Updated: Mar 26, 2020
When I got my first tattoo, I called my sisters and begged them to break the news to my very Dominican and very strict mother. I was 20 at the time and living at a friend’s house in Nevada for the summer. We spent the weekend in San Francisco and within 2 hours of being there I walked by a tattoo shop on Haight and Ashbury and made the decision that’s where I wanted to get my first one. I called my best friend who was in New York and told her I was going to get the tattoo we planned to match and the very same day she went across the street from her job and got it too. We both got anchors on our ankles. Back then, our tattoos were a symbol for “staying grounded”. Today the symbolization remains but the tattoo means something way deeper. It represents our relationship and the role we play in each other’s lives, something beautiful. When my mom first saw the tattoo, her reaction was what I expected.
“Te estás dañando tu cuerpo,” she said as she examined my ankle.
She would follow her disbelief with a talk about a Bible [s1] scripture on why tattoos are a sin. For the next few months, whenever I spoke on the phone with anyone from back home or saw my older family members in person, they would bring up the fact that “los tatuajes son para siempre” and make remarks such as “tu nunca vas a encontrar a un hombre serio, porque los hombres serios no le hacen caso a mujeres con tatuajes.”
I could live with that, I thought to myself.
Fast forward about four years, I was in North Carolina at brunch with one of my other best friends and her super cool mother, when we decided to get tattoos. I decided to get a tattoo my sister had designed years before that represented all my older sister, herself and I. They were absolutely flattered the second I showed them, but this time they confirmed they wouldn’t break the news to my mom. Especially because they refused to deal with the conversation that followed. So, of course, I gathered up all my courage and decided to hide my tattoo for as long as I could. With time, I became forgetful of the fact that I had a tattoo on my back, and when my mother finally saw it, it was the exact reaction I was expecting:
“Yo no puedo creer que tu te sigas dañando tu cuerpo de esa manera,” she said as she shook her head in disappointment.
As usual, the same talks came from the same family members, and even close family friends. I let the words go in one ear and out the other.
A year or so later, I got my first facial piercing on my nose. I made sure I got the smallest stud, hoping it would go unnoticed. I wasn’t living at home, so it did for a while and when my mom finally noticed I was surprised by her “I don’t have anything else to tell you” attitude. After a while, I switched from a stud to a decent sized hoop and it surely didn’t go unnoticed. A close family friend, after not having seen me for months, hugged me hello and instead of, how are you? said:
“You know I love you, but that thing on your face makes you look ugly. You’re a beautiful girl, don’t damage your face by piercing it.”
I smiled politely and asked how she was doing. It shocked me to hear someone actually define my beauty purely based on looks. It disgusted me. Thankfully, I have been experiencing this kind of harsh criticism my entire life and have spent the same amount of time not letting it define me. I have learned who I am and defining the word “beautiful” by different standards.
I began to think back to where these ideas that the older generations of my family believed came from. It made me take a closer look and think about why, if I was raised by these women who I considered to be strong and independent, were they still trapped inside the jail of beauty standards that is only defined by a person’s physical attributes. I wanted to find the exact moment in which the younger generations, still strong and still independent, freed themselves from such closed-minded beliefs and then I want to hold the hands of the older ones and patiently walk them towards the same freedom.
I thought about how I grew up. Since a very young age, I recall watching my mom, aunts and their friends, coloring their hair every three months, waxing their eyebrows, getting manicures and pedicures once a week, and getting plastic surgery and always talking about anti-aging face lotions. I remember wanting to be like them. I remember begging my mom to highlight pieces of my hair just so I could experience it, she would agree and would sometimes let me get manicures and pedicures too. I also began to shave at an early age. It was normal for me to constantly want to change what I thought was “wrong” with my body.
It took me a while to realize that you can’t blame someone for believing something they have believed their entire life, especially when those believes are instilled by their parents but, they are to blame for not trying to see the bigger picture; for not even attempting to understand why others have different beliefs. Unfortunately, as much as I love where I am from, I come from a culture in which piercings, tattoos and similar body alterations are considered to be “unladylike” and even ugly while plastic surgery is completely acceptable. As long as you are altering your body to “look better” it is okay, but not if you are doing so as a form of self-expression, or just because you want to.
My culture isn’t the only one to blame for this reality. Living in New York I’ve met women from other cultures in which the pressure to always look “perfect” is so intense, they almost look like robots; all designed the same. I have met women who refuse to cut their hair because short hair is “too masculine,” I have met women who I can’t recognize in person because what they put out onto social media is so edited, it’s not who they truly are. I have met women, who have had men break up with them because of their tattoos, claiming that they can’t bring a woman “that would do that to herself” home to their mothers. This isn’t a cultural issue anymore. This is a human kind issue. The change however, begins inside of each individual. It isn’t about changing everyone else’s mind, but about living true to who you are and what you want. It’s about doing things because you want to, and not because you feel as if you have to.
Today, I still dye my hair, but when I do it, it is because I am looking for a change, not because society deemed whatever hair color I pick to be what makes me look good. I go waxing every once in a while, but only when I want to and never because I feel ashamed of my body hair. I don’t let my body hair make me feel ugly but I also don’t use it as a weapon for political statements, because that too implies that I am doing something out of the norm. I still get manicures and pedicures, because I do love the way my nails look when they are painted, but I never go out of my way to do so if I can’t afford it at the time or if my time is limited. I wear make-up on most days, it’s almost a habit, but on the days where I wake up and I don’t feel like wearing it, I don’t. At first, it made me uncomfortable, but now it makes me feel good to not be a slave to it.
It’s not about rebelling against society. It would be nice to get rid of the pressures it puts on women. It’s about myself. It’s about being who I am, without wanting to change who I am physically to please others while not pleasing myself internally. It’s about not letting others define my beauty and not confusing what I look like with who I am, when who I am makes up what I look like. There’s no amount of plastic surgery, make-up, laser hair removal or hair dye that will fulfill the void of letting others tell me who I am and what’s beautiful. I decided I had to change myself as an individual and no longer be chained to the beliefs of my culture in order to have the right to demand for society to change as a whole.
Carolina is a born and raised Dominican Writer living in NYC. She moved to the United States in 2002 and has been writing since. You can find her performing live at open-mics throughout the 5 boroughs and on Instagram @Ughvolution.