Last weekend, I did one of the most exciting things I’ve done in my whole life (IMO).
I got my first tattoo.
I say ‘first’ because, even in the moments I was having my arm inked, I already knew I’d get another. It’s just a matter of deciding what it’ll be.
I’ve wanted a tattoo since I can remember. There’s something utterly cool about people who have tattoos though… The way they just pull them off. Like, “oh this thing? I forgot I had it.” It’s part of them and their aesthetic. It just fits.
Turns out that tattoos aren’t things only the cool kids have. I just needed some help from life to figure out what I wanted…
My grandad was in hospital all summer. His terminal diagnosis in July shook everyone, and the way all of our lives changed so quickly was dramatic. My time was immediately split between London and home (Yorkshire), countless hours spent at my grandad’s bedside as he shared life stories, discussed the failings of politicians and, later, slept for hours on end. As sleeping became his default state, I got used to sitting with him in silence – me and my mum, brother, aunties, uncles and cousins taking turns to make coffee or give Grandad water when he gestured for a sip.
I took a book with me one day, anticipating my grandad’s snoozing and the ensuing silence. It was as I was sitting alone next to Grandad’s bed, not concentrating whatsoever on the book in my hands, that I looked over at him, taking all of him in. The whiter-than-white skin clinging to his resting bones. The full head of hair he was once so proud of, thinned from the prolonged bed rest of recent weeks. The distorted bird tattoo on his forearm, hue faded, typical of those teal tattoos you see on old men.
My grandad loved birds. He once gave me a book to help me identify the different species. He loved to feed the birds in his front garden; he’d put out seeds and scraps and leftovers after cooking enough food in his kitchen to feed the whole street. He named the birds that visited him (there’s a crow out there – Arnold – who’ll doubtlessly be missing my grandad (and his food!) almost as much as I do). Aside from that, my grandad was in the Merchant Navy. Once upon a time, he’d spend days upon days away at sea. I’ve discovered that many seamen would get pictures of swallows inked onto their skin; these were the birds whose presence would assure them that they weren’t far from land – and, therefore, home.
On the day I spotted my grandad’s bird tattoo, despite having seen it countless times before, something clicked. No more wondering, debating, umming or ahhing. I knew what I wanted. A gorgeous, tattooed friend of mine put me in touch with an apprentice, whose artistic talent completely surpasses her level of experience. I sent her some inspiration and she sketched something that, as soon as I saw it, made my heart flutter and my head go, YEP. THAT. THAT’S IT.
It was perfect.
And so is the finished product.
My cheeks ached from smiling the afternoon I had it done. My friend took me to a beer festival afterwards (I hate beer but I drank cider and danced to a brass band who covered 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P., so it’s all good) and I grabbed every opportunity to slip down my shirt sleeve and show off my arm with pride. And yet, when I later checked the photo the tattoo artist had taken of my new ink, you know what stopped me from sharing it online with everyone I know in that very same minute?
Bloody belly rolls.
*does the most exaggerated eye-roll ever at self*
I passed my phone across the restaurant table to my friend as we waited for pizzas as big as both of our heads. Her gaze was drawn to the stunning new art on my skin, and she couldn’t understand why mine was drawn to the discernible bulge around my middle. But it became all I could see. Forget the fact that I could clearly blame it on my stance or my outfit. Forget the fact that I’m in training for my fourth half-marathon of the year. Forget the fact that I shouldn’t even need to bring that up as proof that I’m fit and healthy “despite” having belly fat. That bulge was all I could focus on.
It doesn’t make sense, but our unreasonable brains rarely do. Those ugly thoughts permeated what should’ve been a night of tribute to the man who impacted my life in a way I can only wish he was still around to hear me explain. (I told him I loved him every time I visited the hospital, but now it just doesn’t seem enough.)
Logically, I know a clean silhouette and visible abs wouldn’t make me a better person. Logically, I know people still fancy girls with belly rolls and thigh dimples and skin that spills over the tops of their bras. Logically, I feel like a traitor to basically all women for thinking otherwise. But such is the mind of a girl who sucks her navel towards her spine and tilts her head just so whenever a camera appears.
You wouldn’t think I had an issue with my body image. I don’t talk about it at all – although much has been made in the past about my “photo smile” and my need to vet all pictures of myself before they leave the safety of my friends’ phones. Another friend was surprised when I told her I was fretting and that this is what goes on inside my head pretty much every day. I asked her to tell me I was being silly. “All [your grandad] would see is love,” she assured me. “That’s all I see. And that’s all anyone else will see.”
And that’s what I need to remember really. That the picture is of the tattoo, not of my body. And the tattoo stands for something way more than the superficial. My grandad never let belly rolls stop him from keeping a stocked tin of biscuits in his kitchen, or from enjoying his favourite Liquorice Allsorts, presented to him routinely each birthday and Christmas. We won’t remember him for what he looked like (although his smile was truly a knock-out). We’ll remember him for being clever and for being kind and for saying what he thought in every situation. For having had insanely rich life experiences and sharing them with a level of detail that my rubbish memory can’t even comprehend. For his tales of growing up abroad and working at sea and staying holed up in the cinema to watch back-to-back films in the days when it cost mere pennies to do so. For being so caring and so generous and so protective of the people he loved most.
As far as I can tell, this life is the only one we get. And I really don’t want to waste another second of mine worrying that my belly might stick out a bit. I mean, I know I will, because such conditioned thoughts don’t evaporate overnight. But at least I now have a permanent reminder on my skin of there being way more important and special things to be bothered about.