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Permanent fixtures: what a tattoo can do for you

Now more than ever, the medium is the message
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Courtesy of @teekatatts/Instagram
Courtesy of @teekatatts/Instagram

Content warning: mentions of self-harm.

“Getting a tattoo is stupid,” my mother always told me. “If you killed someone and the police were trying to find you, it would be so easy!”

At the time, I was too young and wide-eyed to wonder why my mother linked body art to murder. Thankfully, it would later lead to many humorous conversations. However, her words never left me as I ventured into the working world.

Truthfully, there are many downsides to getting inked. While the actual magnitude of tattoo-based employment discrimination has never been confirmed, there is a risk that having tattoos will affect your job prospects. Indeed, when you are struggling to graduate with thousands of dollars in student debt, even a slim chance at unemployment is too great.

My last two jobs would have fired any employee that got new tattoos after they were hired, and considering that I want to pursue a career in law — a conservative, paper-copy profession — tattoos could potentially hurt my future career.

Nonetheless, running down my forearm and tickling my wrist sits a freshly-inked sailboat. If tattoos come with so much stigma and criticism, why would I put so much effort into getting one?

The reason why tattoos are so popular in the first place is because of the stories that they tell. At a young age, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and like many other university students, I have struggled with my mental health.

Within my first undergraduate year, I lost 20 pounds and quickly transitioned from healthy to underweight. My weight loss should have been an obvious indicator that I was overexerting myself, but I didn’t see it that way — strangely, I almost felt proud of it. It indicated to me that I was diligent, so I continued to work full-time while enrolled in full-time studies.

After working until 11:00 pm, I often stumbled home and neglected the dinner my mother prepared for me. Too exhausted to eat, I would tear off my winter coat, fall asleep on the couch, and then wake up at 6:00 am for another day of school and work. Rinse. Repeat.

Meanwhile my mother and I engaged in explosive arguments. She told me to quit and work fewer hours, but I refused. In part, I blamed her for my constant stress. I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations, and my ambition blinded me from their concern.

While the weight loss was obvious, other symptoms of my self-neglect went unrecognized. The relationships I had with the people around me were deteriorating; I had no sense of community on campus; I often showed up to work sick or unkempt; I regressed into self-harm. Looking back, I was undeniably lonely.

Eventually, I began to volunteer again, and I began to write. I found another job that worked better with my school schedule, and decided to spare myself a few classes. Therapy helped along the way.

Bit by bit, I focused more on myself, although it was not easy. Making healthy choices took tremendous self-control, and with each passing day I feared I would fall back on old habits.

I needed something concrete and something real to keep myself grounded, so I scraped together enough money to finally get a tattoo — something that I had wanted for the past four years. While it was largely symbolic, it finally felt like an act of independence and a step in the right direction.

For many, a sailboat is a symbol of adventure and expedition. For me, it is a lifeline that keeps me from drowning. Some may doubt my decision and worry that I will regret it in the future, but I welcome that when the time comes.

When I am old enough to look at my tattoo and think of the problems it symbolizes as being small, it will mean that I have become stronger — and that is exactly what I hope for.