According to most messaging out there, fat bodies aren't really supposed to be decorated. Their rolls are unsightly, their cellulite is a hot mess, and until they "fix" themselves, the art of self-love just shouldn't be on their radar. Thankfully, unapologetic plus size women with tattoos prove that this kind of thinking is pretty prejudicial in nature and so worth actively fighting against.
When you're a fat person in a culture that generally works to stigmatize and ridicule your body, it's arguably crucial to find ways of reclaiming your autonomy and cultivating self-worth. Body art has long served as a means to developing better self-image for a lot of humans, with surveys conducted by Texas Tech University sociology professor Jerome Koch in 2015 even finding that "women with multiple tattoos report higher levels of self-esteem than anyone else in the study," as reported by research news source ScienceDaily. Self-identified fat and plus size women are definitely not exempt from the healing properties of ink.
Much like wearing a co-ord set that shows off one's VBO or rocking a two-piece bathing suit out in public, defying so-called rules for living and dressing as a fat person has become a tool that many utilize to celebrate figures they are regularly told to hate. And for these 12 women, self-decorating through tattoos has been among the most beneficial tools of all.
1. Kitty Morris
Fashion photographer and plus size blogger Kitty Morris says that before getting tattooed, she never showed off her legs, citing both her weight and eczema as reasons for this. "I wore full length leggings even in the middle of summer," she tells Bustle. "I saw [my body] as an inconvenience, something ugly to be hidden away."
Although she'd been conditioned to believe that tattoos — like tight dresses — were something she could only pull off upon losing weight, Morris decided to set those mentalities aside and take the plunge anyway. "Allowing myself to get tattooed was my way of telling myself I was deserving, and that my body was beautiful no matter what," she adds.
Getting inked was a way for Morris to start living in the present and in her body, rather than waiting until her body was "acceptable for society" in order to enjoy it. Her relationship with her legs now? "I have strong legs that have taken me all sorts of places, and getting my legs and thighs out has been so liberating," she says. "It's opened up my whole wardrobe, and summers are so much more comfortable now."
2. Sam Roswell
Alternative model and plus size style blogger Sam Roswell felt overly uneasy in her body before being tattooed. "Being the fat sibling, friend, student, I wanted that bit more to set me apart from others," she tells Bustle. "Growing up, I was often put down by my parents. My mother more than anyone. She called it 'tough love' and thought that being hard on me might make me change." Despite the body shaming she endured, Roswell was able to realize her own beauty and worth as she matured.
"I stopped hiding my arms, legs, and chest away," she says. "And the more tattoos I got, the more I embraced my body. We're so often conditioned to hide ourselves away to protect ourselves from any extra harassment or ridicule, but the extra color I've added only makes me want to reveal more."
Although Roswell doesn't believe that tattooing will necessarily make a perceived flaw disappear, she does feel that the new ink will directly allow one to see the "flaw" through a different lens, and embracing "a new way to fall in love with yourself can only be a good thing."
3. Jenna Rusnak
For plus size model Jenna Rusnak, ink became a direct metaphor for her personal growth in the body image department: Looking down at each tat a way to remind herself of the many stages of her life and of how far she has come. "A lot of people tend to think that just because we are plus size, we automatically want to cover our bodies and hide our 'flaws,'" she tells Bustle. "We have just as much right as anyone else to be comfortable in our own skin and in our creativity." Tattoos allow Rusnak to own her creativity and passions, but "being in an industry as a plus size model where most models don't have any ink and are mostly supposed to have that 'girl next door' look and feel" hasn't always made it easy to do so.
"I tried to play the game for awhile and cover my work, but I looked fake in my photos," she adds. This ultimately led to a crisis in identity. After all, her ink was a way of owning her body, and owning her body was essential in order to thrive in her field.
"I made the decision to stay true to myself and become authentic last year," Rusnak adds. "My ink has definitely cost me jobs, but [...] I'll never stop pushing the boundaries."
4. Sarah Culp
For as long as high school band director Sarah Culp can remember, she has been plus size. "I was teased pretty much relentlessly for all of elementary and middle school. Most of high school as well," she tells Bustle. "I didn't know I was pretty until college [...] my entire life before that, I was always told by people, 'Your face is so pretty, you'd be so hot if you lost weight.'" As a result, a bulk of her time was spent imagining her face on other people's bodies, hoping that one day she could be thin and worthy of self-love.
This narrative is no longer a part of Culp's life for the most part, but tattoos have been one undeniable way of showing love for a body that she felt was "wrong" for so long. "[Ink] draws attention to your skin, and if you happen to have more skin than others, than that's great," she says. It's the kind of attention that shows no apology: The kind that makes it clear that her body is not one that requires shame.
An extra perk of tattoos has been that "getting inked actually makes you more physically aware of your body and its limits," she says. Learning about the strength and potential of her body has allowed her to "claim" it more fully and "accept it more."
5. Breanna Ducat
"Any time we choose to place something so permanent on ourselves, it forces us to be proud to show off pieces of ourselves," producer Breanna Ducat tells Bustle. "For me, [tattooing] began as a way to cover parts of myself that I considered 'ugly,' but now I get tattoos as a way to embellish or exaggerate the parts of myself that I already love."
Some of Ducat's tattoos are direct symbols of her relationship with her body, particularly a design that reads "Beauty All My Own" at the top of her stomach. "This was a way of reclaiming myself and not giving a shit about what type of beauty I was to anyone else," she says. "Because I was all that I needed."
Although some might argue that tattoos are actually a way to hide parts of the body, rather than embrace them, Ducat feels that ink can be an important step forward regardless. Self-decoration can be "part of the process of embracing yourself," regardless of the initial motivations behind it. She's proof of this simple reality, noting that post-tattooing, "I find myself checking myself out more often."
6. Emily D. Whitaker
Artist and plus size blogger Emily D. Whitaker feels that tattoos are a clear act of rebellion, considering that plus size individuals are "told by society that we are not sexy, and we should cover up rather than show skin." She describes her relationship with her own body prior to being tattooed as one of "hate/hate," her cystic acne and weight being the biggest "flaws" she perceived.
By getting tattooed, however, she feels that her body has become a canvas of sorts. "I have gotten judgy looks by people, shocked looks, [and] loving looks in regards to my body art," she says. "Regardless of the reactions by society, be [they] positive or negative, my body is being seen in an artistic form."
Nowadays, tattoos have also become a way to combat any body negativity that manages to seep through her days. "When I'm feeling major low self-esteem, I make a point to look at my pretty tattoos," Whitaker adds. "My ink pieces [are signs] of celebration and survival [...] I know I have flabby arms and a chubby waist, stretch marks and cellulite, but I have pretty ink to remind me that I'm more than my self-perceived flaws."
7. Hannah Belle Lecter
Hannah Belle Lecter was always a little "chunky, even as a young child." She'd look at her "'prettier,' thinner cousins" and feel out of place. "My mother can be very superficial so it would break my heart to hear her brag about their 'model looks' and tell me how heavy I'm getting," she tells Bustle. "The criticism I endured at a young age left me with a flawed self-image, no matter the number on the scale. I was drinking Slim Fast shakes in middle school and countless other diets followed into adulthood, but none of them gave me the self-esteem boost that I was seeking."
The older she got, the more she began craving tattoos: Seeking them as a means to celebrate a body that she was growing to embrace thanks to distancing herself from toxic messaging. "My ink is a way to hone in on my uniqueness and tell short stories about who I am and what I care about," she says. "It definitely helps me feel worthy of showing off, since the focus is on a beautiful piece and the story it tells rather than my cellulite or stretch marks."
To anyone who believes that tattoos are a way to hide parts of the body, well, Lecter strongly disagrees. Bearing a son left her heavier and with "more stretch marks and 'shameful' flaws" on her body than ever before. But "some stretch marks actually run through my tattoos and some are right next to or on top of parts of my body that I used to hide." She feels that tattoos only serve to highlight the alleged imperfections, and that's part of why she loves them.
8. Katie Goulet
Canadian plus size blogger Katie Goulet has always had a passion for body modifications, whether in the form of changing her hair color, getting pierced, or wearing alternative clothing. But none of it really amped up her confidence. It wasn't until discovering tattoos that she was able to find motivation to love her body fully.
"Tattoos represent an expression, a collaboration with an artist, and a beauty that only the person who wears them can ultimately own," she tells Bustle. "If you love an image because it speaks to you in some way and you then transfer that on to a part of your body, whether you love that part or not, you will never be able to look at it the same way."
She believes that tattoos force the wearer to reevaluate whatever part of the body they are decorating with ink, and subsequently "retrain how you look at yourself in the mirror." Her tats have become a way to display her body proudly, rather than draping it in oversized clothing or covering her shape. But they've also become a way to get to know her body in more detail.
"I work with an artist to find a spot where the art moves with my body and follows my curves," Goulet says. "Ultimately, my body should be a sacred place. It’s all I’ve got to get me through this wonderful life. My body will change and grow and my ink will be there forever to adorn and decorate the skin it’s on."
9. Siobhan Fellas
Beauty therapist and alternative model Siobhan Fellas has found that ink is a way to very literally decorate her body with things she loves, and in turn celebrate that body for serving as a reminder of who she is and of all the journeys that've shaped her life.
But getting inked has also forced her to confront parts of the body that have caused her more grief. "I was so scared to get my legs tattooed because of cellulite," she tells Bustle. "I never got my legs out pre-tattoos, [but] now they're always out." She now enjoys the attention ink brings to parts of her body, particularly those that haven't always been easy to embrace.
10. Georgina Jones
Body positive writer Georgina Jones tells Bustle that prior to getting tattooed, her relationship with her body was hugely negative. "As I move forward in my self-love journey, I find myself with another tattoo," she adds. "I’m not sure which comes first, the tattoo to celebrate that step forward or the step forward spurred on by a tattoo."
She believes that ink is a direct and unapologetic reclamation of the body: A decoration that "requires no sizing or judgement." " In getting a tattoo, you’re inviting people to linger on your skin longer than they may have usually. And if you have gotten a tattoo to reclaim a space on your body, this newfound sense of attention that you enjoy purely because of your body is revolutionary," she adds.
Although Jones' development of self-love doesn't come down to tattoos alone, she appreciates that they have "been there to help document my journey and push it along a little bit."
11. Jen Hughes
Advocate of body positivity Jen Hughes has been fat since childhood. Although she got bullied by peers and dragged along on her mom's "latest dieting ventures," tattooing became a way to claim her body as opposed to seeing it as a cause for torment. "It may not be the way everyone chooses to celebrate their bodies," she tells Bustle, but it's been an irrevocably useful way for her to do exactly that — her Dolly Parton arm tattoo being the best example.
"In the last 10 years, I've become a lot more confident in my fat body," she tells Bustle. "But it was just a few years ago that I finally decided to stop giving a shit if anyone saw my fat upper arms (especially in the midwest heat). I knew I wanted [my Dolly Parton] piece to be big and elaborate. What better place than on one of those fat upper arms I’d been hiding all those years?"
Ink, Hughes feels, is a way to draw the eye and make people stare at you. Tattooing is thus "a little 'fuck you' to anyone who ever thought I should hide or be ashamed of any part of my body." In defying the world's expectations of how she should maintain her body, she's been able to learn to love that body even more. "I plan to do my right arm at some point too," she says. "Maybe even ~gasp~ my thighs."
12. Yuli Scheidt
Photographer, art director, and designer Yuli Scheidt didn't feel like she had any autonomy over her body when she was younger. As both an athlete and a fat person, she couldn't reconcile how the two aspects of her identity could coexist. "I really wished I could have more control on how I presented myself to the world," she tells Bustle. "But being a tall, wide teenager, clothing wasn’t an option [...] I started stretching my earlobes at 15 and that was the beginning of me feeling like I could control something about my appearance."
Although her ink is always more about the art than the imagery's relationship to her body image, she's found that her tattoos have allowed her to feel confident in showing off parts of the body she previously concealed. "My first three pieces I chose to have done in places that would be easy enough to cover with a T-shirt, since that’s all I wore at the time," she muses. "I honestly thought no one would ever see them. [But] eventually, I wanted people to see them. Particularly a piece on my right arm, which is where for the first time in my life I started to think it would be OK to show my arms."
Nowadays, Scheidt's tattoos delight her for more reasons than one — sometimes even serving to relieve anxiety. "I have a stick ‘n poke triangle on my hand that I stare at often and it brings a calm over me," she says. "It reaffirms my body is my own and I choose how present it to the world, or not."
Regardless of their motivations behind getting inked initially, it's clear that tattoos have the potential to help people fall in love with themselves in more ways than one. Plus size humans — arguably women, in particular — are usually expected to hide, to shrink, to conform. For many, decorating their bodies is a means to reject every single shaming message they've been presented with, and exchange them all for reclamation.