The hot yoga class I went to last week made me sweat the purple right out of my hair. Much of that perspiration can be attributed to the 98-degree heat, but I also had the distinct feeling that I was trapped in a dream where I was being forced to give an improvised speech on a stage in front of a packed auditorium.
A tattooed, violet-haired, genderqueer millennial draws attention in a cardio sauna packed with a dozen identical ultra-tan middle-aged Lululemon spokesmoms.
I stuck out like Cady Heron on her first day of American high school. Did I mention I live a few suburbs away from the school that Mean Girls is based on? That film is an accurate microcosmic representation of the culture this side of Lake Michigan. So accurate, in fact, that I consider it a documentary.
I generally prefer practicing yoga on my own. I don’t have to worry about matching the teacher’s pace or wonder if the bionic woman next to me has fallen asleep during her ten-minute headstand. Practicing alone is more comfortable. Safer. In my years-long absence from the studio — and from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago — I forgot that yoga is about balance, strength, and passive-aggressively judging your classmates’ mat brands.
One woman, henceforth falsely christened Sharon, blocked my exit from the studio one day. Despite her small stature, it was clear that Sharon was a high-ranking general in this army of divorcée clones. She pointed to the tattoo on my left shoulder, a bluish-green lotus flower with an om symbol blossoming.
“I love your om,” she said, delivering the compliment with the precious backhanded tone everyone on the North Shore seems to master in utero. Before I could return Sharon’s serve, she went on to tell me that she would never, ever get a tattoo. “It’s permanent! You’ll regret it when you’re older.” She punctuated it with a crinkle-nosed wolf grin.
I had to bite my cheek to stop myself from telling Sharon that those three kids of hers are also very, very permanent.
If I believed for even a moment that Sharon would listen to someone wearing Target-brand yoga pants, I would explain to her exactly why I got my om tattoo. It isn’t on my deltoid because I read the back of a Deepak Chopra book once.
If I believed for even a moment that Sharon would listen to someone wearing Target-brand yoga pants, I would explain to her exactly why I got my om tattoo. It isn’t on my deltoid because I read the back of a Deepak Chopra book once. When I see that beautiful lotus in the mirror, it reminds me that, even though my skin is as pale as a shut-in vampire’s, I am still proud of my North Indian heritage. My grandfather was a partition-era freedom fighter who married a Swedish woman. A generation later, our family reunions might look like an Ikea staff party, but we speak Hindi and get down to Bollywood music.
My tattoos are my history. Many folks get tattoos for fun or for beauty’s sake and I think that’s wonderful. For me, though, they’re all linked to aspects of my identity.
Some pieces are easier to explain than others. I was born in Hawai’i, so there are hibiscus flowers on my ribs. I got a band of music notes around my right bicep to celebrate my love for the art form. There’s an Aquarius symbol impulsively inserted amongst said music notes because my artist realized halfway through the line work that he’d applied the original stencil wrong. (Don’t worry, I found a new artist.)
I avoid revealing the truth behind my first tattoo, the blue and purple butterfly on my left forearm. On my 19th birthday, I decided I could stomach living another year and to go get a tattoo instead of waiting to cross the train tracks until the red lights started flashing. Usually when people ask, “Why a butterfly?” I reply with, “His name is Ulysses!” and gleefully imitate my parents’ shocked faces when I pulled up my sleeve.
When I show people the quote on the left side of my ribcage, they ask what inspired me to get so much text on such a sensitive area. “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” I don’t tell them that I craved the sensation of the needle piercing my skin a thousand times a minute. I don’t tell them that pain was the only thing I could feel while I was wrapped up tight in my cocoon of repression and closeted denial about my gender fluidity. When someone asks where I found the quote, I laugh and say, “A fridge magnet! Can you believe it?”
Speaking of terribly painful locations for body art, I have the four elemental symbols from Avatar: the Last Airbender down my spine. It’s my favorite piece, and I let it slide when people assume that I’m a superfan with a high pain tolerance.
Neither of those assumptions is entirely wrong, but the whole truth is that Aang’s visit lesson with Guru Pathik helped me embrace mindfulness and spirituality in a way that I never knew I could. Korra’s recovery arc in the fourth season helped me find peace and cope with my own violent, traumatic experiences. The groundbreakingly gay final moments of The Legend of Korra made me run laps around the room for 12 whole minutes, screaming “It happened! I can’t believe it happened!” much to the chagrin of my three viewing compatriots. I tripped and skinned my knee partway through, but that didn’t stop me from rejoicing as loudly as I could.
When I look at all of the colorful ink on my body, I see the spectrum of my experiences. My tattoos, especially the ones that I got during difficult times, are reminders that I have explored the darkest corners of my own mind and survived. In fact, I’ve come out stronger.
So no, Sharon. I don’t think I’ll regret a thing.
edited by rachel.