Radical Self-Love & Tattoos

[TW: discussion of self-harm]

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde

The past couple weeks have been emotional in so many ways. May 8th was both the sixth year anniversary of my mom’s death and my doctoral hooding ceremony. May 10th was both Mother’s Day and my commencement. Six years ago, my life seemed so uncertain, and I felt like I was drowning in the depression and anxiety that had been part of me for so long. It’s still part of me, but I know myself better than I did then, have had time to process more things, have developed strategies and a commitment to self-care that initially seemed self-indulgent but is truly a necessity.

The more I think about and write about and commit myself to self-care, the more I think about what it means to radically love yourself—to embrace the parts of you that society tells you are unlovable, shameful, ugly. Lorde draws attention to the way that self-care—particularly the self-care of bodies who are consistently stripped of and denied value—is not merely something you do that’s nice. It’s self-preservation. It’s political and radical.

When I felt threatened a couple months ago in my home because a particular conversation was triggering, I disclosed that I was struggling with suicidal ideation as a means of self-preservation. I needed the conversation to end, and disclosure was the only way I could think to do that. When I shared the same story (and thus, the same disclosure) during my doctoral dissertation defense a couple weeks later, it was not self-preservation as much as a radical choice to push on what it means to disclose something undesirable and to be comfortable with that mode of being.

Being depressed is undesirable. Having anxiety build up and bubble out so extremely that you pass out on an NYC subway train and have to be carried off by your friend and a stranger is undesirable. Pressing your fingernails into your palms until you’re left with dark red crescent moons is undesirable. Or, at least, we’re told that it is. And it’s very easy to convince yourself that it is. But what does it mean to accept those things? To love them as part of yourself?

For my entire adult life, I have been depressed and anxious, and for years I have only considered this a negative part of myself. And in some ways, it was. When a friend my first semester of college told everyone that I was crazy, I was hurt and angry—not because I didn’t understand how she could think I was crazy—but because I was (am) and didn’t want anyone else to know. That same friend had watched me burn a cigarette into my forearm the weekend before and then told everyone about it. Not long after that, I turned 18 and got my first tattoo, the word “paz” nestled between two scars on my right wrist. It was the last time I self-harmed.

my hand hovers above a mustard yellow rug with a white diamond pattern, the focus on my right wrist and a small black tattoo
“paz” // 2005

The tattoo is blurry now, and people tell me all the time that it looks bad because it’s faded, pointed the wrong direction (facing me, not them), written in a bad font (my own cursive lettering). People make jokes that it looks like “pez.” But for the last 10 years, it has served as a reminder to be good to myself.

For me, tattoos are an expression of radical self-love. For that tattoo in particular, it’s also a tool for resisting self-harm. In “Harm Reduction as a Tool for Radical Self-Love” (TW: physical, sexual, emotional abuse), Toni Bell writes about how prioritizing self-care as part of her daily routine has helped her work through urges to self-harm. When I first got that tattoo, it was hard for me to answer the questions that people (friends, strangers, family members) threw at me about what it meant, why it was placed where it was. As years pass, it’s easier for me to articulate, less shameful. This tattoo has become a part of me and has shaped the way I understand and interact with my own body.

Of course, I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly radical or subversive when I got that tattoo. I just knew I wanted to be better. And there are lots of other strategies I’ve developed for that: cooking myself dinner, walking the dog, allowing myself to take nights off from work and being unapologetic about it, vocalizing what I need to friends and colleagues and family members.

In another post from The Body Is Not an Apology (seriously, the love I feel for this initiative), West Anderson writes about disability and the process of going back to school and being explicit about their needs—not only with themselves but also with others (therapists, teachers). The post, “Yes, I Deserve Help: Disability and Asking for What We Need,” reminded me of conversations we hear about graduate school and mental health: about the fear of not being able to perform a “normal” school experience, about the guilt and stigma of asking for help, about the concern of not being perceived as disabled enough (“oh, you’re just stressed”).

I’ve never received accommodations, but when my mom was sick, I had an agreement with the dean at my university that I could miss class or take extra time with assignments if I needed it. I don’t recall making use of this agreement (although it did relieve a lot of stress when, for example, my mom had surgery or fell into a coma my senior year), but I had to inform my professors of this arrangement at the beginning of each semester for four years. And throughout graduate school, as I struggled in the spring (as I do every year), I found myself reaching out to my professors. It’s hard to ask for help and make yourself vulnerable, but it’s also the only way for work to get done, for me to be okay.

Maybe vulnerability is an integral part of self-care and of radical self-love. Black women make themselves vulnerable when they love their bodies despite centuries worth of physical and emotional oppression. Fat women make themselves vulnerable when they love and display their bodies despite being told them that fatness is unhealthy or something to cover (which fellow rhet-comp superwoman Katie Manthey has written about beautifully). Disabled women make themselves vulnerable when they love bodies that have been sterilized, institutionalized, deemed unfit (to work, to be intimate, to love, to be).

(Those are all examples of women because it’s my common denominator—not because I’m a man hater…necessarily.)

For the last six years, I have struggled and succeeded in developing strategies for how to craft reciprocal relationships with others (partners, friends, instructors, family members, students) where I can make myself vulnerable in ways that don’t allow me to shoulder the burdens that I try to let myself carry. Although depression has been part of me for much longer than six years, it was only until my mom’s death that I was forced to confront what I had been ignoring for so long—to confront what I would normally compartmentalize and repress.

And for the last six years, I have been plotting a tattoo for my mom, which I recently trekked to Brooklyn to get (a 4.5 hour affair under the needle). It took me a while to settle on the right design because I’m a perfectionist, because I didn’t want it to be cheesy, and because a tattoo for someone who never liked tattoos isn’t quite right.

In vibrant shades of yellow, turquoise, green, red, and brown, a tattoo featuring roses and a sprinkled-and-cherry-topped cupcake adorn my left arm with banner text from Mary Oliver's poem
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” // 2015, image from @beccagennebacon


I used to keep a small drawing of a yellow rose and cupcake taped to my apartment wall in Morgantown where I did my M.A. Yellow roses (well, daffodils) were my mom’s favorite, and she was a hell of a baker—a legacy I’m trying to uphold. In some ways (the yellow roses, the cupcake), the tattoo is for her. But it’s also for how I’ve changed since she died—about how my depression and anxiety worsened, about how so many people stepped up to support me, how I’ve tried to come to terms with what feels like very different fractured parts of myself both in my personal and academic lives, about how I decided to pursue a Ph.D. when I read all the emails from her students telling her what an impact she’d made on them.

The quote, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” is from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese.” When I went to college, my therapist gifted me a copy of Dream Work and circled “Wild Geese” for me to read. It’s the only poem I’ve ever memorized. I was so depressed throughout college, and I would read that poem over and over. And I would write. And write.

And write.

Depression has been such a large part of life—mainly bad. But for the last few years, I’ve been trying to see the good in it. I think it makes me more attentive, more thoughtful, more careful in how I approach people and situations. I think it makes me more forgiving because I know others struggle just as much as I do (and worse). Those lines of poetry resonate with how I understand self-care, a reminder to reach out to people but also to give back, a reminder of the reciprocity in relationships and making yourself vulnerable in order to share the parts of yourself that are difficult to share. A reminder that I am all of these different things in one person, and that they may conflict but also that they co-exist. When I was in the tattoo shop, Becca said, “You couldn’t have chosen a cuter image for that text.” I laughed, but I’ve always enjoyed that juxtaposition, the uncomfortable acknowledgment of things that we think of as radically different (pretty flowers, a cupcake, despair, vulnerability).

This tattoo is now a part of me—just as depression is, as my mom was. It’s a reminder that there is beauty in darkness, that I am worthy of love not in spite of my flaws but because of them. It’s a reminder to be thoughtful in the personal and professional relationships that we build. It’s a reminder not to expect the folks who we work with to just open up to us without giving something back and being honest and vulnerable about our own positions and ideas.

It’s a reminder that despair need not always be negative and that it’s radical to embrace it as something beautiful, something that bears opportunities.

I have long been uncomfortable with my bodymind—my physical body, mental disability, the way each influences the other through self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety that keeps me very thin (read Margaret Price’s great discussion of bodyminds here). Radical self-care helps me love my bodymind. Tattoos do that, too. Tattoos are an embodied reminder that I am in control of my body and have the agency to make choices that will help me love it. They clearly and visually argue that I am comfortable with this body. In a culture where depression, feminism, and body modification are so often positioned as undesirable (shameful, unfeminine), what could be more radical?


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