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My tattoos did not ruin my body image — they improved it

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

My 'tramp stamp' tattoo does not magically make me a slut

I got my first tattoo a few days after I turned 18. It was not the sun shape I'd doodled all over my notebooks through high school, which would go perfectly around my (future) pierced belly button, but a little green gecko on the outside of my left ankle. I'd gone to Hawaii once. I'd seen geckos in person. I even wore a sterling silver gecko necklace. So, it had some meaning to it, I guess. The meaning didn't matter then. I just needed the ink, the pain, the whole experience.

My second one came a few years later. I got a butterfly that was native to Washington and Alaska, like me. I'd just moved 3,000 miles away from my family at 19, up north to Fairbanks, Alaska. Getting a butterfly tattoo signified change and felt empowering. It was 1999, and I got it on my lower back.

More: 13 things I learned from getting my first tattoo

I worked at a coffee shop, and I had to bend over with my back to customers a lot. I started getting a lot of comments from men about the tattoo, sometimes with raised eyebrows. A friend of mine had to clue me in on the term "tramp stamp."

My stomach sunk a little in disappointment. This piece of artwork I'd (very painfully) had permanently inked into my skin now marked me as a slut? How did that happen?

The Urban Dictionary explains that, "Although these are often bias (sic) generalized claims, there have been sociological studies done by the American Psychological Association, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and other demographic researchers showing strong correlative evidence associating tattoos with high-risk behavior, illegal substance abuse and sexual promiscuity."

I thought back to my days of doodling future tattoos in notebooks, getting excited when MTV played one of the Aerosmith videos featuring Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone. Maybe I, also, associated tattoos with risky behavior, but I didn't understand how that was bad or made me a slut by default.

Over the last 20 years, I've added to the gecko and butterfly. I have visible tattoos, in a bit of defiance over never wanting an office job, even though it's pretty normal now for tattooed people to work professional jobs. I also have visible tattoos because people treat me differently. Without tattoos, I was more approachable, assumed friendlier and someone who might offer directions. With tattoos, well, you saw the above definition. My introverted self appreciated these assumptions, honestly.

I've never been one to talk to strangers, though I do get a lot of questions about the artwork on my arms. Each of my tattoos has some level of meaning to me. Most are literary. A few are to remind me to not worry, to write or to remember my inner, true self. They remind me of the things I love: be it words, Hemingway, Alaska, my kids or Shakespeare.

I'm 37, and I recently spent a couple of hours in a chair getting another butterfly tattooed on my right arm.

"I have another butterfly," I mentioned. "It's on my lower back, but I got it before they called them tramp stamps."

My tattoo artist stopped and shook his head. "Such a stupid term," he said. "I read an article the other day where a woman tattoo artist was quoted saying something about tramp stamps and hoe handles. It made me so mad."

More: The latest all-black tattoo trend isn't for the faint of heart

I nodded but asked why.

"We're here to improve body image," he said. "Our job is to make your body more beautiful, not tear it down by calling it a tramp stamp. That goes against everything a tattoo artist's role is."

Over the next couple of days, I carefully inspected my new tattoo and smiled at it a lot; a splash of color on my right forearm. I told a friend about my plans to fill in the rest.

"So, you're just gonna have both of your arms filled up?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "That's always been the plan." I just needed life to show me the important things to love, be it a frog or a flower or a poem. I've never been into clothes or nice shoes, but my tattoos definitely give me a style all their own.

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