By guest contributor Cassandra Baim
Image by Djordje Petrovic on Pexels
I don’t remember ever wanting anything to do with my own body.
To be more specific, I grew up not understanding that my body was my own. Every family gathering necessitated hugs and kisses for elderly relatives, regardless of whether I wanted to be embraced or not. My paternal grandmother, an extremely loving and kind woman who saved every art project I ever made, appointed herself the unofficial keeper of my appearance. From the time my hair started growing until her death in 2011, she wasted no time in telling me how women would pay thousands of dollars at beauty parlors to achieve my curls and color. A haircut would have her scowling and insisting my parents save a curly lock for her. When I dyed my hair black in middle school, she nearly gave my mom the silent treatment for allowing me to sully my natural auburn highlights.
My parents had a different sort of ownership over my body. My mom, a chronic yo-yo dieter and student of the fad diets of the eighties and nineties, wasted no time in reminding me how lucky I was to be naturally thin, how she hoped I would never grow up to look like her. My dad, also overweight, took a different tack—complimenting how healthy my scant meals were when I decided to cut out all fat and sugar from my diet as a preteen, effectively starving myself for my entire adolescence.
I kept myself dangerously skinny for my parents, and in creating unnecessary health problems for myself, I invited even more unwanted attention to my body from concerned friends and teachers. I was a scrawny teen draped in black baggy sweaters, begging the public to stop perceiving me.
My body was still a stranger to me when I left for college, despite being out of the watchful eye of family. I was excited to start anew at a university with fifteen thousand students. I was excited to finally be invisible. I did not understand how much my eating disorder had stalled my own development until I was newly surrounded by all sorts of bodies. No amount of makeup or floral-printed dresses could make me feel comfortable in my breastless and hipless body.
I took the plunge in late 2011. I left a party with a man I had just met, and told no one where I was going or what I was planning on doing. Walking down the icy street with him was the most free I had ever felt. He was a sweet dark-haired senior at Tufts University, and I spent the whole night making sure he did not know he was my first. I closed my eyes when he kissed me, and when he undressed me, and when he put his face between my thighs.
I was worlds away in my own mind. I came back to earth when I felt the sharp pull of his mouth on my neck. It was the same kind of sharp sting I felt when I was a little girl and I gave myself a hickey on my inner arm. I didn’t know what that mark meant, all I knew is that if I bit myself and inhaled the soft flesh, my right inner elbow would bloom crimson with broken capillaries. I made that. I was proud, and I thought the mark was beautiful, but my own mom’s horrified reaction told me I should feel shame. But as the gentle dark-haired man marked me, my doubts disappeared. I opened my eyes to a college bedroom, my mind and body finally in the same place. I put my hand to the mark the next morning. I felt different, and I had something small to show for it.
I celebrated my newfound bodily autonomy with my first tattoo four months later. Tattoos were strictly verboten growing up, and the reason changed with the day. Some days it was because Jews were not allowed to get tattoos (to say nothing of the pork chops we had for dinner the night before), and other days it was because Baim family members do not get tattoos. My dad believed tattoos were for sex workers and criminals, and my mom sent me a few articles, citations sorely lacking, linking tattoos to skin cancer.
Regardless of the reason, the verdict was always the same—no tattoos until after college graduation, and even then it was implied I needed to ask permission. But then my grandmother died, and I became one inheritance worth richer. I decided to get a lily on my right shoulder blade, to honor my grandmother’s namesake.
My parents scowled and balked at how much I was willing to pay for the piece, but they knew they were powerless to stop me. On the tattoo table, face down with the artist’s arm pressed deeply into my back, I realized the powerful intimacy of tattooing. I craved that kind of touch after I left the studio. Though I was only on the table for thirty minutes, I could not get over the pain of the scalding hot needle and the pressure of the artist’s arms.
For that half hour I surrendered my body to him, and I wanted more. I needed that individualized attention. I felt addicted to it. In the years preceding my first piece, my social media was full of pictures of my oldest friend freshly tattooed on intimate parts of her body.
This was long before any of us had the language for defining or recognizing internalized misogyny, and my friends and I derided her for such desperate and expensive attention-seeking. But I was also willing to clear my savings account to feel the focused attention of the tattoo needle.
It would be a few years before I could adorn myself more than once every eighteen months, and that time would coincide with an unexpected sexual awakening.
The connection between tattoos and sex is not lost on me. The desire for one begets the desire for the other. I couldn’t shake the need for pain and pressure, so I asked my partners to leave marks during sex. I wanted them to bite, scratch, bruise, and pull. I wanted to look in the mirror hours later and see proof of them on my body. I submitted to their teeth and nails the way I submitted to the first tattoo artist I saw. These marks don’t appear anywhere I’d show in public, but in places only my partners and I can access. These marks are for me. They’re far cheaper than a professional tattoo, and much more temporary too. By presenting my body to a partner to mark up as they please, or an artist to brand me with a deft hand, I am declaring my body to be absolutely my own.
My tattooed skin is a map of where my brain and heart have travelled. The twenty pieces scattered across my body remind me of the day my long-term partner and I got matching tattoos for his twenty-ninth birthday, or my last night in my college town when a new friend drew the Harry Potter glasses on my left pinky using india ink and a sewing needle tied to a pencil. The black-eyed Susan sitting next to the lily on my right shoulder reminds me of my mom, and the four dancers on my left arm, pulled from ee cummings’ erotic poetry collection, helped me come to terms with my bisexuality before I had the language to talk about it.
As I decorated myself, I felt more at ease in my skin. The black ink on my arms and legs gave me a reason to cover my body less, but I no longer felt the desperate shame of showing off. I felt proud of my body, and the work other artists had put into it. I love to give my partners a tour of my life through the art on my skin. My tattoos are a way of knowing me without asking. I’m finally at peace with the body I’ve been given, because I am able to change it.
Cassandra Baim was born in Chicago, Illinois where she grew up with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. She earned a degree in English and writing in upstate New York, then took her talents to New York City to pursue fiction writing and publishing. Instead she found herself working as a barista, personal stylist, bookseller, book reviewer, and agent’s assistant. You can find her words in PANK Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Electric Literature, and The JAB. When not reading or writing, she enjoys riding her bicycle, sewing, crossword puzzles, cooking, political activism, and teaching her cat to fetch. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York and is the fiction editor for Derailleur Press.