Conversations I don’t want to have: on being tattooed at the gym

Growing up, I was massively judgmental about tattoos. In the 90s, at least in my southern, small-town community, tats were still somewhat unthinkable unless you were part of a gang, or had been to prison, or were otherwise hard-nosed and had “seen some shit.” (It was definitely a racialized, classist mindset.) I internalized all of that and always said I’d never get a tattoo. Why would I ruin my ~beautiful skin~ with ink permanently blasted into my dermis? That’s how my mother would have put it, anyway.

Then, as a young adult, I realized that a majority of the people I knew and loved had tattoos. My sister got one when she turned 18; her husband has tattoos; JD had two when I met him, and for some reason they didn’t turn me off. One by one, friends revealed their tattoos to me, even the ones I’d figured for sure wouldn’t have one. The culture had changed! And because I am a sheeple, I slowly changed too.

So last year, I got two tattoos:

Being tatted still feels like a rebellion for a quiet white girl like me. Sometimes it’s pleasurable when people see my ink for the first time and visibly balk. And while I understand why a lot of people hate the “but what does your tattoo MEAN???” question, I don’t mind it. Let’s talk! I don’t think anyone gets a tattoo for no reason, so let’s share our thoughts and feelings!

But…other times I don’t want to talk about it. Summer is approaching, and I have more and more opportunities to bare my ink, which brings about a certain amount of insecurity.

I recently started weightlifting. Before I went to my first personal training session, I thought very carefully about the tattoo situation. I knew I’d been assigned to a male trainer, and while I had no qualms about the huge ampersand on my left shoulder, I didn’t feel comfortable revealing the “feminist” script on my back, which is completely visible with a racerback tank top. So I specifically chose a top that would cover my back piece, at least for now.

But, you’re a feminist! I am woman, hear me roar or whatever! Be proud of it! Why would you care what some man you’ve never met before thinks?

Yeah, yeah. I didn’t know what I’d be walking into, though. Best case scenario: this trainer wouldn’t comment on the tattoo and we’d spend half an hour doing squats and carrying heavy objects around and have a grand time. Worst case scenario, he’d turn out to be some kind of MRA/PUA asshat and I’d have to run out of there.

Second-worst case (and most likely) scenario, he’d try to…I dunno, challenge me? “Oh, so you’re a feminist, huh?” He’d want to have a whole discussion about it. And then I’d be uncomfortable and annoyed and wish I’d worn a different top. Just not worth it, to me.

So I covered my back piece, and things were going great. The trainer complimented my ampersand–see, I KNEW he’d say something, even if it was nice! He tested my strength and balance and flexibility. (Side note: this was a great day for my self-esteem. I passed all the tests, swimmingly! On some kind of muscular ability scale that goes from 0 to 3, the trainer put me at a 2.5! Those 20 years of intense ballet training haven’t gone to waste after all!)

Then we got to the pull-up test. He started telling me a story about another trainer at a different gym, who once got on his case for training women to do pull-ups because “females can’t do them.” I was pleased to see how angry this years-old story made my trainer. He’s a good egg. All right!

And then he goes, thoughtfully, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a humanist.”

“Uh-huh,” I said slowly, meeting his gaze, trying to keep my face neutral.

He went on to talk about how “that said, that gives me a lot of feminist inclinations,” and “I’m not trying to put women above me, I’m trying to put them at my level,” and some other things that I didn’t really catch thanks to the swirling hurricane that was my brain.

Obviously, LOL at this guy. He’s not a monster, he’s just adorably, sadly misinformed about what feminism is. And I don’t really care about what he labels himself as. I want him to help me sculpt my body into something powerful and gorgeous.

What am I going to wear, though? The easy answer is for me to just wear shirts with sleeves forever and ever and ever. But I like wearing tank tops when I work out. I like seeing the definition in my back and shoulders and getting the extra air flow when I’m sweating. I know I don’t really need to hide myself from this doofus, but if I bare my back then he’s going to ask questions that I don’t feel like answering.

So it goes with tattoos, and any other kind of body modification, of course. I knew that was what I was walking into when I got tatted. But somehow I thought I was going to be more confident and devil-may-care about the prospect of people judging or questioning me about my choices. I’m not, apparently.

So here’s to stocking up on workout tops that cover my back. That or finding a new (woman?) trainer.

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