Why Tattoos Matter to Me

When strangers ask me why I got this paper airplane tattoo on my forearm, I weakly reply that I've always wanted a tattoo in this spot. I don't tell them that this is where I typically have an intravenous line put in. I don't say that it's where the bruises first show up, the gashes from a blown line, the rash from a new allergy.

So much of recovery from an illness–especially ones that dramatically change your appearance, like cancer–is learning to accept your body as it is now, functioning and alive. It may continue to change with new treatments and surgeries, but the never-ending work toward body image redemption is an essential part of recovery.

I love having scars: they're proof of a battle fought and if you're looking at it, a battle won, if only temporarily. They are something to point to, something to indicate survival. The red slash across my throat says "this marks the spot where the cancer was removed," and I like being able to tilt my head up and say "here," when I'm asked where my cancer was located.

This week, I'm covered in bruises and marks, and my face is red and bloated from high doses of prednisone. My legs are a battlefield of tiny pink injection spots and the bruises that follow. I feel alien to myself, and frustrated that I can't control what's happening to me. 

I can cut my hair, dye it black, and pick what I wear, but I can't fix the terror on the inside invading my skin, blurring the hard lines of my face. This is ugly, and no cool scar is going to change that.

This leads me to reclaim parts of my body that have been lost. This tattoo, as silly as I may find it now, is always commented on by nurses looking for a viable vein. It's mine; a drawing made by someone I paid to burn on me, on Haight Street in San Francisco, on a day when I felt wholly in control of my body and my self.

Tattoos are a choice, a strong lasting expression. I can't think of another way to better assert what little power I have over my own body. It is here, forever, a prettier parallel to the scars on my insides.


  1. I love this entry. I just googled tattoos in the workplace and this post came up! I'm so glad I didn't revise my search before opening this in a new tab. You're a great writer and a warrior. :)