Tattooed feminine bodies: regulation, conformity, and resistance

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Normative constructions of femininity in the UK are constructed around white, middle-class, and thin ideals for women (Francombe-Webb & Silk, 2016), serving to ‘other’ different productions of femininity. Tattooed women have historically been associated with working-class bodies. Class-based constructions shape the way that the tattooed body is read, with particular implications for how tattoos are seen as ‘tasteful’ and ‘authentic’ (DeMello, 2000). The intersection of tattooed bodies with factors such as class and gender serve as points of tension to unpack in regard to how women negotiate their feminine positions – tacky versus tasteful, common versus other, visible versus invisible.

Using an intersectionally informed qualitative approach, this thesis explores the production of discourses both within the media, and from interviews with tattooed women. In the media analysis, 35 articles were selected following a systematic search. Tattooed feminine bodies are represented in varying ways: as transformative objects, as cautionary tales, and also as a fashion trend or artistic object, accessible and appealing to middle-class women. The discourses (re)produced within the media articles are congruent with previous research, linking tattoos with issues of mental health and wellbeing (Roberts, 2012) and working-class constructions of tattooed women as unattractive (Swami & Furnham, 2007).

I interviewed fourteen tattooed women in total, using purposive sampling to speak to women from a variety of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and employment positions. Discourse analysis (Parker, 1992) was drawn upon to explore how the women constituted themselves in talk, and what the function of these constructions were. Within the interviews, women simultaneously narrate tattoos as resistant objects that enable them to transgress ideals of the feminine body, and regulate the tattooed body through constructions of ‘right’ and wrong’ ways to be tattooed. Women’s accounts also articulated how tattoos are embodied, and also drew on a sense of tattoos as inscribing meaning on the skin. In their accounts, their talk about the tattooed feminine body intersected with other accounts of the feminine, as ‘mother’, as relational being, as ‘professional’. The analysis demonstrates the importance of exploring the multiplicities in women’s positionings.

I conclude this thesis by considering the methodological and theoretical implications of the research. As a reflexive researcher, I have acknowledged how I as a tattooed woman, academic, researcher, and feminist have co-constructed the discourses produced and presented within the research. I argue that it is important to draw on reflexive accounts in feminist research, showing how the self has an impact on research (Wilkinson, 1988), allowing for further exploration of these positions. I also argue that this research contributes to how we understand gaze, regulation, and resistance. Tattooed bodies may subvert normative gendered expectations, but they also conform to and reinforce them in others, and are still positioned under the male gaze. The othering of tattooed women is done by reinforcing one’s own position as a tattooed woman – regulating the body through the production of factors such as authenticity and taste. The thesis navigates the multiplicity of positionings for tattooed women, providing a point for future research to unpack.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorJane Callaghan (Supervisor), Evangelia Prokopiou (Supervisor) & Lisa Fellin (Supervisor)

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