My tattoos do not change the systems at hand, but they do announce to myself and others that I exist in multitudes and no one can take that away from me.
By Amari Gaiter
If I could travel back in time and tell a younger me that I have tattoos, my child self would be in disbelief, having internalized tenets of respectability from her elders and a society that declared tattoos ugly and permanent signs of “sin and unprofessionalism.” I would also be surprised by—and immensely proud of—the passion with which I believe in and love myself as a Black woman today.
I consider my tattoos portals to my superpowers. In the face of insidious misogynoir, they serve as permanent, personal reminders that I am beautiful, autonomous and worthy of love and liberation. They defy oppressive standards regarding Black appearances while affirming my agency.
A small California poppy flower blooms on my ankle, a memory from the exhilarating night one of my best friends and I ventured downtown to get tattoos commemorating our longstanding friendship. Now, when I glance at my ankle I am transported to a moment that demonstrates how much I am loved and supported; the tattoo serves as a reminder that I carry community in my soul wherever I go.
I was not always so able to see the love and light in my life, nor did I always feel so confident in myself and my abilities; I grew up feeling as though my existence was a burden. As I flipped through an old personal journal not long ago, I saw harrowing words heavily sprawled across the page: “Is this just the Black girl’s curse? To be constantly expected to hold the world on your shoulders, while the same world rips the earth from underneath your feet?”
Navigating the world as a Black woman, I learned over time that we are treated as sources of entertainment, desire and labor while our “Black womanness” is a demarcation of otherness and a source of historical contempt.
In her work Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, Hortense Spillers articulated how the role of the Black woman was carved during slavery out of the need for labor and social stratification for white capitalist profit. “Black women” became defined by the violent, torturous use of their bodies as workers and reproductive tools for society; Black women’s captive bodies were valued for consumption and usefulness, their gender roles created to fulfill and sustain colonial labor demands.
Socialized in a society that is founded upon such degradation of Black women, I began to believe the notion that I could only be valuable as a person if I was being “of service” to others, that I am worthless if my labor, time and body are not being consumed or utilized by others.
The same messaging surrounding the dehumanization and consumption of Black women’s existences persists today. Used as debate tools, Black women are constantly told how to act and what to wear — Mo’Nique’s recent Instagram post belittling an (assumed to be) Black woman in an airport for wearing a bonnet, tank top, and shorts is only one colorist and fatphobic example of this. The policing of Black women extends beyond appearances; even our agency and emotionality are critiqued and undermined. Just look at how Sha’Carri Richardson is being unfairly punished, humiliated and shamed by the Olympics and social media for choosing to smoke marijuana to cope with the loss of her mother.
Black women are told to occupy less space and have even been murdered for demanding the world make room for us, like Ma’Khia Bryant, Dominique Fells, Oluwatoyin Salau and countless other Black girls and women taken from this earth too soon. Black women are harassed for voicing an opinion and fighting for our communities, like Noname or Maya Moody, the latter of whom has been publicly harassed by a colorist rapper for over a year now. When we voice our experiences with harm, we are gaslighted, told that we cannot be trusted to be truthful arbiters of our own experiences, just like Megan Thee Stallion.
My own internalization of such misogynoir combined with my lived experiences led to the steady and gradual erosion of my mental health. My depression worsened as I internalized a persistent myth that happiness is something not meant for Black women, especially not for those of us who have experienced trauma. My anxiety increased every time I was catcalled, constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure I was not being followed home by the countless Black men commenting on my curves or offering to show me his genitals.
I did not feel comfortable in my own body nor my own skin. My eating became disordered in an unhealthy attempt to feel in control of my body while shrinking myself, taking up less space. I used my trauma as a device to convince those around me with more societal power/privilege to believe my pain and experiences, feeling never-ending exhaustion from the emotional labor. I buried myself in social justice work to help my community better these conditions while disregarding my own wellbeing.
I felt unlovable and devalued. The matrices of domination that dictate a Black woman’s place in society, that forcefully limit us and relegate us to the margins, would not stop yelling at me in anger: “You are an unwanted burden.”
My tattoos symbolize my response to misogynoir’s demands. In the words of Audre Lorde, “I am who I am, doing what I came to do,” and that is enough. I am embarking in a lifelong process of reprogramming my mind, recognizing the profound dissonance between who I know myself to be and how society is determined to perceive and treat me—and internalizing that those external perceptions do not matter. My tattoos help me feel confident in my journey to overcoming those perceptions and obstacles, serving as reminders of my power, beauty and strength.
When I feel caged by a society that harms, exploits, and disparages Black women, I look to the small birds sprawled across my collar bones. They remind me that I am like a free bird, limitless and full of divine light, that deserves to soar, rise and rest. One of the birds is ever so slightly higher than the other, representing that my imperfections are welcomed and beautiful.
The tattoo on my arm energizes me when confronted with hopelessness or deradicalizing disbelief. This piece is inspired by a concept I call radical imagination, the unapologetic envisioning and the creative power of the mind to conceive of a better future, despite society telling you that it’s all impossible. A reflection of myself, my tattoo mirrors me and represents how I have the power to fight for the creation of a better world; it symbolizes my belief in the eternal presence of my own power, self-love, growth and the earth beneath my feet.
When I am told that liberation is an impossible feat, the river on my thigh reminds me that freedom courses through my veins, inherited from our ancestors and continuously sustained by our communities and histories like untamed waters. I am reminded of Harriet Tubman, who fought for abolition at the Combahee River, envisioning a world where “My people are free.”
My tattoos do not change the systems at hand, nor have I miraculously healed from my mental health struggles overnight, but they do announce to myself and others that I exist in multitudes and no one can take that away from me. While I continue to heal, go to therapy, fight for the abolition of misogynoir and all systems of oppression, I hope to grow my tattoo collection throughout my life, mirroring the lifelong journey I have towards self-acceptance and liberation.
Today, I write in my journal: “You either take all of me, or none of me. I deserve prioritization. I deserve wholeness. I deserve love from myself and others. I deserve to break through the perceptions of others. I deserve to protect my energy. I deserve to heal and grow. I am the embodiment of light and love, and I deserve the whole goddamn world.”
Amari Gaiter is a writer, aspiring community organizer, facilitator, and a lover of music based in New York and Los Angeles. On a given day, you can find them watching terrible television, reading theory, singing loudly, and doing mutual aid work. She is an advocate for and believer in abolition, food sovereignty, and the power of community. You can support their advocacy, as well as find more of their work at: https://linktr.ee/amarigaiter
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