiness more than other people’s opinions. I have decided to embrace who I am, even when other people don’t like it or understand it.

When I got that first tattoo in Scotland, I remember feeling so free. Free to be who I was and to make a decision for myself, with complete disregard for what anyone else thought. It was like putting down the very heavy load of public opinion and feeling how much lighter and easier it was to just be myself. My tattoos are almost literally my heart on my sleeve. They are my way of embracing who I am and letting go of the fear that other people won’t like me. In some ways, my tattoos are maybe even a kind of test for the people I interact with. I don’t want people in my life who judge others without knowing anything about them. If someone is going to write me off because I have tattoos, then quite honestly, they are not the kind of person I want to impress anyways. I’d rather be around people who care more about what kind of person I am. My tattoos don’t allow me to hide or try to blend in. They force me to be myself, in every situation, even when it feels scary. They are also my reminder to not take life so seriously and to not live crippled by fear. It’s easy to become paralyzed by the fear that you might regret something in the future. This fear causes a lot of people to never do what they really want to do, and to waste their lives terrified of making a mistake.

I get asked a lot, “what if you regret that tattoo when you are 80?” My first response is always, “Listen, I’m going to look like shit when I’m 80. I think this tattoo will be the least of my concerns.” But in all seriousness, I don’t think I could ever regret something that felt authentic and meaningful at the time. If it loses its original meaning to me over the years, at least it will serve as a reminder for a time I felt bold enough to be who I was. I know there will be times in my life when I will again find myself caught up in what other people think. I hope in those moments my tattoos remind me that I don’t have to live that way and that there is freedom and happiness on the other side of that fear.

-S

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