Written evidence submitted by Dr Charlotte Dann (MISS0036)




I am a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Northampton, and a committee member for the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Women & Equalities Section. I am making this submission towards the Women & Equalities Committee inquiry regarding body image, as my own research centres around women, and women’s bodies, with a specific focus towards tattoos.


Whilst this inquiry is not focused on tattooed bodies, I will argue below how my research expands beyond this, with more of a significant contribution towards understanding gendered and classed bodies. In addition, there is a need to consider the ways that intersecting factors such as sexuality, disability, and race create nuanced and complex identities that need paying attention to, in understanding what is meant by poor body image. The argument being presented here starts with constructions of ideal femininity that feed into women’s understanding of body image, before moving into media portrayals of women’s bodies, a note on professionalism, and finishing with a consideration for perceptions of mental health. This submission concludes with suggestions and recommendations for what government policy can contribute towards help in these areas.


The impact of poor body image: a summary


Ideal femininity

Dominant discourses of femininity regulate women, establishing expectation about how to dress, act, and behave (Lawler, 2005). Femininity is not a ‘one size fits all’ concept – there are many ways of embodying femininities – though we do not always see these diverse representations around us. The construct of ‘ideal’ femininity in UK culture is based on the dominant representation of the middle class woman – a representation that centres on white privilege (Okolosie, 2014) and lacks in diversity. Characterised by ‘niceness’, prettiness, delicacy and natural style, this ideal middle class feminine functions as a norm against which other forms of femininity are othered. The ‘othered’ position covers may different intersections in addition to class, including (but not limited to) race, sexuality, disability, and age.


In addition, in these neoliberal times within which we live, embodying ideal femininity (and by extension, the ideal kind of body) is bound up in consumerist practices of fashion, appearance related issues (from hairstyles to tattoos), and also to diet culture (in buying the ‘right’ kinds of products, such as detox teas and weight loss gummies). Fashion, dress and style, for example, are read as representations of identity, communicating values and morals, with luxury consumer goods giving the indication of a ‘better’ person, with those fashionably dressed bodies conforming to societal ideals of appropriateness (Harris, 2016).


Media portrayals

Celebrity culture makes an impact in influencing fashions and trends. From a tattoo-research perspective, Pop stars such as Tulisa Contostavlos and Cheryl Cole both have numerous visible tattoos, and both went from being portrayed as public sweethearts to being in positions of scrutiny, thanks to their working-class background being associated to their tattoos (Gould, 2011). While the link back to their working-class roots helps them to identify with the public, it also serves to play into discourses about the types of things working class women do, including getting tattooed. Through Cheryl and Tulisa displaying their tattoos, and being open about their working-class backgrounds, it allows other women to feel comfortable about their own backgrounds, meaning that something often regarded as negative, becomes something to be proud of through celebrity endorsement. However, at the same time, they perpetuate the same constructions produced about working-class women, which serves as a reminder of how middle class women should not be (Foster, 2015).

The media has a big influence over the ways that we construct and reconstruct what we consider to be norms, and it is no different when it comes to women (and especially ‘alternative’ representations of women, such as tattooed bodies). Though they may not be represented in the mainstream media as an example of what we consider as beautiful, avenues have opened up in terms of a niche for alternative femininities to blossom, despite the tension between it being liberating, and also a new consumerist product. Within these depictions of alternative femininities, they still play into mainstream ideals of how to pose and how to act in order to play up to sexual gaze, therefore reinforcing discourses of sexual attraction in mainstream and alternative women.



Whilst perhaps not expected within this remit, professionalism remains a key area that should not just relate to the workplace, but has wider implications in relation to the kinds of bodies we expect to see in particular contexts. The construction of professionalism is bound by class-based regulations, and serves to highlight the tensions between the public and the private body. Whilst there are numerous definitions that try to encapsulate what being ‘professional’ stands for, there is consensus that the professional has a position of privilege, a high level of education and training, and is successful (Evetts, 2003).


Now that figures show almost one fifth of all people in the UK have a tattoo (Fisher, 2014), anyone who has a customer-facing job is likely to come into contact with tattooed individuals. Because of the high popularity of tattoos, it seems logical to assume that the issue that employers have is not with the tattoos themselves, but with the tattoos that are on display. The bias that is held towards those with visible tattoos (Bekhor, Bekhor, & Gandrabur, 1995) appears to stem from outdated discourses as to what is regarded as professional. This is supported by the fact that a number of big companies have rather ambiguous policies when it comes to tattoos, such as John Lewis, HMV,  and Starbucks (Kelly, 2014), causing issues with employees and feeding into negative discourses relating to good service and customer expectations. This has even extended to the point of airbrushing out the tattoos of a blogger for a high-end supermarket (Anderson, 2013), as they felt that this would not be something that the majority of their customers would like to see, or have their supermarket be associated with.


Pathologization of women with mental health issues

This problematic discourse tends to centre on pathologizing women who do not adhere to traditional views of femininity, such as tattoos (Birmingham, Mason, & Grubin, 1999; Swami & Furnham, 2007; Thompson, 2015), relating the process of tattooing to self-harm and poor mental health. Media articles (Styles, 2014; Watson, 2014) intend on providing shock value in their content, attempting to make assumptions about the individual’s poor state of mind and how that related to being tattooed. Whilst the media attempt to gain attention for negative portrayals of tattoos as body modification, other modifications, such as cosmetic surgery, are reacted upon less negatively. Reactions to media stories on cosmetic surgery are met much more openly than tattoos, suggesting that tattoos are not seen as aiding in self-esteem like surgery.


Pitts (1999) has extensively explored perceptions of body modifications, and how the media frames such modifications as mutilation of the body, something which is outside of normative constructions of feminine appearance. The pathologization of such modifications only serves to harm the practice, and supports the negative stereotype as to the types of people perceived to adorn their bodies as such. As Pitts (2003) states, for those women who choose to tattoo or modify their bodies, despite the marginalised position that discourses place them in, they are questioning the hegemonic culture’s control over their appearance, and are subsequently reconstructing discourses on the subject. In a society where women are judged for their bodies, tattoos serve as one example of a way of reclaiming our own esteem (the same could be extended for the colouring of hair, and the obtaining of piercings), though the conflation of such bodily practices to mental health issues is what does the damage.


The Impact of body image: examples


The examples discussed here are directly taken from my own research (with Ethical clearance from the University of Northampton’s Research Degrees Board, as well as in accordance with the British Psychological Society’s ethical standards for research).




‘it’s not my choice, erm, it’s something that like when I go for training they say you need to have something on underneath to cover your tattoos, erm, but saying that, they might be starting to change a little bit. I’ve purposely gone to conferences or meetings and worn my top without anything underneath, just to get a reaction, because I refuse to hide them’


There is a production of a ‘personal versus professional’ identity within this account, where it is clear that the tattoos, as being personal, are not considered as appropriate for the performance of the professional. In customer service-focused work, tattoos are perceived negatively (Resenhoeft, Villa, & Wiseman, 2008) with negative judgements being made relating to the stereotypical ‘type’ of person who would be visibly tattooed. Further, employers often cite that they would not employee someone with visible tattoos (Timming, 2015), as they feel that it would deter customers from their business.

Whilst she does not explicitly discuss a policy towards tattoos that her employer has, it is clear from the extract that there is a ‘right’ way to present herself at work, as she says it’s ‘not my choice’ to cover up her tattoos. However, through this statement, there is a choice being produced, whereby it is implied that it is not acceptable for her to not cover her tattoos – to not cover them is to not present herself professionally. Her ‘choice’ here is regulated by constructions of professionalism in the workplace.


Within the interviews, the majority of the women articulated dissatisfaction with workplaces and their negative attitudes towards tattoos – they did not want to be viewed negatively, but they wanted to be able to show a part of themselves, a part of their identity, with their tattoos. However, issues surrounding first appearance were also discussed, and the understanding that in these contexts, appearance is important.


Discourses presented within the media

Newspaper articles often make reference to the ‘normal’ people who are now adorning their bodies – normal being white, middle class, ‘respectable’ people (Hughes, 2014; Sturgis, 2014). The narrative of such newspaper articles often seems to rely on a discourse that positions tattooing as the proper domain of ‘the other’, associated with deviant, problematised and generally male bodies.  Newspaper articles often reflect a certain moral panic about the rise of tattoos among so called ‘normal’ people whilst at the same time, normalising tattooing. Articles in popular media are particularly preoccupied with gender and tattooed bodies (Blimes, 2008; Meads & Nurse, 2013).


The stories we see that relate to women are encompassed within themes of ‘transformation’, the use of morality to express cautionary tales that essentially tell women what they should and shouldn’t do, and also give ‘advice’ for what is considered a trend (therefore showing women what they can do at this particular time to fit in, whilst simultaneously rendering this to the current time period, allowing future times to reflect and ridicule women for following a passing trend).


The ways that women’s bodies are policed does not change with the addition of tattoos. Just as there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to ‘do’ femininity, there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways in constructing the tattooed feminine body. Whilst middle class notions of dainty, small, and discreet tattoos are revered in respect to tattoos, working class constructions are produced for those women whose tattoos are too big, loud, or overt that they fall under public judgement and scrutiny. The intersection of class is an important factor throughout media articles – it regulates what is considered as tasteful, and therefore ‘good’, and produces tattoos as an overt marker of class. Regardless of the readership, articles produced constructions of tattooed feminine bodies in a similar manner, regulating the body and how it should be ‘properly’ presented. Overall, the discourses that are produced within the media are exactly the kinds of things that you would expect to find about women’s tattooed bodies – there is nothing new presented. They utilise the ‘expert’ in making sense of tattoos on women, they recount the horror stories that are intended to turn ‘good’ people away from such ‘risky’ behaviours, age is constructed as a marker of responsibility, and they all perpetuate a normative view of femininity, and of feminine tattoos. The discourses that are produced here are in direct contrast to those produced within the interviews, which explore the nuances and complexities of being a tattooed woman.


Policing – resistance and conformity


‘I think like with the bloggers and stuff on Instagram, people watch others too much, then it’s like well you’ve got that so I want that. I’ve stopped reading magazines because the amount of shit that’s in them, you have to live like this and you have to eat this and you have to do this, you know, and I’m thinking, why (laughs) I don’t get it, I’ll give you an example, like Cara Delevingne had something to do with bacon tattoos right, I don’t know if it’s just fake ones, random, but I guarantee you right, that they’ll be at least one person following her on Instagram who has a bacon tattoo, do you know what I mean, it doesn’t mean anything to them, they’ll just do it because of who she is, it’s insane’


In this extract, she positions herself as a ‘skilful consumer’ (McRobbie, 2009), a person who is ‘in the know’ in respect to making the ‘right’ choices about her tattoos. It is notable that her focus here is not on her own tattoo choices, but rather on the poor tattoo choices of other people. This enables her to construct a sense of distance between herself as skilled consumer of tattoos, and ‘them’ those who make poor choices. She suggests that these ‘other’ tattooed women imitate 'celebrities' or 'well-known' people, position this negatively, reinforcing the notion that these people are not making authentic tattoo choices. Through constructing a me versus the other notion within the extract, she is giving herself space to resist criticism, so that she is not associated with the same poor choices they make. At the same time, she also positions herself as 'knowing', and above/better than those who would choose to get a tattoo after following a celebrity, therefore, her tattoos are better – she appreciates the artwork, and has taste with respect to her choices.


Women are knowing – they understand what is being presented to them is not always real, and there have been steps forward with this in that influencers have to be more open about the brands that they partner with. But this does not stop these kinds of products being in the mainstream, and a part of the culture we seen every day.


What governmental policy / regulation can do to help


Take an intersectional approach

As noted by England (1994), greater reflexivity produces more inclusive and informed methodologies that take power relations into account. Whilst there is no straightforward resolution for making sense of biases, the personal ultimately plays a central role in research, processes, and production, and acknowledging this makes for more honest and open representations.



Media discourses sit at odds with the tensions and multiplicity of positionings produced by women, and this is underscored by the production of regulation. Whilst there were differences between the discourses produced within the interviews and the media discourses in my research, the way in which they integrate together says something important about women’s bodies. The media articles were focused around trends, morality, and transformation – things that were ‘expected’ to come from the media. They were expected in the sense that what is produced is for a specific purpose – to show women what’s okay and what is not. This sense of regulation is what makes the discourses similar to that of the interview discourses, but the main difference is that the interviews go more in-depth into the complexities of being a (tattooed) woman. The media articles present the women from a singular position, whereas the interview discourses function as an exploration of the multiplicity of women’s positions. This tells us of the incongruence between women’s experiences, and how they are represented in the media.


Employment practices

The main area in respect to informing policy would be surrounding employment practices and how tattooed women are regulated within the workplace. Almost all of the women from my research discussed the workplace in some form, and not many of them has positive things to say in respect to how their tattoos are perceived, and what their thoughts were in relation to company policies on tattoos. Further research focusing on employment and tattoos would feed into current areas of research that consider how tattoos are either beneficial or detrimental to the workplace (Timming, 2015), providing a critical exploration of the differences in perceptions for tattooed women, giving acknowledgement to the issue that men and women are viewed differently in relation to their tattooed bodies, especially in the context of what we decide is ‘professional’.



June 2020




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