Putting on the plastic glasses, I sit down in the white lounge chair and place my left arm, palm up, on the pillow resting on my lap. I clench my jaw in preparation of the pain. I think, I’ve given birth to two children. I can handle this.
The technician takes the laser and holds it above my wrist. “I’m going to do a practice spot, and then we’ll start.”
Zapping the tips of the antlers on my semi-faded tattoo of a deer feels like a lightning bolt crashing into my body.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
I nod. I just want to get this over with.
“I’m going to start now. Let me know if you need a break.”
As she traces the outline of the deer’s head it makes a crackling sound, kind of like bacon frying. I shut my eyes and grind my teeth trying not to think of the discomfort. When she’s done, I look down at what was once a three-inch portrait of a white-tailed deer, now a patch of red and inflamed skin still throbbing from the heat of the laser. Though I’m in pain, I feel as though I’ve been through a strange cleanse.
“Which one would you like to do next?” she asks.
I pull up the sleeve of my T-shirt and point to a large picture of a Native American woman with a colourful headdress on my inner bicep and brace myself for the discomfort.
I have several tattoos and I’m currently in the process of removing three of them. I grew up during the grunge period. Women who had tattoos represented rebellion. Tattoos went against contemporary beauty standards. To me, marking your body permanently with ink was the ultimate way to revolt as a woman. I admired Courtney Love’s chain of four-leaf clovers around her ankle, Drew Barrymore’s butterfly tattoo below her navel, and even Angelina Jolie’s tattoo on her midriff of the words “Quod Me Nutrit Me Destruit,” which means “What nourishes me, destroys me.” To me, these tattoos embodied femininity, fearlessness and rebellion.
I got my first tattoo when I was 19. I was searching for an identity and trying to sort through the inner turmoil of growing up in a chaotic household. I moved schools every three years, and my parents seemed more focused on their own happiness than the well-being of their children. I wanted to be more like the tattooed women I idolized, so I figured why not get my own badge?
I decided to get the World Wildlife Federation’s panda logo on my lower back (a “tramp stamp”). The reasoning for the panda was simple: I loved animals, so why not get a symbol of a foundation that wanted to save animals inked on my body? When I looked in the full-length mirror after it was done, I noticed the panda was crooked and off-centre. “I love it,” I lied, my lips pursed and head tilted.
A year later, I got the rush again. This time, it was the three-inch deer on my wrist, and then two sparrows on my arm. Later I got the five-inch portrait of a Native American woman, arrows on my fingers, my grandfather’s signature on my right arm (I still love this one), the words “Stay Gold” on my ribs and a rabbit on my left arm. I inked up my body without thinking twice about it, and my body became a billboard for words, animals and symbols.
Fifteen years later, I was having a C-section with my first kid when I thought, Maybe it’s time to remove my tattoos. During the surgery, the anaesthesiologists kept talking to me about tattoos. He had so many questions. And this wasn’t the first time my tattoos had sparked unwanted conversation. Any time someone asked me about my tattoos, I’d feel obliged to respond. But I’m a shy person, and the conversations often made me feel anxious and uneasy.
When I took my son home from the hospital, I nursed him naked and alone in my studio apartment. I spent a lot of time studying both our bodies in great detail. I ran my hands along his spine, gently massaged his tiny feet and brought his little fingers to my lips. I couldn’t help but marvel at how flawless and smooth his skin was. Looking at my own body from different angles, I was amazed at its wonders and imperfections—my stretch marks, my doughy stomach and the laceration across my pelvis. While trying to feel at home in this new physique, some of my tattoos began to feel futile. While there was a story behind each of them, I realized that I felt more comfortable telling people those stories using my words rather than through artwork on my body. Also, I felt like I was at a place in my life where I didn’t need ink on my body to define who I was or my past.
Three years later, I decided to go through with the removal and found myself in that white lounge chair saying my first goodbye to a tattoo. I started with the deer tattoo, which I had discovered looked a lot like the Jägermeister logo. Next up, the Native American woman. I’m not Indigenous so I felt that it was not culturally appropriate to have a tattoo of a woman wearing a tribal headdress on my bicep. In fact, I was a little embarrassed by it, and often wore shirts that covered it when I was out in public. Last, the panda tramp stamp had to go. Even though I couldn’t see it, I didn’t want to have anyone’s logo on my body, even if it represented something beneficial for animals.
Tattoos can’t be erased instantly, and the process is taking a lot longer than I had expected. I still go to sessions every six weeks to burn away the layers of ink. Even after the removal process is complete, there will still be ink spots left behind.
Having these tattoos removed has been a vital part of my motherhood journey. Though I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, I do know that I am more loving, self-reliant and resilient than I ever have been in my life—and I don’t need a bunch of tattoos to show that. The ink spots that remain along with my doughy stomach, stretch marks, C-section scar and other marks on my body I now see as a road map from the woman I once was to who I am today.
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