On Being Ornamental

by michelle nickolaisen

I didn’t grow up knowing I was pretty.

Which is weird, because I remember being told it. I remember hearing it from my family, and family friends, and occasionally a teacher or two here and there (in an appropriate way, not in a woah-creepy way). But even at a young age I had a tendency for self-deprecation, and I distinctly remember thinking “They have to say that, they don’t really mean it.” (My other tendency from a young age for making shitty mean-girl friends, who would now be referred to as “frenemies”¹, probably didn’t help either.)

I was mostly okay with not being pretty. It made for really good dramatic fantasies about my crushes (“I know I’m not very pretty,” I’d say, and he’d reply with “Oh, I don’t care about that!”). And honestly, I’m glad I grew up knowing that I was smart and capable and strong. I’d choose that over pretty, any day.

And I do.

I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday.

michelle nickolaisen phone and tattoos

in the middle of tattoo #7

I’d been planning it for at least a year. As soon as I graduated high school – less than a month later – I dyed my hair blue. Over the next two years, I got two more tattoos, all fairly sizeable² (especially for small-town Missouri) and got my nose pierced. My hair has since been every color of the rainbow & then some, and now, the tattoo count ranks in at eight, with no plans of stopping any time soon.

I expected to take all kinds of shit for having fairly visible tattoos and an overall, let’s say, distinctive appearance, but I was surprised at the lack of variety in the feedback. Instead of getting a whole range of critique, I  got the same two comments over and over again.

Comment number one:

“Do you have a boyfriend? Does he let you do that?” (Variations: “Oh, my boyfriend/husband would never let me get a tattoo.” “Do you have a boyfriend? Oh, it’s so nice that he lets you do that.” “How are you going to find a good husband looking like that?”)

Comment number two:

“You’re such a pretty girl, why would you do that to yourself?” (Variations: “You’d be so pretty if you hadn’t done that to yourself.” “You know, tattoos are just never attractive on anyone.”)

Comment number one pissed me off greatly, and for obvious reasons. One time when I got one of the variations (“…so nice he lets you do that…”) I remember looking the offender square in the eye and saying, “Excuse me, I’m an adult. Nobody lets me do anything.” They were clearly unsure what to do with that reaction.

These comments are constant reminders that some people still view women as property.

Property. Chattel. A woman is a kind of pet – maybe like a very smart dog, but with a  possessive, pet-like property nonetheless – to be owned by men, be it her father or her significant other.

(Along those lines, I once had an old man tell me that if his daughter came home with hair like mine, he’d beat her with a belt. Allrightythen.)

By choosing to create an unorthodox appearance, I was marking myself as a misbehaving pet. Or – gasp – someone who didn’t want to be owned at all.

And that threw people for a loop, lemmetellya.

The second comment (and variations thereof) also pissed me off, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why for the longest time.

I think part of what threw me about it is that I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as pretty, and I hadn’t heard it from very many people (outside of the aforementioned biased sources) before. So to suddenly – from strangers! en masse! – be told that I was pretty but that I had ruined my pretty, was disorienting, to say the least.

It was only after a lot of reflection that I figured it out.

These people, whether consciously or not (I suspect not, most of the time, though I don’t think that makes it any better), were telling me that my main value in society was to be eye candy. My looks were public property, and by taking those looks and making them something outside the oh-so-very narrow norm of attractiveness (and I’m still thin, curvy, white, and able-bodied, which is a huge testament to how fucking narrow that slice o’the pie is), I was doing the equivalent of saying, “Hey asshole, it’s not my imperative to be eye candy for you.”

And the “feedback” and resistance I encountered articulated a larger cultural narrative: women are ornaments.

Women are meant to be pretty, and quiet, and speak only when spoken to, and make someone a very good (subtext: docile) wife someday. Our bodies are public property and we can’t – shouldn’t be allowed to – make decisions about them ourselves.

By having tattoos and rainbow hair I’m clearly saying to anyone with eyes that I don’t really care about being ornamental. I’m taking ownership of my body³ in a very visible, very public way, that’s easy to see and make assumptions about, without engaging me in a long conversation. (Or, uh, any conversation at all.)

Because that’s what my tattoos and my hair and my nose ring are really about.

They’re about owning my body and the story that comes with it.

This tattoo reminds me that no matter how many times I fail (and oh god there have been so many) I can always choose to get back up and go at it harder. And I always do.

This tattoo reminds me that I went through the worst three years of my life – three years that could have, and arguably should have, left me or anyone else bruised, bleeding, and broken – and came out the other side stronger than ever, in control of my destiny.

This tattoo marks the realization – not intellectually, but the moment when it actually sunk in on a visceral gut-knowledge level – that, no, I’m not a girl, I’m a woman, and a pretty badass one at that.

My appearance is about saying, this is me. Take it or leave it. 

——————

michelle nickolaisen with peplum and tattoos

In 2009, I moved to Austin, TX, where I’ve lived for four years and in that time have not heard a single rude or distressing comment about my appearance. Instead, I’ve mostly received compliments. The city motto is “Keep Austin Weird”, so perhaps that’s to be expected.

In small-town Missouri, I’m nearly circus-freak weird looking, in Austin, I’m merely distinctive. And although I’m not sure if I now carry myself differently or with more authority and confidence, but the times I’ve visited home, I haven’t experienced any rude remarks either – just some stares.

Unfortunately, I still run into the above attitudes online a fair amount (the shit people will say on Facebook, I tell ya).

But what can be done about that, except for trying to open a dialogue about why, exactly, it’s so fucked up to tell a woman, who didn’t ask for your opinion, that you don’t approve of what she’s doing with her body?

Let’s repeat: a woman’s body and how she adorns it is not anyone’s business except hers.

If I could say one thing to the all of the people who made those snarky remarks, and to everyone else who even thinks about saying them, it would be this:

The joke’s on you.

Because those daily shitty comments, over the two years between my start on the journey of deciding how I wanted to look and my move to Austin, made me tougher. Not only tougher, but a lot more quick-witted, and a lot more comfortable talking to strangers.

You wanted to put me in my place – subtly or not, you wanted to remind me that my main value is in my appearance and docility, and not in my intelligence or my strength or my friendliness. Instead, you helped me build all of those qualities.

When you constantly field invasive questions from strangers, sometimes at work where you have to be tactful despite really wanting to look them in the eye and tell them to fuck off4 , saying hi to a stranger and striking up a conversation is suddenly not so scary.

Neither is flirting, for that matter.

Or starting your own business.

I’m sure all of these things would have come to me with time as I came into my own, but dealing with unprompted rudeness on a regular basis certainly sped up the process, along with giving me a deeper knowledge of who I am and what I can withstand.

THEY might think I’m purely ornamental.

I think: try me. Scratch this pretty surface and you’ll  find steel.

—————

PS: If you want to read more about tattooing specifically as it relates to women, this book (Bodies of Subversion: a Secret History of Women and Tattoo) rocks. 

————

The Moral of The Story, In Three Tweetables:

WTF >>”Do you have a boyfriend? Does he let you do that?”  click to tweet

a woman’s body and how she adorns it is no one’s business except hers click to tweet

They might think I’m purely ornamental. I think: try me. click to tweet

Endnotes! Yay!

1. What does that even mean? Is the expectation just that girls are going to be shitty to each other or what? Can we mush other opposite words together to create a word to describe a concept and a reality that probably shouldn’t even exist?

2. My first tattoo was on my hip crossing directly over the hipbone, a not-very-pleasant area to get tattooed if you’re a skinny lil thing, and spreads about 6″ across and 4-5″ tall. I remember one of the other tattoo artists walking in after the stencil had been applied and I was checking it out in the mirror. His reaction: “Wait, is this your first tattoo?” “Yup!” “Damn, you don’t fuck around, do you?” No, no sir, I do not.

3. A third category of predictable reactions, which I could go off on a whole ‘nother sidebar about, was random frat-boy-types assuming that I was a prostitute and/or easy and/or would be super kinky in bed. Why is it that taking ownership of your body automatically equates to deviancy and being “open for business” with anyone who will have you, I wonder?

4. The things people will say and/or do to a cashier at work when they know that there’s no way to retaliate are astounding and infuriating, y’all.

About the author

Michelle Nickolaisen Michelle Nickolaisen is working on a memoir, tentatively titled "Booze, Boys, & Business", which will either be wildly entertaining or make her mother blush; possibly both. For her biz, she makes systems/productivity/organization/all that incredibly boring sounding stuff incredibly NOT boring so that you + your biz can reap the rewards. You can find out more about her, here.

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